Parkdale was once a grand Toronto neighborhood.
It's a few blocks from Lake Ontario and a 20-minute streetcar ride from the heart of Canada's financial district. Today grandness is found mostly in the dreams of the immigrant families establishing a life for themselves on streets where prostitutes and drug dealers compete for space with the mentally ill who, thanks to a nearby psychiatric hospital, are a constant presence.
The “miracle”? Amidst all this is rising what may arguably be Canada's most beautiful new parish church, the new Holy Family Catholic Church on King Street West. The Renaissance/Classical structure — similar in appearance to St. Agnes Church near Grand Central Station in New York — is rising in place of the old Holy Family which was devastated in a June 1997 fire.
I lived on King Street West for two years. It was there that I did my first two years in the seminary, studying philosophy under the Fathers of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. They are the real “miracle” behind the new Holy Family, which is scheduled to be finished before Christmas. The Fathers marked the 25th anniversary of their community's launch this fall just past and, aside from the significance of the anniversary for the Oratorians themselves, the astonishing success of the Oratory bears notice as a particularly fruitful expression of the vision of the Second Vatican Council.
Parkdale is not where anyone would have gone looking to find a renewal of priestly life, but in the designs of Providence that is where it can be found. I myself had no idea that the Oratory existed six months before I took up residence there as a new seminarian. My two years there were not without difficulties, but I knew then that I was witness to something extraordinary and with great potential for the Church in Canada.
The Toronto Oratory was actually founded in Montreal by Father Jonathan Robinson, a native of that city who served as secretary to Cardinal Paul Leger after his ordination in 1962. Prior to entering the seminary, Robinson had completed his doctorate in philosophy and, after Leger's retirement in 1967, he resumed his academic career, teaching 19th-century philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. But the scholar priest was attracted to the vision of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who introduced the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a 16th-century Roman innovation, to the English-speaking world. So in the early 1970s, Robinson rented a small house, gathered together some like-minded priests and launched the new project.
“I was always very influenced by Cardinal Newman, and through him I discovered the Oratory, which seemed to me a happy combination of life in community with other priests,” says Robinson. “We're not monks. St. Philip's idea was there should be small centers of priests leading a community life but nonetheless devoted to prayer, preaching and the ministration of the sacraments — and, of course, you've got to have people around you for that. St. Philip saw the Oratory as a little island within a big city.”
When political turmoil made the flourishing of an English-speaking initiative unlikely in Quebec during the 1970s, Robinson moved the Oratory to its current location in Toronto at the invitation of Emmett Carter, then archbishop of Toronto and a Montreal native himself.
“I asked for a church that we didn't get,” recalls Robinson. “Carter gave us this one, but it was all providential because the people around here have been marvelously supportive.”
Parkdale was an unlikely place for an Oratory after the spirit of Cardinal Newman, a son of Oxford. But over 25 years the growing community has built a center of pastoral activity impressive in its diversity.
The 10 priests and three brothers man two parishes (Holy Family and the neighboring St. Vincent de Paul), both of which have schools. They operate the seminary I attended, which currently has 31 students in a two-year philosophy program affiliated with the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. In addition, the Fathers have been given the chaplaincy at Ryerson Polytechnic University, celebrate Mass and provide spiritual direction for the Missionaries of Charity who live across the street, and run a food bank program called “St. Philip's Pantry.” It was busy place to live.
Above all, though, the Toronto Oratory is known for its liturgy. Taking after the London Oratory, famous for its high liturgy and formal style, the Toronto Oratory has sung Masses in both English and Latin every Sunday, as well as sung solemn Vespers. While the London Oratory has been criticized for sometimes letting the music get in the way of the Mass, the Toronto approach emphasizes both congregational singing and the riches of the Church's sacred choral music, all within a setting that fully observes the rubrics of the Novus Ordo Mass.
“We have made a very serious attempt to keep alive what I would call the ‘civilized musical tradition’ in the Church,” says Robinson. “Not just plainsong but Renaissance polyphony.”
The juxtaposition of the Church's most beautiful music in Toronto's inner city is only one sign that what the Oratory is doing on King Street West is something very like what the Second Vatican Council had in mind. An authentic, vibrant liturgical reform serves a poor, immigrant community with the Church's ancient treasures. Priests devoted to an intense common prayer life are also fully engaged in apostolic works. Cassocks and surplices are not an obstacle to extensive material assistance to the poor. The intellectual formation of future priests is conducted in the context of a busy parish, not separate from it. And some of Toronto's best-educated priests spend a good deal of their time dealing with the mentally ill.
The Church in Canada does not lack for programs and strategies for renewal, which is all to the good. But more than programs we need models and witnesses. Twenty-five years after a modest beginning in Montreal, it would seem the Toronto Oratory is just that.
A miracle in Parkdale? I would say so.
Raymond de Souza is the Register's Rome correspondent.