O’CONNOR, DENIS, Roman Catholic priest, Basilian, educator, and archbishop; b. 26 Feb. 1841, probably in Newcastle District, Upper Canada, son of Denis O’Connor, a farmer, and Mary O’Leary; d. 30 June 1911 in Toronto.
Denis O’Connor, the eldest of three children, enrolled at St Michael’s College in Toronto in September 1852. A member of its founding class, he completed his classical and philosophical courses before entering the noviciate of the Congregation of St Basil in June 1859. After taking his first vows the following year, he travelled to France, where he studied theology at the Basilian colleges in Feyzin and Annonay. “In both institutions,” according to Father Robert Joseph Scollard, “his piety and judgment attracted attention.” Tuberculosis forced his return to Toronto in 1863 and precipitated his ordination, at St Mary’s Church on 8 December.
For the next five years O’Connor was a semi-invalid. As soon as he returned to St Michael’s, in 1868, he was appointed acting administrator during the temporary absence of Charles Vincent*, the college’s superior. Given this unexpected opportunity, the young priest quickly showed his genius for organization, economy, and intelligent decisions. Jean-Mathieu Soulerin*, the Basilians’ superior general, who lived in Annonay, took notice and later instructed O’Connor to join Vincent in talks with Bishop John Walsh* of the diocese of Sandwich about the possibility of the Basilians’ resuming control of Assumption College in Sandwich (Windsor).
O’Connor was the principal Basilian negotiator. Shrewd, persistent, and patient, he was able to reconcile the views of Walsh and Soulerin. The agreement signed on 27 Sept. 1869 gave the Basilians control of the college, Assumption parish, and 80 acres of land for a term of 499 years. O’Connor’s reward was the superiorship of the college and responsibility for the parish. He arrived in Sandwich on 20 July 1870 to face a formidable challenge. The college building was in disrepair, few students were registered for September, the teaching staff was nearly non-existent, and the initial budget was only $300.
O’Connor’s determination to succeed where all others before him had failed became legendary. Superior, bursar, and professor of philosophy, he also attended personally to the bookkeeping and correspondence. During his 20-year administration – the longest in the history of the college – he tripled the number of students, expanded the curriculum, and added two large wings to the building. His success derived from a strict sense of discipline and, Scollard has concluded, the enforcement of “system in every detail of administration . . . . All learned to admire as well as to obey and in time of need found him kind and sympathetic.” In addition, he was responsible for the Basilians’ taking charge of the parishes of St John the Baptist in Amherstburg, Ont. (1878), and St Anne’s in Detroit.
One sign of O’Connor’s rise in the Catholic Church in Ontario was the visit to the college in June 1877 by papal delegate George Conroy*. His standing as an educator and administrator was enhanced further in 1888, when Pope Leo XIII conferred a dd upon him. When he departed Sandwich to become bishop of London two years later, he left behind a college solid in reputation and sure of its place in Catholic higher education.
Denis O’Connor’s consecration as bishop of London on 19 Oct. 1890 was welcomed enthusiastically. Letters from friends and colleagues lauded his spirituality and managerial skills. His tenure soon came to be marked by the authoritative style of leadership that he had demonstrated at Assumption. He insisted on well-trained clergy, strict adherence to the moral and dogmatic teaching of the church, and fiscal restraint. Fearful of debt, he preferred to maintain and improve existing institutions and agencies rather than expand the network of charitable, parochial, and social services. This prudence may have been conditioned by the fact that, in the 1890s, the Catholic population of the diocese decreased, from 60,254 to 59,383. With the exception of the opening of St Joseph’s Hospital in London, the establishment of two new parishes, and the payment of $15,000 toward the debt of St Peter’s Cathedral, O’Connor’s career in London was not characterized by great projects. It was also marked by a lack of controversy. The diocese’s scattered and relatively small Catholic population behaved sedately, certainly in comparison with Toronto’s Catholics.
