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  • Michael Power: The Struggle To Build the Catholic Church on the Canadian Frontier
  • Terence J. Fay
Michael Power: The Struggle To Build the Catholic Church on the Canadian Frontier. Mark G. Mcgowan. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 378, illus.$49.95

Although bishop of Toronto for only six years, Michael Power has received from the pen of Mark McGowan a carefully researched and elegantly written biography. It is a very interesting story well told. McGowan artistically paints the historical context of the events from Power's youth to his leadership of the Catholic Church in Toronto. It is a delight to read the adventures of the boy from Halifax studying at the seminaries in Montreal and Quebec en français. At the same time, young Michael learned Amerindian languages to exercise Christian ministry in the remote corners of the Montreal diocese. At thirty-five years of age, he was sent as pastor to the parish of La Prairie, and two years later, appointed the first bishop of Toronto.

Michael Power is a detailed history of Canadian Catholicism during the first half of the nineteenth century. It offers a new interpretation that goes beyond the essay-length interpretations of H.F. McIntosh, Murray Nicolson, and Robert Choquette. The book's first theme focuses on the leadership of Bishop Power's founding of the Toronto diocese not only in [End Page 131] spirit but in its legal incorporation in the Province of Ontario. The story describes Power being on the front line of the Catholic devotional revolution in Canada West, where he out-manoeuvred the lay trustees to unite parish properties into one episcopal corporation. McGowan leads the reader to understand that Michael Power was more than a martyr of service resulting in his heroic death after attending the plague-stricken Irish at the Toronto harbour, but that, in the short period of six years, he disciplined the Catholic clergy, instructed the laity, established an episcopal corporation, and founded the separate school system. Power's dual loyalties to the Catholic Church and the colonial government were always firm and never questioned.

A second theme that McGowan sketches is the difficulties of the frontier church. Educated as a proper French-Canadian priest, Power was ready to maintain the canons of the Roman church. Arriving in Canada West, he discovered he was not presiding over an established diocese, but over a sprinkling of Catholics in a sea of Protestants. The bishop had to emphasize to his scattered flock the importance of baptism, accustom himself to mixed marriages, and deal with independent frontier clergy. McGowan does not gloss over the delays to Michael Power's ordination but sensitively unwraps his sources. Nor does he shy away from an open discussion of Michael Power's handling of the finances at Petite-Nation but clarifies the issues with new data and excellent research.

What would a book on Canadian Catholicism be without an extensive treatment of the separate school issue! From his youth, Power had learned the importance of working with those of other faiths, but the study clarifies the historical misunderstanding that Power was thus soft on separate schools in favour of the common schools. The author demonstrates beyond a doubt that the intellectually sophisticated Michael Power considered different models for delivering education to Catholic children, and of those considered, that Catholic separate schools were his priority.

A fourth theme McGowan develops is Power's Irishness. Although formed as a French-Canadian cleric, Power never forgot his roots. He cultivated Irish connections and sought help from the Irish church. During the Irish Famine of 1847, Michael Power tended the stricken Irish at the Toronto waterfront until he himself was stricken by the typhus virus and died within ten days. In writing about Irish immigration, McGowan reveals his command of the history.

Michael Power analyses the struggles of a frontier church during the first half of the nineteenth century. In his fresh and comprehensive interpretation, Mark McGowan includes insightful comments about the related personalities of John Hughes, Michael Fleming, Alexander Macdonell, [End Page 132] and Ignace Bourget. The careful research displayed in this volume makes this study on Michael...


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