History of the Diocese of Hamilton: Early Years
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Bishop Alexander Macdonell - First bishop in Ontario 1826-1840
Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church spread its influence first to Europe and then to the other continents of the world especially after about the year 1500. From 1600 onwards, missionaries from France began to visit what is now Ontario, and eventually our own territory, the Diocese of Hamilton. The missionaries, usually Franciscans or Jesuits, said Mass and began to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ among the native peoples.
By the late 1700s settlement of Southern Ontario began in earnest under the British colonial regime. In what was to become the area of the Diocese of Hamilton today, small settlements began along the major lakes and rivers over a swath of land in mid-western Ontario stretching from Lakes Erie and Ontario in the south to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in the north. To meet the spiritual needs of these newly arrived settlers, traveling missionary priests visited the people occasionally to say Mass and administer the Sacraments in both public buildings and private homes.
These priests were assigned first to the Dioceses of Québec, then Kingston, and finally Toronto, all of which at one time or another encompassed the present-day Hamilton Diocese. At first the priests were French, later Scottish and Irish, as Upper Canada (Ontario) developed its identity separate from that of Lower Canada (Québec). Most prominent among these early clergy was the Scotsman, Bishop Alexander Macdonell from Glengarry and Kingston. As the first bishop in Ontario from 1826 to 1840, he worked with the colonial authorities to establish parishes and churches in this province of pioneers.
Credit: Bochsler Studios Photography
St. Augustine, Dundas - Established in 1826, St. Augustine’s is the oldest parish in the Diocese of Hamilton
Some of the first Catholic churches were established in places such as Oakville, Dundas, Brantford, and Guelph. Priests were expected to reside at these locations, build a church and visit the people usually on horseback in the surrounding territory, often the size of a present-day county such as Wentworth or Wellington. Mass was said as regularly as possible in a few major locations but the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage and Confession often had to be delayed until the priest was next able to visit the more distant smaller communities.