O’Connor’s careful management of affairs in London and his noted piety prompted his elevation on 7 Jan. 1899 to the archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario’s most influential see, which extended north to Georgian Bay. Once again his appointment was warmly welcomed. O’Connor, however, was far from enthusiastic about the challenges that awaited him in the alleged “Belfast of Canada.” He petitioned Rome to allow him to stay in London, but was refused. His concerns were echoed by his family; a sister predicted that he would labour until he could “work no more.” The Catholic Register (Toronto) would later report that upon his arrival he appeared to be “a person weighted down with a sense of responsibility, unsought and somewhat dreaded.”
During his installation at St Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto on 3 May 1899, O’Connor laid out his program for the archdiocese: he would insist upon maintaining discipline among the priests and the laity through the enforcement of regulations, he would encourage good relations among all religious groups but would demand that the rights of Catholics be respected, and he would attempt to refrain from interfering in the political realm. Not only did he eschew politics, he tried to avoid public attention of any kind, which he believed was incompatible with Christian humility. Unlike his predecessors, John Walsh and John Joseph Lynch*, he rarely attended civic events or kept company with Toronto’s financial and political notables. He appears to have had his photograph taken only once, in 1883; whenever a picture of him was needed over the next 27 years of his life, it was this portrait that would be reproduced.
Despite these proclivities, in 1904 O’Connor’s position as metropolitan of Toronto compelled him to become involved in the debate over the secular qualification of separate school teachers who belonged to religious orders. He engaged in lengthy negotiations with government officials, notably superintendent of education John Seath, but by 1907 his effectiveness was being questioned by fellow archbishops Charles Gauthier* of Kingston and Joseph-Thomas Duhamel* of Ottawa, who stood to lose dozens of teachers from Quebec-based orders if the Ontario government demanded their certification along the standards set for secular teachers. O’Connor had misunderstood his colleagues, and instead of arguing in principle against the government’s bill on the issue, he attempted to secure the best terms for the certification of religious teachers. A weary O’Connor confessed to his friend Gauthier in March 1907 that he lacked “the skill and experience” needed to fight the legislation.
O’Connor’s attempts to restore moral and doctrinal discipline in his native diocese also generated controversy. His program was complemented by the pontificate of Pius X (1903–14), whose encyclical motto, “To restore all things in Christ,” would be actualized in worldwide reforms of canon law and church music, the regularization of marriage law, and moves to eradicate theological modernism. Ever the schoolmaster, O’Connor was determined to apply Pius’s “restoration” to the letter in an archdiocese where he found significant deviation from the church’s canons.
The Catholic community that had greeted O’Connor in Toronto was experiencing rapid change. Catholics were gradually moving out of low-skill occupations, were becoming better represented among the city’s business, white-collar, and professional groups, and consequently were living in all parts of the city and its suburbs. Socially, they were marrying non-Catholics in greater numbers, sometimes with dispensation from the church but more often without it. In 1900, when apostolic delegate Diomede Falconio asked his opinion about sectarian relations in the archdiocese, O’Connor sounded the alarm about Catholics losing their faith because of their increased relations with the Protestant community. He cited public schools, newspapers, the company of “good society,” and mixed marriages as factors that had produced “tepid Catholics, who without living as Catholics, like to die as such.” He was particularly disturbed by the manner in which the canons of marriage were being ignored and by the number of mixed marriages that resulted. By 1897 mixed marriages dispensed by the church accounted for 20 per cent of solemnized Catholic marriages in Toronto. Perhaps even more alarming to O’Connor was the fact that there were nearly twice as many mixed marriages taking place outside the Catholic Church as in it.
One of O’Connor’s first tasks as archbishop was to exert tighter control over mixed marriages taking place under the auspices of the church. On 1 March 1900 he published regulations which stipulated that all applications for mixed marriage were to be made by the pastor in writing to O’Connor personally. In addition, the fees for such marriages were doubled. O’Connor insisted that the non-Catholic parties sign the “usual” agreements that they would not hinder the faith of their Catholic spouse and would raise their children as Catholics. He departed from local custom by granting few dispensations in pauperes, which meant that fewer poor couples had their fees waived. O’Connor’s regulations seemed to have the desired effect: in 1901 only six per cent of solemnized Catholic marriages in Toronto were the result of dispensations, and by 1907 the number had dropped to less than three per cent.
