A History of St. Michael the Archangel Parish
From the Pioneers to the Seventies
Cobourg has the distinction of being the oldest parish in the Deanery of Durham and Northumberland although a church was built at Port Hope in 1825. Under the direction of Bishop Alexander Kernan Macdonell who became the first Bishop of Kingston and Upper Canada in 1826, missionary priests in the persons of Rev. Alexander Kernan, Rev. William Dolan and Rev. Michael Timlin celebrate Mass along the shores of Lake Ontario. In 1837 Father A. Kernan, a native of Galway, Ireland, was appointed to establish a parish with headquarters at Cobourg, his parish extending from Trenton to Oshawa. Calling together the Catholics of the vicinity, he proposed the building of a church to which the meeting unanimously agreed. The first Catholic Church in Cobourg, dedicated to St. Polycarp, was a frame structure seventy-five feet long and forty-five feet wide, built on the Ruttan property on William St. Completed with a tower and spire in 1839 the church served a congregation of fifty souls. Father Kernan met an untimely death at the age of thirty-eight when he suffered fatal injuries in a fall from a horse in 1842. His moral remains were interred beneath the church which he built, but were removed to the central mound in the parish cemetery in 1895.
Father Kernan’s successor was Father William Dolan who built a parochial residence adjacent to the church. During his pastorate, Bishop Patrick Phelan, Coadjutor Bishop of Kingston, made a pastoral visit to St. Poycarp’s parish to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation and to erect canonically the Stations of the Cross. In his directives to the parish, he requested more generous support on the part of the parishioners and strongly recommended repairs to the foundation of the church and the building of a sacristy. Further, he pointed out the necessity of fixed rates for burial permits and cemetery plots. In 1844, Father Dolan resigned for reasons of health.
The third pastor of St. Polycarp’s was Father Michael Timin whose record as pastor is the second longest in the history of the parish, a term of thirty-three years. By 1859 the wooden church was found to be inadequate in size and a brick addition which almost doubled the size of the church was erected. Four years later the original wooden part was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in brick. Bishop Phelan dedicated the restored church to the St. Michael by which name the church which replaced it on another site at a later date is still known. In 1875 Father Timlin requested an assistant and was given Father Michael Larkin for a period of two years. Meanwhile, the parish of Cobourg was serving the missions of Grafton, Port Hope and Bowmanville. In 1875 a church was begun in Grafton. On May 23, 1877, Father Timlin died at the age of eighty-six years. His body was interred in the crypt of the church but removed with Father Kernan’s body to the parish cemetery in 1895. Father Larkin was placed in charge of the parish until 1879 when he was named first pastor of the parish of Grafton.
The fourth pastor of Cobourg was Rev. E. H. Murray whom was born in 1843 in Quebec City and who was a nephew of Bishop Horan who ordained him in 1866. His first pastorate was Wolfe Island where he erected a church. At the time of his appointment to Cobourg, he was pastor of Kemptville. The parish of Cobourg was reduced in size by the erection of the Parish of Grafton and consisted of the town of Cobourg and the townships of Hamilton and South Monaghan. In 1881 a large bell was produced for St. Michael’s church and was solemnly christened be Bishop Cleary of Kingston, the Diocese of Peterborough not having been erected until 1882.
The first pastoral visit of Bishop Jamot top the town of Cobourg, a parish of the newly-formed Diocese of Peterborough, was made on November 2, 1882. On this occasion one hundred and fifty-seven candidates received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and new Stations of the Cross, water-colour paintings procured by Father Timlin in Paris in 1874, were canonically erected.
The year 1883 was an historic one for the Parish of Cobourg. As the Separate School on Ball St. was considered inadequate, Father Murray purchased the building known as Brookhurst Ladies’ Academy from the Methodist Church and transformed it into a convent and school. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto were invited to provide personnel for the new foundation and seven Sisters headed by Mother Austin assumed the responsibility. The new convent and school was blessed by Bishop Jamot on September 87, 1883. In the same year Father Murray built a brick church at Harwood, then lumber centre on the south shore of Rice Lake where Mass had previously been said in a local house. The new church was dedicated to Sacred Heart of Jesus by Bishop Jamot on February 12, 1884. Harwood remained a separate parish under Father James Sweeney. In September of 1962, the mission of Harwood was returned to the care of St. Michael’s of Cobourg.
