Friday 27 May 2016

The Corpus Christi Riot of 1864

Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi, when we celebrate the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This Sunday, many parishes will take part in a traditional procession in which they will carry the sacrament through the streets.

In 1864, the annual Corpus Christi procession did not go well at all. In Toronto in the 1860s, tensions were high between Catholics and Protestants. This was a reflection of attitudes and events in Ireland, from where many of the city's inhabitants came. The city's Protestants were angered by public displays of Catholicism.

A May 30th, 1864 article in The Globe described how events unfolded:

"Yesterday being “Corpus Christi,” the day was as usual observed by the Roman Catholics in this city by a grand religious demonstration. The Church Street Cathedral was gaily decorated, and outside green arches were erected in front of the entrance on Bond Street, and the garden of the Bishop’s Palace, on the north side of the Cathedral, hung with numerous pictures, flags, etc. ... For some days past much apprehension has been felt of a disturbance on the occasion of the procession, which has [attracted] greater public interest in the event than usually attaches to it. Every precaution had been taken by the Mayor to prevent a riot, and to provide means to quell it in case one should occur."

As part of his precautions, Mayor Francis Henry Medcalf wrote to Bishop Lynch:

Medcalf to Lynch, May 28th, 1864:

"Rev'd Sir, This morning I have been waited on by a Deputation of the Citizens of Toronto, wishing to know of me if the Procession advertised in the Canadian Freeman of the 26th inst is to be a public one, or to be confined to the Grounds of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. 

"They also stated to me, in presence of His Honor the Recorder, that if such Procession was attempted in the public streets, they had reason to believe that it would occasion a very serious breach of the peace.

"Therefore, as Chief Magistrate of the City, I desire to learn, if you will have the kindness to inform me, whether the contemplated Procession is to be a public one, through any of the Streets of the City, and if it be, whether the "Host" is to be carried therein."

L AG01.01
Archbishop Lynch Fonds

The article continued:

"Long ere the appointed hour, the streets east, west, and south of the church were densely crowded, and the Bishop’s garden, on the north side, thronged with people. About four o’clock, numerous bodies of children, of both sexes, young women, in various uniforms, and all bearing paper flags and banners in their hands, made their appearance in the gardens, and took their places in front of a temporary altar erected on the north side of the Cathedral. ...  After his sermon he stated that ... they had a right to march through the streets if they chose ... but he deemed it best to confine the celebration to their own grounds, and no gentleman or lady would interfere with them."

Bishop Lynch was not pleased with the threat of violence, and he wasn't going to risk provoking trouble, but he was not afraid to make his opinion on the matter known in his reply to Medcalf's letter:

Lynch to Medcalf, May 28th, 1864:

"...I would inform those citizens through Your Lordship that as the free exercise of the Catholic Religion was guaranteed for the whole of Canada by treaty with England on the Capitulation of Quebec we could without infringing any law and in free exercise of our rights carry the Sacred Host through the streets of Toronto as is done in Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and other places ... Dieu et mon droit is the motto of England and we adopt it as our own. We desire to live on good and kindly terms with our fellow citizens, and we expect a reciprocity of feeling."

L AG01.02
Archbishop Lynch Fonds 

Despite their efforts, trouble broke out:

"A few minutes after five, everything being prepared, the procession of the Host issued from the church, and wended its way round the garden towards the altar, to the solemn chanting of the clergy. Just at this juncture some person attempted to enter the gate of the garden next the cathedral doors, on Bond Street. He was refused admittance, and endeavoring to force his way in a scuffle ensued. So slight a disturbance, under ordinary circumstances, would probably have attracted little attention. But serious apprehensions of a fight existed; a great rush was made towards the fracas – the impression prevailed that the fighting had commenced – the fact was proclaimed in tones of alarm throughout the multitude, and the panic became general. All the efforts of the priests to reassure the people were unavailing. The affrighted girls broke from their ranks with screams – the poor children were terror-stricken – the spectators, chiefly ladies, were alarmed for their safety – and the scene became one of most admired confusion. The people poured from the church, some in their terror seeking safety in the vaults. A large part of the fence on Church Street was borne down by the press, and the population of the garden was soon emptied into the street. The alarm was no sooner over, however, than it was discovered to have been false – that the flight was without a pursuit. The affair in which it originated was long since over – and nobody hurt! The fire-bells began to sound the alarm, and still further accessions of force appeared upon the ground, but the excitement had died away. The procession was quietly reformed, and the ceremony proceeded..."

Bishop Lynch received many letters from political leaders expressing regret over the incident. Even Premier John A. Macdonald wrote to him:

Macdonald to Lynch, June 14th, 1864:

"My Dear Lord, I can assure you that I was much grieved to see the outrageous and riotous manner in which your religious observances were disturbed on Corpus Christi day. I have given instructions to the proper offices to make diligent inquiry into these unhappy proceedings.

"Sir Etienne Taché showed me your letter to him, and I will take an early opportunity of looking into the whole law of the matter, and particularly how far the prohibition of religious processions extends to Upper Canada."

L AG01.08
Archbishop Lynch Fonds

Though no physical harm was done, Protestant-Catholic relations deteriorated further. Over the next few decades, there were more clashes between the groups. Though the hierarchy warned them against violence, some Catholics felt that they had to defend themselves. In November of 1864, members of the Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians heard rumours that there could be a threat from Protestants on Guy Fawkes day. As described by Fr. John Walsh to Archbishop Lynch:

"We are just now in the midst of great excitement here occasioned by the conduct or rather misconduct of the Hibernians on the 5th inst. ... It had been rumoured for some weeks past that the Orangemen would burn O'Connell's effigy on the night of the 5th inst. It had also been whispered about that the Hibernians would prevent such an occurrence at any hazard. On hearing these rumours and fearing the serious breach of peace we convened a meeting of some of the principal laymen to consult with them as to what was best to be done in the premises. ... We called upon the leading Hibernians and used every argument we could think of to dissuade them from making any demonstration whatsoever on that night, but all our arguments were lost upon them; for go they would and go they did, armed to the teeth with guns and pikes. Fortunately no collision took place between the hostile parties as the Orangemen failed to carry out their part of the programme. The Hibernians however were seen in hostile array. The cries of an intended Popish massacre were raised and hence the most fearful excitement prevails..." (L AE06.04, Archbishop Lynch Fonds)

These are only two episodes in the saga of the Irish in Toronto. Many books have been written about the Irish in Toronto, and the documents at ARCAT have been used extensively by historians of this subject. To learn more about Irish Toronto, check out some of these books:

The Waning of the Green: Catholics, the Irish, and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922 by Mark McGowan

Piety and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish-Catholic Community in Toronto, 1850-1895 by Brian Clarke



  2. Great post - another link with a photo of Bishop Lynch ÈCollective Rights, Liberal Discourse, and Public Order: The Clash over CatholicÈ
    Processions in Mid-Victorian Toronto

  3. Thank you for posting. Did not know about disturbances like this because of Corpus Christi processions. Interesting to see the correspondence.