St. Michael’s Cathedral was the first of the three great churches that competed for the pious heart of 19th-century Toronto. The money to pay for the cathedral was collected by Bishop Michael Power from penny collections among poor Irish immigrants, some wealthy recent converts, and from his own modest income. To save money, the foundations were dug by the parishioners themselves.
Bishop Power made a felicitous choice of architect in William Thomas, who would also design Toronto’s historic St. Lawrence Hall and the Don Jail. Thomas’ plan was inspired by the great 14th-century Gothic masterpiece York Minster in York, England, a favourite of one of the building fund’s great benefactors, the Honourable John Elmsley. Some stone fragments and pieces of the oak from York Minster were placed in St. Michael’s cornerstone.
Bishop Power did not live to see the completion of his cathedral. He died of typhus, contracted while serving the sick who had fled the Irish famine to Toronto, a year before his church was consecrated on September 29, 1848.
Given the importance of a great church to the self-image of the entire city, St. Michael’s steeple was completed in the 1860s after a fundraising campaign that reached across denominations, and which included a gift from the virulently “True Grit” Protestant George Brown.
Today the cathedral is served by the world-famous St. Michael's Choir School, located next door.
By James Marsh