Because of the distance of the Parish House from the concentration of population, Father Murray sold his residence in 1885 and built, on the convent and school property, a new presbytery which is the present rectory of St Michael’s Parish. For several years the town has been growing away the site of an original church and, as the foundation thereof was not strong, Father Murray secured the Bishop’s approval for the building of a new church on Division St., on the property already occupied by the convent school and presbytery. The corner-stone of the present St. Michael’s Church was laid on June 9, 1895 and completed church was dedicated on February 23, 1896, both ceremonies being conducted by Bishop R. A. O’Connor.
The new St. Michael’s was designed in Romanesque architecture of the Basilican type and built in the red brick on the foundation of the stone. The main entrance is flanked by two square towers each of which provides an entrance. The ceiling of the three barrel vaults is supported by Ionic columns and matching pilasters on the side walls. The central and largest vault extends into the semi-circular apse. Structurally the church remains the same as it was in the beginning except that the original vestry has been enlarged.
Manly notable milestones have been recorded in Father Murray’s long pastorate of thirty-three years as Pastor of the new St. Michael’s. A few months after the dedication of the new church in 1896, Bishop O’Connor ordained to the priesthood Rev. Francis P. Duffy, a native son of the parish, who became the chaplain of the famous Fighting Sixty-Nine during the First World War. On August 24, 1900, another young man who had been born in the parish, Michael John Ryan of Precious Corners, was ordained to the priesthood for the Congregation of St. Basil. In 1909, the sanctuary was embellished with paintings and in 1913 the interior of the church was redecorated and provided with new Stations of the Cross in the form of beautiful oil paintings. The occasion of the first official visit of Bishop O’Brien in 1913 was the ceremony of investiture of Dean Murray as a Domestic Prelate of the Papal Household.
Until 1920 Monsignor discharged his pastoral duties without an assistant priest. It was then that Rev. Kevin Corkery, recently ordained, was assigned to St. Michael’s as curate to the venerable pastor for the last six years of his life. On March 26, 1926 Monsignor Murray’s death concluded a pastorate of forty-seven years.
St. Michael’s fifth pastor was Monsignor Alexander Francis Kelly who was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y. where he celebrated his First Mass in 1892. Before his appointment to Cobourg in 1926, Monsignor Kelly had been pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Tour Creek for thirty-three years during which he built five churches in the area now served by the parishes of Trout Creek and Powassan. In recognition of his outstanding service to the Church in the northern part of the Diocese of Peterborough, he was invested as a Domestic Prelate of the Papal Household in December 1925. This honour was bestowed a few months before he was transferred to Cobourg.
During his pastorate of fourteen years at St. Michael’s a marble Communion rail was installed in memory of Monsignor C Murray, side altars were erected, the sacristy was enlarged and the lighting system was changed. Monsignor Kelly was assisted successively by Father Peter Butler, William P. Meagher, James McGuire, Gregory A. Wolff and John Killen. In July 1940, Monsignor Kelly suffered a heart attack and died in November of that year. During his illness and the period subsequent to his death, Rev. G.A. Wolff was in charge of the direction of the parish, assisted by Rev. John Ryan. At this time the church was given an intensive cleaning, a hardwood floor was laid in the sanctuary, linoleum was installed in the aisles and a new statue of St. Michael was produced.
In March of 1941, Dr. P. J. Kelly who had been rector of St. Peter’s Cathedral was appointed pastor with Rev. Gerard Maher as his assistant, replacing Fr. Wolff. In 1942 Dr. Kelly’s census of the parish revealed the number of families to be two hundred and sixty-five and the number of souls, approximately eleven hundred. During his pastorate, Dr. Kelly director considerable attention to the parish cemetery by inauguration a system of perpetual care, raising a cross over the grave of Monsignor Kelly and placing a memorial tablet to him in the vault chapel. At a later date provision was made for proper drainage of the northern and western extremities of the cemetery, second growth trees and wild vegetation were removed and new stone gates were erected at the cemetery entrance. At a still later date the beauty of the cemetery property was enhanced by a plantation of cedars on the north and west sides of the cemetery.
