Donations, bazaars helped build St. Mary’s Catholic church in Elora

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Occupying a prominent place at the high point on Geddes Street, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church has been one of the most prominent Elora landmarks since it was built in 1870. 

It is the second oldest of Elora’s major church structures; only the Methodist (now United) church, constructed in 1862-63, is older.

St. Mary’s church replaced the first Roman Catholic church, built in 1854 on McNab Street. The land, lots 11 and 12 on the south side of the street, was donated to the church by Robert Gilkison, a son of the founder of the village.

The Gilkison family was a curious mixture of high-church Anglicans and brusque atheists, and Robert’s support of the Roman Catholic (RC) church must have struck some people as strange. One possible explanation is that bishop MacDonnell had long been a family friend, and Robert’s donation may have been a gesture of respect in his memory.

Elora’s Roman Catholics certainly needed the help. In 1854, they did not form a very large or prosperous group. Virtually all the Roman Catholics resident in Elora were poor Irish immigrants, the women employed as domestic servants and the men as common labourers.

There were a few Roman Catholic farmers in the townships (notably the McGarrys, the Wilsons, and the Kellys), plus a handful of German RCs in Salem, but there were not enough to provide the resources to build a church.

The only RC businessman in Elora at the time, baker Maurice Halley, served as the head of the building committee.

With considerable help, he scraped together some donations and building materials, and in June of 1854, he let a contract for a brick building, 26 by 32 feet in size. Unfortunately, no picture of this building seems to have survived, and all trace of it has been gone for many decades. The land is now occupied by a modern house.

Most of Elora’s Protestant merchants donated money to the building fund, in amounts between $1 and $5.

Taking inflation over the past 140 years into account, the 1993 equivalent would be 80 to 100 times these amounts.

Given the political climate of 1854, when Orange agitation was rising and the separate-school question was brewing, this Protestant support of the Roman Catholic church is remarkable, and demonstrates that divisive religious feelings were not strong everywhere in Upper Canada, as some historians have suggested.

The Elora Backwoodsman newspaper commented, “People here are not bigots, and will help whatever is calculated to do good.”

It is not clear why Elora’s RCs decided to build a new and larger church after only 16 years. The existing church was no doubt crowded for services, but probably no more so than the Anglican and Presbyterian church buildings of that era.

In any case, they did begin in May of 1870, with a stone foundation for a building 45 by 90 feet. The design was in the then-popular gothic style, and was to include a 134-foot spire, which would be by far the highest structure in the village.

The cornerstone was laid at an impressive three-hour ceremony on May 27, 1870. Four priests took part in the proceedings and the celebration of high mass, and the choir of Guelph’s St. Bartholomew’s church (the predecessor of the Church of Our Lady) came to Elora for the day. A trip to Rome prevented bishop Farrell from attending.

No part of the foundation of the building was more than three feet high, so it was necessary to put the choirs on a platform on the foundation of the spire. Another platform held a temporary altar. The event attracted a large part of the village’s population, and hundreds from outside town.

When it was over, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Roman Catholic church was now on par with Elora’s other denominations.

At the consecration, one of the priests delivered an address in German. By this time, Elora’s population included a sprinkling of German RCs, and there were many more in Salem. The combination of Germans and Irish, with a scattering of other nationalities, gave Elora’s Roman Catholic church a multicultural flavour enjoyed by no other congregation in the village.

Despite its progress since 1854, this was still not a rich parish, and many of the financing methods of the first church building were repeated.

The bricks came from several makers in the area, from as far away as Peel township; some were purchased and others donated. To haul them to the church, 45 men volunteered their teams and wagons. This, in itself, was a significant task; the building contains 120,000 bricks.

The major work was done by contractors. Jerome Crowley, of Salem, executed the masonry work for $1,120.

Something of a jack-of-all-trades, Crowley’s name has appeared in this column before, in connection with Salem’s breweries and hotels.

John Waddell, of Elora, undertook the framing and carpentry for an even $1,000.

The low amounts of these contracts suggests that volunteer labour performed part of the work, with Crowley and Waddell acting as supervisors.

As in 1854, Maurice Halley acted as head of the building committee, but he had much more assistance than with the first church. The poor Irish labourers and servants no longer dominated the parish. They had been replaced by merchants and skilled tradesmen. The wealthiest of the local Roman Catholics was James Henneberry, proprietor at the time of the Aboyne Mills.

Still, this church was a major undertaking. Halley, pastor Owens and the building committee planned a series of bazaars, popular entertainments, raffles and lectures to finance the project.

For example, in 1872, they packed the Elora Drill Shed (the armoury hall, now the liquor store) for an evening of plays and bagpipe music. A year later, a smaller, but more refined audience sat through a long lecture on Napoleon III, of France. They even held events in Guelph, where larger audiences were possible.

Heavy construction of the building was completed within a year.

Halley called for tenders for the interior woodwork and for the spire in the summer of 1871. The spire was raised during the first week of September 1871. The interior plastering was not done until 1873, and some of the decorating work waited even longer for completion.

The major fundraising activities ended in 1874, with a huge draw and raffle for 128 prizes, which included paintings, furniture, books, wine, jewelry and watches.

In the years when Elora had few large street trees, the cross on top of the spire could be seen for miles, glinting in the sunlight.

It is possible that the building generated some interdenominational rivalry: Elora’s Anglicans and Presbyterians began making plans for construction while St. Mary’s was rising. 

By the end of the decade, the spires of St. John’s, Chalmers, and Knox churches joined that of St. Mary’s as the dominant features on Elora’s skyline.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 26, 1993.

Thorning Revisited