Midwinter Hot Spot

Looking for a midwinter escape where your faith can be nourished? Toronto has several Catholic “hot spots.”

Strolling through the bustling streets of downtown Toronto, you’ll immediately notice a strong international vibe. A wide cross section of people from every corner of the Earth — especially Asia and India — are everywhere.

With such a jumble of humanity, the city’s Catholic roots aren’t immediately evident. But they’re certainly there.

Mass was first celebrated in the region in 1615, when the Recollect missionary Father Joseph Le Caron said Mass on the shore of Georgian Bay — today, the northern tip of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Yet, it wasn’t until 1841 that the diocese was established, mainly to serve the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Catholics then in the area.

After World War II, immigrants from all over arrived in droves, and to this day, Toronto and its environs continue to be Canada’s main migration point.

In fact, the archdiocese — home to 1.7 million Catholics — is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse. Mass is celebrated weekly for 36 ethnic and linguistic communities, including Arabic, Cantonese, Czech, Eritrean, Hungarian, Portuguese, Tagalog and Urdu.

Pope John Paul II was here for World Youth Day in 2002.

If you’re in the city for a few days, here are some of the prime Catholic points of interest.

St. Paul’s Basilica

In this year of St. Paul, Toronto’s basilica named for the Apostle to the Gentiles is worth a visit. The 1889 Italianate structure in the Corktown neighborhood just east of downtown was actually the first Catholic church in Toronto, established in 1822. An adjacent parcel of land was the city’s first Catholic cemetery, although it no longer serves this purpose. When the Diocese of Toronto was established in 1842, St. Paul’s became its first cathedral until St. Michael’s was completed a few years later.

The church, patterned after the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, was locked when I visited, so I didn’t get to see its famous ceiling paintings depicting the life of St. Paul. But I did look at the memorial to Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, which sits on the grounds outside the basilica’s front doors. Bishop Power is much revered because he died of typhus in 1847 while caring for the ill and dying Irish immigrants who came to the area to escape the Great Potato Famine. The memorial is also dedicated to the immigrants who perished that year.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II conferred upon St. Paul’s the title of a minor basilica for its historic work with Toronto’s poor and immigrants.

St. Michael’s Cathedral

From the outside, St. Michael’s isn’t that impressive. The church, largely funded by Irish immigrants in the 1840s, features an English Gothic design based on the old Norman York Minster Cathedral — appropriate because “York” was Toronto’s English name. Today the structure is rather drab, with peeling front doors that make it look every one of its 160 years. The interior is similarly worn, with nicked faux-marble columns and once-golden-oak pews polished over the ages to a dark sheen.

Yet on a recent visit, the atmosphere was serene and inspiring, not tired or downtrodden. Although it was a weekday, people were scattered throughout praying, as the comforting smell of burning candles wafted across the air. Soft “chinks” echoed through the church, as coins were dropped into votive boxes and the cathedral’s restoration fund container. And, despite a rather subdued interior color palette, a rainbow of colors softly permeated the space from the votives and stained-glass windows.

Despite its wear, St. Michael’s certainly features some gems, such as the immense stained-glass window over the sanctuary representing the Crucifixion, considered a masterpiece by the noted French artist Thevenot; the Sacred Heart altar, with its glittering gold mosaic backdrop festooned with dozens of statues; and the red hat of Cardinal James MacGuigan, the first archbishop of Toronto to be created cardinal, intriguingly suspended high above the main altar.

The parish has kicked off a $3.5 million fundraising effort to restore the narthex, choir loft and organ. (The archdiocese is shouldering other restoration work.) This is appropriate, as the cathedral is served by the renowned St. Michael’s Choir School; school choirs sing at Saturday’s 5 p.m. Mass and at Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. and noon Masses when school is in session.

Two Museums

Opened in 1995, the Bata Shoe Museum showcases hundreds of pieces of footwear from all over the world, ranging from incredibly tiny lotus shoes made for Chinese women’s bound feet to Sahara desert sandals. Often on display is a small but noteworthy collection of papal slippers. There’s the red leather pair worn by Pope St. Pius X, embellished with the papal cross; only popes are allowed to don footwear with the cross. A purple slipper belonged to Bishop Francis Morocco, who wore the pair about 40 years ago during Lent in Ontario’s Diocese of Peterborough. And white and green slippers were worn by Bishop B.I. Webster, also from Peterborough; he used the white for special occasions and the green during Ordinary Time.

The Royal Ontario Museum, a few blocks over, contains an interesting collection of altars crafted for private Catholic home devotions in the 1600s, including stunning pieces made from tortoise shell, ivory, silver and ebony. One of the most impressive religious items on display was a massive yet intricately carved altar retable decorated with sculptures, paintings and gilding. Retables, or raised panels, often with hinged side pieces — emerged around A.D. 900 to 1200, when they were placed behind the east end of church altars. Over time, they became more elaborate, and by 1400, they were considered one of the greatest glories of late-Gothic art.

Melanie Radzicki McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Planning Your Visit

It used to be that U.S. citizens could cross the northern border, both ways, with a driver’s license. Now, all persons traveling by air outside of the United States are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or reenter the United States. Starting June 1, 2009, most U.S. citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry must have a passport, passport card or other travel document approved by the Department of Homeland Security. See Travel.State.gov for more information.

All of the downtown hotels afford easy access by foot or subway to the cathedral, basilica and museums.

When You Go:

St. Michael’s Cathedral is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call (416) 364-0234 or see StMichaelsCathedral.com. St. Paul’s Basilica is the oldest Catholic congregation in Toronto. For more information, call (416) 364-7588. The Bata Shoe Museum is an easy subway ride from downtown Toronto. Admission is $8 CAD; Thursday nights are free. Call (416) 979-7799 or see BataShoeMuseum.ca. The Royal Ontario Museum is right at a subway stop. Admission is $20 CAD (half price Fridays from 4:30-9:30 p.m.). Call (416) 586-8000 or see ROM.on.ca.