Friday 1 September 2017

Sartorial Conflicts in a Frontier Diocese

It's back to school time, which means back to stricter routines, rules and regulations. Inevitably, some students will rebel against their Catholic school uniforms and some teachers will struggle to rein them in.

It seems that Catholic uniforms have been a source of conflict since the very beginnings of our diocese. Clerical dress - the cassock and collar - was a major point of contention between our first bishop, Michael Power, and the priests that served under him.

And if you thought your teachers were strict about uniforms, you should read about Bishop Michael Power.

A Frontier Bishop

Michael Power was appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of Toronto on December 17, 1841. He was essentially charged with establishing the Catholic Church in what could be hostile, frontier territory. The Diocese of Toronto originally encompassed the western half of present day Ontario, which was largely Protestant.

Shortly after arriving in Toronto, Bishop Power held the first Diocesan Synod, establishing the policies and regulations for his new diocese. He believed that strong and visible priestly leadership would strengthen the local Church. Article 17 of the Diocesan Regulations stipulated that priests must wear clerical dress:
We enjoin all priests that they use the cassock and surplice in undertaking every sacred function, especially in their own Churches. The cassock also they are to wear resolutely, as far as may be possible, always in their place of residence…it will help not a little if the Collar which, suitable to presbyters, is called by Benedict XIV “the badge of Priests,” is worn by all everywhere.  

Photographs Collection, PH 25/23AL

Carte de visite portrait of Rev. William Richard Harris wearing proper clerical dress, consisting of black cassock and white collar. 
Photograph by Lemaitre, Toronto, ca. 1870s 

The cassock is a long-sleeved, hoodless garment that covers the entire body from neck to ankle. Traditionally the cassock is fastened down the front by 33 buttons to represent the 33 years of Christ’s life and has 5 buttons on each sleeve to represent the 5 wounds of Christ. The cassock is also called soutane, from the Italian word sottana meaning “beneath”, as the cassock may be worn beneath a mantle, surplice or liturgical vestments. The Latin term, vestis talaris, means "ankle-length garment."

Some priests did not relish the idea of wearing clerical dress in public, which identified them as easy targets in Protestant towns. Bishop Power was unsympathetic; he insisted that Diocesan Regulations be followed to the letter, especially Article 17.

In the spring of 1844, Bishop Power wrote to his vicar-general in Hamilton, Rev. William Peter MacDonald, to inquire about the state of dress in that area of the diocese. MacDonald replied that “the dress worn here is as clerical as it can be as much so as that worn by our clergy in Rome,” implying that even in the Eternal City priests were not held to such sartorial standards. Bishop Power responded,
We are not here, Rev’d Sir, either in Rome or in Spain but in the Diocese of Toronto…You are therefore hereby commanded under the penalty of suspension to wear habitually … the Sutan [sic.], vestem talarem, in the Town of Hamilton and in your own house. (ARCAT, LB02.156, 4 May 1844)

Letterbook, LB02.156,
Excerpt from Bishop Power to Very Rev. William Peter MacDonald, Hamilton, 4 May 1844

I must remark that I gave you a very pointed hint in my letter of the 22nd of last February in the following terms: "Will you be so kind as to enquire whether the Clergy of the neighbouring Missions habitually wear the ecclesiastical dress.... I am determined to see all the rules of the diocese rigidly enforced and I shall be the first to set an example of their observance to those who serve in the ministry under me." To this you replied on the 26th of the same month: "the dress worn here is as clerical as it can be: as much so as that worn by our own clergy in Rome: the gown always when officiating and the long black surtout on other occasions." We are not here, Rev'd Sir, either in Rome or in Spain but in the Diocese of Toronto: the 17th Article of the diocesan constitutions adopted without the slightest objection in open Synod, by the whole Clergy, of which you were one, contains the following enactment: Veste etiam talari constantes, quatinus fini possit, gerant sacerdotis, semper in loco residentia." You are therefore herby commanded under the penalty of suspension to wear habitually after the 12th day of this month, the sutan, vestem talarem in the Town of Hamilton and in your own house. You must moreover adopt the whole article as your rule of conduct.

In the Archives we have Bishop Power's letterbook, where copies of outgoing correspondence were recorded. Letters written to non-compliant priests attest to the ongoing conflict over clerical dress. Here are two examples:

Letterbook, LB02.104,
Excerpt from Bishop Power to Rev. Patrick O'Dwyer, London, 30 September 1843

I am determined whatever may be the consequences to individuals that all the Regulations and Statutes passed in the diocesan Synod be strictly observed. I therefore call your attention to the 17th concerning the clerical dress: If I find that you do not conform to it, I make it your rule, and I shall order you to do so under the penalty of suspension to be incurred ipso facto...

Letterbook, LB02.108
Excerpt from Bishop Power to Rev. Michael Robert Mills, St. Thomas, 30 September 1843

I often remarked to you that your ordinary dress is not by any means clerical. I therefore hereby command you to conform yourself to the 17th Article of the diocesan Regulations, otherwise I will order you to do so under the penalty of suspension to be incurred ipso facto... I have it in my power to ascertain whether submission be paid to my commands or not. Be on you guard and follow strictly the 17th article of the Statutes. 

This year, as we continue to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Toronto, let us also remember the struggles that our early bishops and clergy endured to build the Church in English- speaking Canada.

This post was reworked from a display that ARCAT installed in the lobby at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in 2010.
The cassock, as modelled by Bishop Michael Power, and biretta are from our textile collection. 

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