During Dr. Kelly’s term of office, Father John Ryan was assigned charge of Grafton Parish on the death of Father Galvin. In addition to Father Gerard Maher who celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his ordination while in Cobourg, assigned priest were Father Charles Begley, James Houlihan and F. K. Malane. Although Dr. Kelly was hospitalized in Montreal in the fall of 1943 and in Peterborough in the March of1944, he regained his health sufficiently to continue his active direction of the parish until July of 1946 when he suffered a serious set back in health. Until his death in February of1948, he was unable to celebrate Sunday Mass in the church but when well enough, celebrate in the convent chapel.
Dr. P. J. Kelly was succeeded in 1948 by Rev. Joseph Collins, a former Pastor of Parry Sound, Trout Creek and Campbellford, who directed the parish until June of 1970 when he retired from active duty and took up residence with his brother, Rev. James Collins, Pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Peterborough. The parish census at the beginning of Father Collins’ pastorate recorded three hundred families and twelve hundred and fifty souls. This increases Catholic population was later augmented by the establishment of the Canadian Army’s Central Ordnance Depot in Cobourg.
There was steady expansion of the Catholic education during Father Collins’ pastorate. Shortly after his arrival in Cobourg he and his parishioners engaged in a complete renovation of the Catholic school. Four classrooms and an auditorium, which also server as parish hall, were added; due to continued collaboration of Parish and School Board, two classrooms were added in 1956 and two more in 1958, thus making St. Michael’s a twelve room school. To provide facilities of education for the children of personnel employment with Central Ordanance Depot, St. Joseph’s school of four rooms was built in the north-east. In 1963 St. Mary’s of four rooms was built in the west end. Meanwhile a Separate School Section was formed in Hamilton Township and Separate School pupils were transported by bus to town schools. In 1964 the Township and Town Separate School Boards united. In 1965 the school Board discontinued the operation of grade nine and ten because of inability to provide the option offered by the Collegiate Institute. An addition to St. Mary’s school was opened in the fall of 1968.
The Convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph had become barely liveable because of the age of the building. It no longer provided adequate accommodations because of the increasing number of Sisters. Stuart Cauley was engaged as architect to design a new building which was built by George Heenan. The Sisters moved to Villa St. Joseph, the former orphanage for girls an the lakeshore, so that the old convent could be demolished., A new convent with private rooms for seventeen Sisters, three music rooms, a modern chapel, refectory, recreation room, parlour, kitchen, and laundry made a worthy replacement for the old landmark of Cobourg. St. Michael’s Parish contributed $200,000 towards the cost of the new convent which officially opened June 14, 1963.
On June 2 of 1962, Rev. Terrence McElhinney, a native son, was ordained to the priesthood in St. Peter’s Cathedral, the first priest to be ordained from parish in sixty-six years, the last being Father F. P. Duffy of the Fighting Sixty-Nine. Father McElhinney celebrated his first solemn Mass on the following day in St. Michael’s Church of Cobourg.
Early in January of 1963, Father Collins was named a Domestic Prelate of the Papal Household and his investiture took place in St. Peter’s Cathedral on February 21. On the occasion of the announcement of this honour, Monsignor J. A McDonagh, President of the Catholic Church Extension Society, in his weekly column in the Canadian Register, paid tribute to the Pastor of Cobourg as follows:
“Monsignor Patrick Joseph Collins, whose silver hair and fatherly smile have identified him to thousands as the beloved model of a parish priest, has been a pillar and a support of all forward moves in the Diocese of Peterborough. He has interested himself in education and family life, especially in his parish of Cobourg, where since 1948 he has powered the drive for better schools. We knew him as a schoolmate and also as a neighbour when he was pastor at Parry Sound. There as well as at Trout Creek, he also, like Monsignor O’Leary, evangelized the vacation country, while his native caution, reserve and unfailing good manners controlled or moderated the spontaneity of his impulsive great heart. He should be an ornament to the papal household and fall into the purple as to the manner born…”
During Monsignor Collins’ tenure as pastor a program of restoration and repair was pursued in order to maintain and preserve the church built in 1896. This program included restoration of paintings, installation of a new heating system, renovation of the sacristy, interior decoration of the church, rebuilding of the organ, installation of a new main alter, sandblasting and weatherizing the exterior and the laying of a new pavement. During this time Monsignor Collins was assisted by Fathers K, Malane, Gerard Maher, Raymond Hart, Raymond Garvey, Patrick Byrne, John Pearson, Albert Ryan, F. X. Piro who celebrated the silver Jubilee of his ordination in Cobourg, Charles Begley, Harold Leahy as a deacon and, after ordination, as a priest, and Bernard Heffernan.