The rigorous application of the regulations of 1900 brought resistance, however. Civil statistics indicate that Catholics merely left the church to marry non-Catholics. In 1901, for instance, while 8 couples in York County sought and received dispensations to be married in the Catholic Church, 90 others went to Protestant churches. Those Catholics who wished to fight O’Connor on the issue, including many of Toronto’s leading families, appealed to the apostolic delegate and to the Vatican to have their dispensations granted. Sympathetic parish priests, who believed that it was better to marry couples in the Catholic Church than lose the Catholic partner and any future children to the Protestants, frequently supported such appeals.
The rising tension between O’Connor and the laity was exacerbated by his regulations governing Toronto’s liturgical, parish, and associational life. In 1904 he was one of the few Catholic bishops in North America who strictly applied Pius’s motu proprio on church music. The classical compositions and mixed-sex choirs that had become the pride of many churches in the archdiocese were prohibited. Gregorian chant was to replace “profane” works by such composers as Mozart and Haydn, and women were asked to leave their choirs because the pope deemed it inappropriate for women to participate in any liturgical office. O’Connor also instructed women to cease collecting moneys for charity door-to-door because such acts demeaned their dignity. He insisted that parishes end their tradition of picnics, which he viewed as the playgrounds of unscrupulous politicians. In a matter that attracted greater public concern, in 1907 the Knights of Columbus were refused entry into the archdiocese on grounds that there were already too many Catholic fraternal organizations in the region. One of the largest, the Holy Name Society, was prohibited from celebrating its annual parade in Toronto lest it draw too much attention and heighten sectarian tension. O’Connor’s desire to create a disciplined, insular community was evident when he confided to the apostolic delegate in 1900 that he would prefer the laity to sell their homes and move to properties near their parish churches.
The response of the laity and the parish clergy to O’Connor’s regulations was almost universally negative. Some priests continued to allow “profane” music in their churches. Others, fearing a loss of income that could not be recouped through weekly collections, continued to permit picnics. The Sisters of St Joseph refused to cease their annual picnic to raise funds for the House of Providence, and in the O’Connor years the event actually grew in size. Choir directors resigned and rural parishes complained that few young boys could be found to replace the women who had left their choirs. Although O’Connor’s insistence on Gregorian chant and his establishment at the cathedral of a school to train choirs in sacred music won praise from some bishops, his policies generally alienated him from his flock.
O’Connor’s attempts to tighten priestly discipline further weakened morale. In an attempt to honour canon law and the decrees of the provincial council of 1875, he introduced examinations for clergy ordained within the last four years. Recalling the academic discipline of his own college years, he was determined to have a well-educated and supremely disciplined corps of priests. The unpopular testing only antagonized the young priests; at the same time, bickering with his senior priests over such issues as sacraments and pay, in addition to choirs, picnics, and marriages, isolated O’Connor even more. John Laurence Hand, pastor of St Paul’s, Toronto’s largest and oldest parish, complained to Rome in April 1908 that “the Archbishop is melancholy, peevish, and incapable of doing his work. The priests cannot approach him to transact the business of their parishes. He scolds and abuses them without any provocation.” O’Connor himself had recognized the problem in 1905, when he admitted to Girolamo Maria Cardinal Gotti in Rome that “I am not well regarded by one third of the clergy, and the others are not all zealous friends.”
Interference by apostolic delegate Donato Sbarretti y Tazza in the mixed-marriage question and O’Connor’s poor relations with his clergy and laity prompted him to submit his resignation on at least three occasions. The Vatican rejected his requests in 1904 and 1905, but complaints mounted and his own confidence evaporated. Rome eventually acquiesced and O’Connor stepped down on 4 May 1908. The public was informed that the resignation came as the result of his poor health, although insiders and members of his family knew that the “burdens” of his office were more the cause.
Named titular bishop of Laodicea, O’Connor retired to St Basil’s noviciate. When his successor, Fergus Patrick McEvay, died on 10 May 1911, O’Connor emerged briefly from prayerful seclusion to serve as interim administrator and to meet the desperate need for a bishop to confirm local school children. His re-emergence as chief pastor, however, was short. Suffering from Bright’s disease and diabetes, he died on 30 June.
