Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 4, 2000
Popular history traces rise of Church outside of Quebec
Catholics in English Canada: A Popular History, Volume 1: 1790-1900, by Murray Nicolson, Toronto: Life Ethics Information Centre, 2000. 153 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Until the mid-20th century, Canada tended to be divided into two communities or "solitudes," made up of English Protestantism and French Catholicism.
After the Second World War, however, mass immigration and internal political-religious changes have caused major shifts within the Catholic community. French Canadian Catholicism has been in decline while English Canadian Catholicism has been on the ascendancy.
Murray Nicolson, a retired history professor, traces these trends and offers 12 essays in a ground-breaking study on the development of the English-speaking Catholic church in Canada.
This is not so much an academic as a popular work written for students as well as the general public who have an interest in the English-Canadian Catholic story. It is an accessible and captivating first venture to outline the parameters of a larger narrative that begins on the East Coast and expands westward and to the north.
Nicholson has a special interest in the Irish Catholic immigration and its influence on this country. Most chapters reflect this interest, especially in the five eastern provinces.
Beginning with the early French settlement in the Maritimes and Quebec, Nicholson traces the inter-relational dynamics of Church and state. His chapters on the growth of Catholicism in Protestant-dominated Upper Canada and the missionary expansion into Western Canada are enlightening.
He returns repeatedly to the theme of how the once despised Irish community has emerged to become a strong influence in the English-speaking Catholic constituency.
The mid-19th century potato famine in Ireland resulted in mass migrations to the new world. But the troubles of the immigrants did not end with their migrations here. Of the more than 90,000 Irish reaching the port of Quebec City in 1847, 5,000 perished in the crossing and 10,000 died of typhus upon arrival.
At that point, they dropped into the lower sectors of society and ended at the bottom of the pecking order where they were denigrated by other Catholics, as well as Protestants. Of particular interest is the emergence of Irish Catholicism in French Quebec.
Several chapters are devoted to the missionary outreach of the Church into Western Canada - from Manitoba to British Columbia. Developments in the Pacific province were, in many ways, quite different from what occurred on the Prairies. The heroic ventures of the Oblate and Grey Nun missionaries are alluded to but left unfinished.
It is a point worth making from this reviewer's vantage point in Alberta that the Catholic missionaries who served in many parts of Western Canada had perhaps more influence on the evolution of society here than was the case in the eastern sector of the nation.
While the French Catholic fact was present in the West from the beginning, and the French archdiocese of St. Boniface is the oldest - retaining a preeminent position since 1915 - other factors were at work making English-speaking Catholicism a necessary aspect of life from the outset of settlement in the later 19th century.
Western Catholic francophones seemed always to be more directly engaged with their anglophone confreres than was the case in the East.
While Catholic-Protestant rivalries existed in all sectors of the nation, practical realities often forced Westerners to be more amenable to ecumenical co-operation. English Protestant triumphalism seems to have been more pronounced in eastern than in most western regions.
Nicholson's study is a preliminary effort to trace the emergence of the English-speaking Catholic Church in Canada. This first volume covers only that period up to the end of the 19th century. Canadian life has changed considerably in the past 100 years. The author's assessment of the century just ended is much anticipated.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is an instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)