In June 1970, on the occasion of the observance of the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood, Monsignor Collins retired from the pastorate of St. Michael’s in Cobourg. His pastorate of twenty-two years was the third longest. In the long history of St. Michael’s Parish of Cobourg there have been only seven pastors in a period of one hundred and thirty-three years. The combined pastorates of Father Timlin, Monsignor Murray and Monsignor Collins exceed a century of administration by two years. The observation of Monsignor Collins’ fiftieth anniversary of ordination was the occasions on the part of diocesan clergy, the parishioners of St. Michael’s and citizens of Cobourg. Rev. Timothy B. Coughan, rector of St. Peter’s Cathedral from 1962 until June, 197, was appointed to succeed Monsignor Collins who lived with Brother, Father James Collins, at Sacred Heart rectory in Peterborough until his death on June 4, 1974.
Father Coughlan’s first major undertaking was the formation of a parish council. Though the Mission Committee of the council, the idea of a missionary project in
Honduras developed. In the fall of 1971, Father William Arsenault, Pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, Colony Kennedy Tegucigalpa, Honduras, spoke to a meeting of St. Michael’s Parish Council. I description the Cobourg and Honduras Parishes if Father Coughlan could go to Honduras for a year.
Enthused by the idea, the parish Council, supported by the parishioners, recommended the idea of Father Coughlan’s going to Honduras to Bishop Marrocco. St. Michael’s Parish made a three-year financial commitment to the Parish of St. John the Baptist in Honduras, as well as payment of the Pastor’s salary while there. During Father Coughlan’s absence, Bishop Marrocco appointed Father Bernard Heffernan as administrator and he and Father James Wilson assumed responsibility for the care of St. Michael’s Parish.
Father Coughlan departed for Honduras in January 1972, and was followed in May by James Clarke, a local lawyer and chairman of the mission committee, who paid visit to the Honduras parish. Father Coughlan returned to Cobourg in December of 1972.
In 1973, the Help Honduras Foundation was founded in Cobourg with Father Coughlan as director and, as co-director, David and Catherine Stewart. The role of the organization was three-fold: to make Canadians aware of Third World problems; to encourage volunteers with special skills to seek Third World experience; and to raise funds for orphaned children in the “Friends of the Children Society” established by Sister Maria Rosa in Honduras in 1967.
In September 1974, the devastating Hurricane Fifi struck North Honduras, killing thousands and rendering many homeless. The Help Honduras Foundation of Cobourg decided that one of its directors should go to Honduras to take possible aid and to assess the situation. Father Coughlan volunteered to go at his own expense.
On Sunday, September 22, Father Coughlan set out for the stricken country with $11,000, of which $8,000 had already been collected by the Foundation, the remaining amount being the result of a spontaneous and unplanned appeal made at the Sunday Masses in Cobourg. An additional $8,000 was raised through the efforts of the Knights of Columbus through a public appeal made by a door to door canvass.
In the following weeks, Cobourg became a national headquarters for response to the needs of the hurricane victims. A warehouse was donated to house over one hundred tons of emergency supplies provided by people of all denominations. With matching grants from the Canadian Government, over half a million dollars and over one hundred tons of emergence supplies were raised and delivered to refugees in Honduras. A new community of cement block homes, Canada Village, was established at Choloma in Northern Honduras.
In February 1975, Father Coughlan was transferred from his parish in Cobourg in order to carry on his executive direction of the Honduras Foundation. He was given the Pastorate of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Hastings which, being smaller, would permit him to discharge his pastoral; duties and yet carry on his onerous missionary project. As successor to Father Coughlan, Father Joseph Lynch, Sr., of Grafton was appointed ninth pastor of Cobourg.