Friday 20 January 2017

You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

This week we are sharing a letter from an important figure in the history of the Archdiocese, the Honorable James Baby.

The Honorable James Baby
Baby (pronounced Baw-bee) was born in Detroit in 1763 and educated in Quebec. He became a respected businessman in Lower Canada and was appointed to a position in Upper Canada by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. He served in various roles but was eventually appointed to Inspector General in 1815, when he moved to York.    

As a French Catholic in York, his options for practicing his faith were limited. Though land had been obtained by trustees for the Catholic community in the early years of the century, no church had been built, and visits by priests were infrequent. In 1821, Baby and the other trustees sold the original property and obtained ten acres near modern-day Queen and Parliament Streets. It was up to Baby to raise funds for and oversee the building of the first church between Sandwich and Kingston, which opened its doors in 1822 as St. Paul's.

Though he wrote many letters to Bishop Macdonell, we chose to share this pivotal moment in York's Catholic history, in which Baby tells the bishop that the land is being cleared for the new church. It is strange to think of ten acres of land in downtown Toronto needing to be cleared of trees, but that's how it was at the time!

My Dear Lord,

It gives me pleasure to be able to inform you that what was in contemplation during your stay here has been matured since your departure. His Excellency has been pleased to sanction (indeed confirmed) the recommendation of the Council upon the petition presented in your name and Trustees in behalf of the Roman Catholics of this place and its vicinity. The ground (two blocks each of 5 acres as per the plan you saw) are granted. They were estimated at £20 per acre - £200 in the whole on the annual payment of interest or rent. This sum to be redeemed at the option or pleasure of the Trustees. I hope I have not erred in comprising Ten instead of Five acres: we may relinquish the other five if it is thought advisable. For my part I have no hesitation to say that I would prefer taking the whole than the one half for I have no doubt that at no distant period the extra five will be found not only very valuable but most useful, particularly if you should be enabled to mature your plan of erecting a public school for young girls.  

The ground or spot where the church or chapel is intended to be erected is getting cleared: there will be tomorrow a Bee or collection of people to forward the work. In a few days I shall take steps to contract for the materials as well as for the undertaking of the building, the dimensions of which I will take take care not to be too contracted nor to exceed much our expected means.

I hope you have continued in good health and that you have reached your home in a comfortable manner.

I have been a good deal indisposed ever since the next Thursday after your departure from this place. I am however getting better.

I beg to subscribe myself with the most sincere respect.

My Dear Lord, your most obedient humble servant

J Baby

M AB01.02
Bishop Macdonell Fonds

The church that Baby built was the spiritual home for Toronto Catholics until St. Michael's Cathedral was built in the 1840s. It was the site of one of the earliest Catholic schools in the city, which still exists today. Though the building has since been replaced, St. Paul's is still an active parish serving downtown Toronto almost 200 years later. Baby's vision of a place for Catholics to gather and worship has endured. With his help, Toronto's Catholic community flourished and grew to be what it is today.

Old St. Paul's Church, Power Street

Photo published in The Story of St. Paul's Parish, Toronto, by Rev. E. Kelly, 1922, p. 45.

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