St. James, in Colgan, is recognized as the second oldest parish in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. It was established as a parish in 1830. This date, however, does not mark the beginning of the Catholic faith in the township. With the earliest Irish settlers, who came to Adjala in the early 1820's, came their Catholic faith.
At first it may seem strange that this rural parish, so distant from the hub of Toronto, York as it was known then, could hold such an honour as being the second oldest parish. Research has shown however, that the history of Catholicism in Adjala Township is a fascinating one, closely tied into the development of Upper Canada and the settling of the new frontier.
The settling of Adjala by Catholic homesteaders can be traced back to the vision and experiences of Bishop Alexander Macdonell. In 1826, he became the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Kingston. It stretched from the Ottawa River in the east, to the Detroit River in the west. As part of a series of missionary visits Bishop Macdonell had the opportunity to learn first hand how fared the lives of the earliest pioneers. He travelled through Adjala and being impressed by the land and its fertile resources, he counselled new immigrants to settle there.
To attend to the needs of his widely scattered flock, Bishop Macdonell had a small crew of itinerant priests whose duty it was to travel the townships and minister to the people. Travelling alone through the forest wilderness of Upper Canada, these priests were extraordinary men who possessed great devotion and religious zeal as well as great physical and mental stamina. They would make periodic visits to each of the missions assigned to them. In Adjala, "The first mass in the district was said in 1829 at the home which Mr. Hugh Kelly had hewn for his family some three years previously." (1)
As the Catholic community grew and prospered, its citizens eventually felt that it should strive to secure a site for a permanent church, other than at people's homes, and try to procure the services of a resident priest. "In 1829 two local small merchants and mill owners, Messrs McLaughlin and Keenan, organized a committee to raise a subscription to support a priest... the two men were obvious leaders in a pioneering Catholic community."(2)
With the continued support of the community, initially in 1830 and repeated in 1834, Bishop Macdonell was able to secure from the Crown a land grant of approximately 150 acres on lots 10, 11, and 13 on the 8th concession of Adjala. "The terms of the grant stipulated that the lots were to be kept in trust for a church and a school house and thus effectively assigned the land for ecclesiastical purposes in perpetuity." (3)
One itinerant priest who was to leave a lasting legacy in Adjala was Father Edward Gordon, a curate from St. Pauls's parish in Toronto, who also "had charge of the back townships, twenty-four in number." (4) Father Gordon would have occasion to visit his congregations a few times during the uear. He would stay at each locale for a number of days, at which time he would minister to all the spiritual needs of the people, hearing confessions, saying mass, giving Holy Communion, baptizing, confirming, performing marriage ceremonies and saying prayers for the dead. Father Gordon's first trip to Adjala was in 1830. He visited again in 1831, 1832 and 1833. His visits were of major importance in the life of the community. "It was Father Gordon who directed the building of St. Margaret's Church (located on the second line of Tecumseth half way between Tottenham and Schomberg) as well as the first log church in Colgan." (5) Records seem to indicate that the name first given to this log church in Colgan was St. Catherine of Alexandria.
When Father Gordon visited Adjala in the summer of 1832, he was able to organize the efforts of many parishioners to help build the first church. "Animated by the right spirit (Note, according to records the "right spirit" was not alcohol, because Father Gordon make each of the volunteers take a pledge that they would not comsume alcoholic drinks while on the building project.) the brave fellows addressed themselves to their labour of love; and so earnestly did they work that they cleared an ample space, as if by magic, and before the night set in they had erected a log church, 50 feet by 30, on the same spot on which now stands one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in Canada." (6)
Father Murtagh Lalor, also an itinerant priest, on 29 June 1833, began the official parish records in a book entitled Register Baptisms and Marriages Adjala. On the above date, the first entry in the register is Mary Leary, age 1 month, the daughter of Daniel Leary and Ellen Spillane, residents of Adjala Township. Having now its own church, the community would have to wait ten years before it would be able to have its own resident priest.
Meanwhile important events in the larger sphere of the diocese were also taking place. On 17 December 1841 the Diocese of Kingston was restructured. As noted earlier, the immense size of the Kingston diocese made it very difficult to administer. As a result, the Diocese of Toronto was created, with Bishop Michael Power appointed to the new See and installed as the first bishop of Toronto on 26 June 1842. Saint James in Colgan was now a part of the new diocese.
As joyful as the building of the church had been, after many years of constant use the old church became weather beaten and was no longer able to hold the increasing Catholic population of Colgan and the surrounding area. "In 1842 a visitation from Toronto found 'a small log building falling fast to decay. A large quantity of land covered with a few graves. Closely adjoining the church is a small log house intended for the residence of the priest, but not finished, consequently badly secured against the winter. No offices of any description attached to it. No furniture in it.'" (7) During this time, it must still be remembered, that St. James was a mission of St. Margaret's in Tecumseth. In fact, it is at St. Margaret's that the resident priest, when he finally came, made his home.