Denis O’Connor did not leave a prominent material legacy in the archdiocese of Toronto. True to the fiscal restraint that he had shown in the past, O’Connor undertook few capital projects during his episcopate; only four parishes were founded, despite the fact that the Catholic population of the city of Toronto alone increased nearly 49 per cent. His fear of debt stopped him from creating parishes for the thousands of Italian and east European Catholic immigrants who had arrived in Toronto. Instead, he preferred that they attend Anglo-Celtic churches and hear mass from itinerant German priests or multilingual priests of Anglo-Celtic descent. To his credit, the construction of a shrine to commemorate the Jesuit martyrs of Huronia was accomplished during his tenure, in 1907 near Waubaushene [see Jean-Baptiste Nolin].
O’Connor’s years as a professor and administrator at Assumption College and his uneventful time as bishop of London had not prepared him well for the problems facing the church in Toronto. Catholics in English-speaking Canada’s largest city were gradually integrating themselves into its mainstream and, in the process, were adapting liturgical and marital practices accordingly. The city’s priests were increasingly home-grown and accustomed to the compromises that had to be made by Catholics in a pluralistic society. O’Connor found that he could not depend on their support for his rigorous restoration of church law at a time when Catholicism was battling modernism. After his retirement, the local church reverted to its old ways: mixed marriages increased, parish socials persisted, “profane” music returned, and choirs welcomed back women. O’Connor was as much a victim of his inability to recognize that a diocese could not be run like a school as he was an ultramontane cleric caught in a vortex of social and spiritual change. Although his past successes and piety were respected, he was too rigorous and perhaps out of touch with the changes being experienced by central Ontario’s English-speaking Catholics. It is unfortunate that his warm personality, love of youth, prayerful humility, and sense of humour were overshadowed by his public persona as the schoolmaster of the archdiocese of Toronto.
Arch. of the Diocese of London, Ont., O’Connor papers. Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, L (Lynch papers), AA05.2070; O (O’Connor papers); ODS (O’Connor – apostolic delegate papers), 02.08.; ORC (O’Connor Roman corr.). Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Rome), Delegazione apostolica del Canadà, 88–89, esp. 89.4, 89.20, 89.22.2; 157.37. General Arch. of the Basilian Fathers (Toronto), O’Connor papers. Univ. of St Michael’s College Arch. (Toronto), O’Connor papers; R. J. Scollard, “Notes on the history of the Congregation of Priests of Saint Basil.” Amherstburg Echo (Amherstburg, Ont.), 1875–84, 29 Aug. 1890 Catholic Register (Toronto), 22 June 1893, 1903–9, 6 July 1911 Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Canadian R.C. bishops, 1658–1979, comp. André Chapeau et al. (Ottawa, 1980). A documentary history of Assumption College . . . , ed. and intro. Michael Power (4v., [Windsor, Ont.], 1984–89), vol.2 (Assumption College: the O’Connor years, 1870–1890, 1986). M. G. McGowan, “The Catholic ‘restoration’: Pope Pius X, Archbishop Denis O’Connor and popular Catholicism in Toronto, 1899–1908,” CCHA, Hist. studies, 54 (1987): 69–91. J. S. Moir, “Canadian Protestant reaction to the Ne Temere decree,” CCHA, Study sessions, 48 (1981): 78–90. [F. A. O’Brien], Life work of a saintly prelate, by a student of Assumption College, Sandwich, Ontario, in the old days (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1914). R. J. Scollard, Dictionary of Basilian biography: lives of members of the Congregation of Priests of Saint Basil from its beginnings in 1822 to 1968 (Toronto, 1969), 113–15; “Most Reverend Denis O’Connor, c.s.b., d.d.,” Basilian (Toronto), 4 (1938), no.5: 88–89.
Bibliography for the revised version:
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Ontario, Roman Catholic church records, 1760–1923,” Northumberland, Cobourg, St Michael, baptisms, marriages, burials, 1837–1842, image 30: www.familysearch.org (consulted 6 Dec. 2019).
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Cite This Article
Michael Power and Mark G. McGowan, “O’CONNOR, DENIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_connor_denis_14E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Michael Power and Mark G. McGowan|
|Title of Article:||O’CONNOR, DENIS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1998|
|Year of revision:||2022|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|