In his acknowledgments to Michael Power: The Struggle to Build the Catholic Church on the Canadian Frontier, Mark McGowan owns up to his initial apprehension at taking on the project. As a social historian of religion and ethnicity, McGowan recalls that he considered biography to be 'scarcely history at all.' Further, Power was more mythologized than known; only a minimal correspondence and personal effects survive his brief five-year tenure as the first Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Toronto. In reconsidering the 'offer he couldn't refuse,' however, McGowan saw an opportunity to cast his net beyond the limited details of Power's life to develop a nuanced account of the diocese's early history. The result is a substantial contribution to the religious history of Ontario, in the words of Edward Thompson, preserving 'frontier Catholicism' from the 'enormous condescension of posterity.'
In deference to his subject's Maritime roots, McGowan repeatedly returns his narrative to the nautical metaphor of putting out 'into the deep' to illustrate the struggles and challenges of Power's experience. A native of Halifax, Power was the sum of his parts: steeped in the culture and tradition of his pre-famine Waterford heritage, he was 'promised' by his mother's piety to the church at the tender age of twelve. Immersed for priestly formation in the foreign culture of the Collège de Montréal, Power felt the frontier beckon throughout his adult life. He was fast-tracked to ordination at twenty-three in response to the demand for curés in the townships and missions of Lower Canada. Of temperate if somewhat sickly disposition, Power readily grasped the ultramontane revolution sweeping the post-Napoleonic church. This makes him for McGowan the right man at the right time for the ranging and undisciplined clergy and faithful of the new Diocese of Toronto, who were scattered from Newcastle to Sandwich (Windsor). Power could also be complex – tempestuous and intolerant of [End Page 456] challenges to his authority. More than one priest was compelled to leave Toronto for not adhering to the Regulations of Power's first Diocesan Synod in 1842. At other times, the quality of mercy in him was not strained. Indeed, his death from typhus resulted from exposure while dispensing the sacraments to the newly arrived Irish immigrants waiting to die in the city's fever sheds during 'Black '47.'
McGowan tells this story by employing his own 'tridentine' approach to Power's life and to his role in the development of the Catholic church in Canada West. Impressive spadework in a host of North American and European religious and public collections allows him to trace the basic plan of Power's life. We glean here, too, something of the future bishop's escalating fascination with canon law, and of the spirituality passed on to him by his mother and fortified through his devotion to the Imitatio Christi. A remarkable synthesis of the secondary literature informs McGowan's understanding of Power's formative milieu. We understand his inevitable confrontations with the fabrique and marguilliers, key aspects of the seigneurial church, and we appreciate his skilful navigation through the labyrinthine politics offered in the early years of the 'united Canadas.'
Most impressive, however, is the author's conjuring of the historical imagination. Owen Barfield challenged the historian of the nineteenth century to use 'penetrating language with the knowledge thus accumulated, to feel how the past is,' and here McGowan is at his best. We taste the salt air of 'young Mick's' seaside childhood; we sense his doubts regarding his religious vocation; we feel the bumps on the rough logging roads that carry him beyond the confines of 'Muddy York' to his yearly summer visitations through the expansive diocese. In the end, we grieve his loss with the faithful; and we sense the fears of his colleagues, who know only too well that Power's like will not be found among their number.