Churches of “New Ontario”

Ste-Anne-des-Pins, Sudbury

Photo: Ste-Anne-des-Pins, Sudbury


Yves Frenette

Indigenous heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

In the middle of the 19th century, northern Ontario remained much as it had been under the French regime – a region of Catholic missions ministering to First Nations and a supply area for furs. More or less abandoned after the eventual deaths of the Jesuits who had been there since before the English conquest, the missions took on new life during the 1840s. The northeast was chosen by the Oblates as their preferred territory for mission work, the northwest by their Jesuit colleagues.

Eventually the development of forestry, mining and then agriculture encouraged the settlement of this “New Ontario” by French-Canadians, as railways were built linking it to the southern part of the province and Quebec. Settlement started in the 1860s near Mattawa, then spread westward as far as the Sudbury area. Somewhat later, the northern shore of Lake Huron was populated. At the same time, French-Canadians migrated towards Timiskaming and the Great Clay Belt (which runs from Kapuskasing to the Quebec border). Wherever French-Canadians settled, they brought their strong religious convictions.

More than a religious organization, the parish was the settlers’ main social link, as well as their primary physical reference point. Institutions established around the parish included the school, hospital and credit union. As well, a myriad of activities took place at the church – recitals, bazaars and patriotic speeches. This framework provided French-Canadians with an identity and a sense of security. For their religious and political leaders, it guaranteed “survival of the race.” Many people of the day would have agreed with the Nipissing member of Parliament, Dr. Raoul Hurtubise, when he described the parish of Verner and its priest in 1939: “We are now arriving in Verner, a parish that is completely French Canadian and Catholic. It’s as if we were in the Province of Quebec. This parish is headed up by my good friend Father O. Racette, who is full of ideals, but who at the same time has a practical mind and who serves his flock from all points of view.”

No fewer than 67 French-language or bilingual parishes were established by the ecclesiastic authorities in northern Ontario before 1930. Some of the parishes had been preceded by a mission. Early wooden chapels that also served as presbytery and school can still be found in the area. But as soon as there were enough members, a real church was established and constructed out of stone or brick – be it a small building in the countryside or a monumental edifice in an urban centre.

Today, the social function of parishes has changed in “New Ontario” as elsewhere in the province, but church steeples still reach for the sky above Franco-Ontarian cities and villages.