"These Treasures of the Church of God": Catholic Child Immigration to Canada

By McEvoy, Frederick J. | Historical Studies, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

"These Treasures of the Church of God": Catholic Child Immigration to Canada


McEvoy, Frederick J., Historical Studies


1 I would like to thank Dr. Joy Parr and the journal's anonymous assessors for their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I, of course, am responsible for its remaining imperfections.

Between the 1870s and the depression of the 1930s one of the great population movements of modern times occurred: the emigration of some 98,000 British children to Canada. This work was undertaken by a number of philanthropic agencies, the best known of which is that established by Dr. Thomas Barnardo. Of these children, 8,228 passed through St. George's Home in Ottawa, which became the primary receiving home for Catholic children in Canada. Boys were sent to Canadian farms as agricultural labourers, while girls were placed in domestic service. Most of these children were under fourteen years of age, and only a minority of them were actually orphans. For these and other reasons, historians have been severely critical of child emigration, though not unmindful of the benevolent motives of the agencies involved. (1) While Catholic participation in this movement has been touched on in the literature, the majority of attention has been paid to the non-Catholic agencies. This paper provides a preliminary examination of the Catholic role in child emigration. (2)

The nature of the Roman Catholic church in Great Britain changed dramatically in the nineteenth century. The restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, under the leadership of Cardinal Wiseman, created a normal institutional structure for the church. The composition of the membership of the church was drastically altered by an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom became part of the mass of urban poor in the great British cities, and whose needs overwhelmed the existing resources of the church. (3) Church authorities were faced with a social - and spiritual - crisis that could not be ignored.

Wiseman himself considered concern for the poor to be central to Christian responsibility, and education the means to raise them from their poverty. He was well aware of conditions in his own see of Westminster, which he graphically described in a pastoral letter in 1864:

Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms a huge and almost countless population, in great measure, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of fifth, which no sewage committee can reach - dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten. (4)

Wiseman's successor at Westminster, Cardinal Manning, was an even greater advocate for the poor. Throughout his career he played an active role in various movements for social reform. He sat on a number of Mansion House committees dealing with charitable issues, served on the Committee on Distress in London and was appointed to the royal commission on the housing of the poor. He was a supporter of Florence Nightingale, an anti-vivisectionist, and a fervent advocate of the temperance movement. Manning also believed in government-assisted emigration as a means of countering unemployment, and in 1886 became a member of the Association for Promoting State-directed Colonization. (5) However, he was especially touched by the plight of children, whom he cared for deeply. He firmly believed that "the care of children is the first duty after, and even with, the salvation of our own soul." (6) He was appalled by the existence of destitute and homeless children, which he saw as a symptom of the breakdown of family life. His attack on the problem was two-fold - the establishment of homes for boys in his diocese, and emigration, particularly to Canada. (7)

Catholic participation in the child rescue movement of this period was essential. This movement was largely driven by Evangelical Protestantism which underwent a revival in the 1860s. …

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