WAGNER, JAMES THEODORE (baptized Jacques-Théodor), Roman Catholic priest; b. 13 Nov. 1837 in Hérange, France, son of Dominique Wagner and Christine Diemert; d. there 26 Aug. 1896.
James Theodore Wagner was born in Lorraine of German ancestry. His father, a pious and educated man, was the local schoolmaster and encouraged his son to enter the priesthood. To that end, James studied classics, Latin, and rhetoric at schools in nearby towns before entering the seminary in Nancy for his moral philosophy. He had completed his classical and philosophical studies when in 1856 he met the bishop of Toronto, Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel, who was touring Europe to secure recruits for the Canadian missions. Wagner agreed to be adopted by the diocese of Sandwich (Windsor) in Upper Canada. He was sent to the Sulpician seminary in Baltimore, Md, but stayed only until 19 Oct. 1857, when he was suddenly ordered by Bishop Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault* to come to recently established Assumption College in Sandwich. He taught at the college for the next three years while completing his theology. During this time Wagner, who spoke French and German, also improved his English.
Wagner was ordained by Bishop Pinsoneault on 3 June 1860 at the Sandwich cathedral (Assumption Church). Following a curacy of several months at the cathedral, he was appointed to the difficult mission of Windham in Norfolk County. Although he was not yet 23 years old and only a few months priested, he was expected to serve not only Windham but also Simcoe and La Salette. In addition, he spent time with the German Catholics of Vienna and assisted the priest at Ingersoll once a month.
In the next few years he founded the parish of Our Lady of LaSalette, established a separate school at Windham, and purchased land for a church and rectory at Simcoe. Ill health, though, forced him to relinquish his charge early in 1865. On 1 June he was made the first resident pastor of St Alphonsus Church in Windsor, and he immediately proceeded to put this parish of 500 on the diocesan map. He built a rectory before the end of the year, and in 1865–67 he oversaw the construction of a permanent home for St Mary’s Academy, a school for girls, on land adjoining the parish. By March 1868 he had hired an architect for a large brick church designed to rival the Sandwich cathedral in size and beauty. In the summer of 1869 he went to Europe to gather financial support for his ambitious project. In Rome he had a private audience with Pope Pius IX and in Paris he met Napoleon III, both of whom were impressed with his determination. The pope donated a silver ciborium, which is still owned by the parish, and the emperor a series of steel engravings. The engravings and other donations, including thousands of chromolithographs of the pope, were eventually auctioned or sold in a series of spectacular bazaars and well-publicized lotteries.
The cornerstone of the new church was laid on 3 Sept. 1871 in the presence of Archbishop John Joseph Lynch* and Bishop John Walsh. Two years later, on I July 1873, it was opened for public worship, the first church in the diocese to be formally consecrated. In 1876 Wagner served as personal secretary to Bishop Walsh on a trip to Rome, and while there he arranged for the translation of the relics of St Tegulus to his parish church. On 7 May 1877 a ceremony to observe the transfer attracted thousands of people to St Alphonsus. At the conclusion of the proceedings, Bishop Walsh announced Wagner’s promotion to dean of Windsor “in consideration of his priestly virtues and his great services to religion.”
Wagner continued his work on St Alphonsus, extensively decorating the interior at great cost and making plans for a more permanent rectory. As dean he founded the parishes of St Clement’s, Our Lady of the Lake, and Our Lady Star of the Sea. In the spring of 1887 in the old church, St Alphonsus Hall, he launched a catechetical mission for blacks. To solicit funds for the mission he went to Europe, preaching on one occasion to 5,000 people in Paris. At Wagner’s invitation, the Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph came from Montreal and established a community in Windsor on 13 Aug. 1888. Early in 1890 they opened the Hotel Dieu hospital and next to it they built an orphanage and school connected to the black mission. Most of the money to purchase the property and to erect the buildings had been personally raised by Wagner. Unfortunately, the school and orphanage, always considered secondary by the Religious Hospitallers, were abandoned in 1894 – a source of great pain to the dean near the end of his life – but the hospital, the first in Windsor, has remained as a monument to his social consciousness.
Exhausted by his labours, early in 1896 Wagner sought rest and relief in Europe. After visiting Paris and then Rome, where he had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, he travelled to his native village, where he died in his sleep on 26 August.
Wagner had proved himself to be one of the diocese’s most capable and enterprising clergymen, steadfast in his devotion to duty and something of an administrative genius with a strong penchant for showmanship. He collected nearly $100,000 for church expansion. He never once fell foul of his congregation in an age when parish priests were often caught in the middle of bitter fighting between local factions. For Bishop Pinsoneault, whose episcopate had been severely plagued by problem priests, and even more so for his successor, Bishop Walsh, the career of James Wagner, spanning 36 years, provided a much-needed source of stability and continuity to the episcopal government of a vast and diverse diocese.
ARCAT, C., ALO1.15–18. Arch. of the Diocese of London (London, Ont.), Reg. of official docs., 1856–1954: 7a–10, 52a; docs.228–29, 234; St Clement’s (McGregor), History of the parish of McGregor, la paroisse St. Clements parish (n.p., n.d.); Star of the Sea (Pelee Island), “History of the Church of Our Lady ‘Star of the Sea’” (typescript); J. T. Wagner papers; John Walsh papers. Arch. of the United States Province of the Sulpician Order, St Mary’s Seminary and Univ. (Baltimore, Md.), J. T. Wagner, 1857. Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, Hotel Dieu Hospital Arch. (Windsor, Ont.), Chronicles, chap.2–3, 9, 15–28. Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Arch. (Windsor), Chronicles, 10 Aug. 1869; 1896: 3. Canadian Freeman (Toronto), 22 June 1860; 5 March, 3 Aug. 1865; 11 Aug. 1870; 14 Sept. 1871; 24 Aug. 1873. Catholic Record (London), 5 Sept. 1896. Catholic Weekly Review (Toronto), 21 April, 11 Aug. 1887. Evening Record (Windsor), 27–28 Aug., 2, 15 Sept. 1896; 11 March 1901. Home Journal (St Thomas, Ont.), 7 May 1877. London Advertiser, 28 Aug. 1896. London Free Press, 28 Aug. 1896. Diocese of London, Diocesan directory, 1986. Helen Batte, Rooted in hope: a history of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary of the Ontario Province (Windsor, 1983). Jean Houpert, Les Lorrains en Amérique du nord (Sherbrooke, Qué., 1985). Our Lady of the Rosary parish, centennial, 1884–1984 (n.p., n.d.). St. Alphonsus Church, 1865–1965: history (n.p., n.d.). Evening Record, 17 Jan. 1922.