The German Community
of St.Patrick's Parish

By: Hildegard M. Martens

From: Polyphony Vol.6, 1984 pp. 98-100
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

St. Patrick's Church on 131 McCaul Street was built in 1861 for the Irish Catholics of the city, and apart from a few German services which were held there as early as 1881, it was not until 1929 that a German-speaking Redemptorist priest from the United States was appointed to minister especially to the German Catholics in the City of Toronto. A small congregation of twenty-eight people gathered at the church on October 6, 1929, and from that small beginning, the congregation was to grow into a thriving community over the next few decades.

Most of these early German parishioners were "Volksdeutsche", or Donauschwaben, who had come to Canada from Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia as a result of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War One. They came from agricultural villages where mutual aid institutions, such as funeral societies and credit unions, were common, and these were accordingly also established in Canada in response to the needs generated by the depression. In fact, the hardships of the depression served as a focal point for the establishment of an active community life during the early years of the congregation.

Anniversary booklets, oral testimonies and ethnic histories tell us something about the social fabric of this German Catholic community. It was quite common, for example, for young parents to have left their small children behind with grandparents in Europe, and it might take many years before they could be sent to Canada. During the depression, women were often able to find work more easily than men, frequently as cleaning women or domestics. The poverty of the people and the fact that the women were compelled to work outside the home led to the building of a centre called the Catholic Settlement House at the back of the church property in 1930. In addition to providing for school children during after-school hours, it functioned as a neighbourhood house and a social and cultural centre. A kindergarten, a library and a hall, where German and English classes were taught and where theatre evenings, concerts and dances were held, became part of the activities of the centre.

After 1934 the Settlement House greatly expanded its range of activities and the number of people it served largely as the result of the vitality and energy of a new priest, Father Daniel Ehman who was reputed to have sparked enthusiasm even among lapsed Catholics. In 1936 he wrote:

Made visits to 241 homes and contacted 616 persons. This does not include visits to the sick in homes and hospitals. 1100 children have been attending the Catholic Settlement House each month and were divided into various play and work groups. At the present there are 197 school-age and 54 pre-school age children who are registered with us. On the average,153 children came to the settlement house daily. In addition we were able to get jobs for men, women and young people of up to 100 working days. Dozens of others, we helped get a permanent job. Families who were in need were given beds, mattresses and linen. We distributed clothing to many persons, of which we did not keep a record. We prevented the invalid marriages of many persons; brought the sick to Catholic homes; provided lodging for poor and single persons when they had difficulty with their landlords and also some families, who were evicted; helped dozens get their citizenship papers, and others to get sponsorship; in short, we tried on every side to be all things to others in Christ.

(cited in K. J. Schindler, Im Dienst des Volkes, 1929-1969
Jahrbuch zum 40-Jährigen Jubliläum der deutschsprachigen
katholischen Gemeinde in Toronto
, p. 47, trans. H. Martens)

In addition to the Settlement House, a credit union to help parishioners with major purchases was founded in 1939 and a funeral society, which helped with burial costs, was established in 1933. Other organisations, such as the Rosary Society, the Holy Name Society and the Catholic Youth Organization provided social and recreational activities for the parishioners. Later, land was purchased in Richmond Hill where a lodge, swimming-pool, dance pavilion, tennis-court and baseball diamond were constructed in order to ensure that outings by young people were still contained within the parish and that they would not be "lost to Communist clubs and to inter-marriage with non-Catholics."

The aftermath of World War Two brought a flood of new German immigrants to Toronto, not only from Rumania, Yugoslavia and Hungary, but also from Germany and Austria. This influx challenged St. Patrick's German community to respond to a whole new set of problems brought on by post- World War Two anti-German feeling and the poverty and adjustment difficulties of the newcomers. During these years the community expanded greatly as the credit union grew to 800 members and English classes were once more in demand. The combined number of baptisms and marriages climbed from about eighty in 1950 to 660 in 1957. According to one parishioner, it was common for some 300 young people to be at the church hall on a Saturday evening-dancing, playing table tennis, billiards or bowling. Most lived within walking distance of the parish hall.

The Redemptorist priests of St. Patrick's played an important role, not only in creating and maintaining cultural and social ties among the German Catholics of Toronto, but also in fostering some norms of the host society. For example, they encouraged attendance at English classes in the Settlement House hall, and Father Daniel Ehman was reported to have bought fox-trot records so that his parishioners would learn to do North American dances, as well as the traditional German polkas and waltzes. The formality of the relationship between parishioner and priest was considerably lessened in Canada, as noted by one parishioner who related that when she and her brother were first introduced to one of St. Patrick's priests, the priest had slapped her brother on the shoulder in greeting, while they had been prepared to kneel down and say, "Gelobt sei Jesu Christus," as was done in their homeland.

Two benevolent societies were organised during this period, which were particularly suited to the needs of the new immigrants. They were the Kolping Society and the St. Michaelswerk Verband katholischer Donauschwaben. The Kolping Society of Ontario was founded in 1954 and modelled after its German counterpart. In Germany it was originally a society which provided lodging for travelling journeymen; here in Toronto it served as a benevolent society for Catholic German tradesmen who came to Canada in the late 1950s. A review of the membership rolls shows that most Kolping members were skilled tradesmen: there were stonemasons, welders, upholsterers, builders, painters, steel workers, machinists, toolmakers, carpenters, printers, tailors, butchers, gardeners, watchmakers, bookbinders, barbers and the odd clerk or accountant. Kolping members helped to find housing and jobs for newcomers, often meeting them at Union Station when they first arrived in Toronto. The St. Michaelswerk Verband was started in 1949 primarily to serve the needs of the Donauschwaben whose lands had been confiscated and who now sought compensation under Germany's indemnification laws. The organisation was also intended to preserve their cultural traditions.

The late sixties and the seventies saw the gradual decline of the German-speaking congregation at St. Patrick's. As early as the late forties, some of the original members began to leave the area around the church on McCaul Street and to buy houses in outlying areas of the city. The later immigrants began moving out of the city proper in the sixties to buy houses in the suburbs. They began to attend the Catholic churches, mostly English speaking, in their new neighbourhoods. The German congregation still exists at St. Patrick's, but the number of marriages and baptisms performed has greatly declined, and only on special feast days and anniversary celebrations is the church well attended .

Organisations, such as the funeral society, the credit union, the Kolping Society and St. Michaelswerk Verband, have continued but they no longer attract many new members, particularly young members. Many of the postwar immigrants have become well off and acculturated, so that organisations which once had a mutual aid function have now become largely social. Those that still maintain a benevolent function have directed their activities to helping people in other countries. The Catholic Settlement House continues as a day-care centre for the neighbourhood's children, but the ethnic composition has changed entirely so that there are almost no German-speaking children anymore.

In retrospect, it is clear that the community of St. Patrick's played a very vital part in the lives of German immigrants in Toronto from the 1930s to the 1950s by helping them cope with the pain of uprootedness and poverty and by ensuring that they would be able to fully participate in the affairs of the established society.

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