In its humble way the log church continued to serve its community until 1841. At this point the community felt that it was prepared to invest in a new church, and so sought permission to replace the log church with a new building. The new church was a frame building, Gothic in design, and by all accounts a more magnificient structure. "With the increase in population came the demand for more space and in 1851 was erected the 'Big Church', 40 feet by 100 feet, Bernard Hart, as contractor saw to this building which for thirty-nine years witnessed the baptisms, marriages and requiems of 3200 worshippers." (8) With the new church came changes to the parish organization. St. Margaret's in Tecumseth had also suffered the effects of time and weather. As well, the mid-1850's saw the emergence of Keenansville and Tottenham as commercial and residential centers. With the population shifting away from rural Tecumseth and Adjala, it seemed to make sense to locate the home of the pastor closer to the center of his congregation. Accordingly the log home was replaced and in 1860 a beautiful, new, brick house was built in Colgan as the presbytery for the pastor. This stately building is in wonderful condition and still in use by the pastor today. [Ed. note: at present, in 1998, the priest lives in a newer house directly beside the St. James property, and the older building is in use as an office and for meetings, by various parish organizations.]
Another important event that happened about this time was the separation of the parish into North and South Adjala. On 16 March 1854 the pastor of St. James, Father Rattigan, met with members of his parish from the North Adjala community of Arlington to discuss the building of a mission church which could better serve their local needs. By 25 November 1855 a frame church was built, on two acres of land donated by Hugh Ferguson. The new church was named Immaculate Conception, and from 1855 to 1865, was served from St. James. On 1 January 1865 Immaculate Conception was established as its own parish, with mission churches in Alliston and in Granger (Mono Township). Father Patrick Conway was installed as the first pastor.
The same fate, owing to weather and time, that befell the Log church in Colgan happened to the Gothic church and so once again in 1888 the pastor and his congregation set about to rebuild St. James Church. This time the plan called for a much larger brick church. The frame church was dismantled and the present brick church was built. The pastor at the time was Father (later Dean) Edward Cassidy. This excerpt, from The Cardwell Sentinel, February 28, 1889, commemorating the church's offici opening, on Sunday February 24, 1889 provides valuable details:
The extreme length and width are 106 x 50 feet; Nave 68 x 54, Chancel 28 x 24, Chapel 12 x 24, Height of principal tower. Seating accomodation about 700.
The style is Romanesque beautifully ornamented on the outside and chaste within. The gallery is capable of accomodating 150 people. The front elevation shown above gives a very a curate idea of that part of the building.
The other cut being taken from the architect's plan show the back wall of the chapel also the framework which of course, do not appear in the finished building. The altars are a mingling of Gothic and Romanesque.
The contractors are Mr. S. Kavanagh, Tottenham, and Mr. James Jerritt, Alliston, the architect Mr. Kennedy, Barrie, and all deserve credit for the manner in which they have performed their work.
The contract price was $8100.00, but the whole expenditure, including all the surroundings, will not fall far short of $15,000.00.
Father Cassidy is entitled to the highest praise for his indefatigable exertions in prosecuting this great work, though part of the time suffering from severe illness...
The dedication took place on Sunday (24 February 1889). The ceremony of blessing the church and celebration of high mass were performed by Vicar General Rooney, with Rev. Fathers Jeffecott, Teefy and Duffy as deacon, subdeacon and master of ceremonies respectively. Dean Harris and Fathers Gallaugher and Gibney were also present.
St. James continues to serve the local Catholic population. As needs have dictated, it has undergone somelarge renovations over the course of time, but it is essentially the same church.
St. James is the mother of two mission churches in the area. On the Fourth Line of Adjala, between the Tenth and Fifteenth Side Roads is St. Mary's, Achill. "In 1875 at the initiative of Father (later Dean) William Harris, and continued by his successor, Father Francis McSpiritt, a small frame church was built on a lot donated by John Cox. It was established as a mission church of St. James and was dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God and named St. Mary's." (9)
St. Mary's burned to the ground on 12 January 1892. A brick church was rebuilt that summer. It had its official dedication on 23 March 1893. The other mission church of St. James is located in Tottenham. "In 1885... the pastor (Father Francis McSpiritt) directed the construction of a fine brick church which was dedicated under the title of St. Francis Xavier." (10) It was built by the Kavanagh brothers Sam, Bill and "Lil" the future builders of St. James Church.