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Newmarket's small band of Catholic pioneers built first church in 1840

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod looks at the roots of today's St. John Chrysostom Church

Let’s take a look at the history of the Roman Catholic Church of Newmarket. Over the years, several excellent books have been published on “the old lady on the hill”, located on Ontario Street West, but I will provide a short overview of the early years of the institution and its place in Newmarket’s history.

From the earliest days of the settlement of Upper Canada, the few Catholics living in the area stretching north from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe had to rely for spiritual guidance on the occasional visits of missionary priests.  

Although the first Catholic Church in York (Toronto), St. Paul’s, was built in 1822, and the clergy stationed there occasionally visited the surrounding area, it was not until 1830 that Father Edward Gordon arrived in the area to begin a regular visitation of the townships above York.  

For three years, Father Gordon made his rounds, usually on horseback, carrying all the things necessary for the administration of the Sacraments.  The first baptism in Newmarket recorded by Father Gordon, on March 4, 1830, was that of Elizabeth Holmes, daughter of Charles Holmes and Catherine Pulin. 

Because of the strenuous duties in covering his large area, his health soon broke down and it was necessary to relieve him. No regular visits were made to Newmarket until on Feb. 15, 1837, the Rev. William P. McDonagh wrote from St. Paul’s: “There is not a part of the Diocese that the spiritual wants of the people require to be consulted for more than Thora, Mara, Newmarket, West Gwillimbury and the Holland Landing”.

According to the Jubilee Volume - History of the Archdiocese of Toronto, published in 1892: “On the first of November, 1838, a meeting of the Catholics of Newmarket was held at the residence of Mr. John Walsh, storekeeper, to take into consideration the advisability of building a church there. All the Catholics in the vicinity, numbering but six, were present: John Walsh, Patrick Gibbons, Michael Gibbons, Michael Cannon, William Wallis and Francis Rafferty.  The sum of sixty dollars was subscribed but it was considered too small to proceed.” 

A second meeting was held the following year at the house of William Wallis. In addition to the six above named, three more were present and it was resolved to proceed.  A grant of half an acre of land was obtained from George Lount, and preparations were made to build a structure.

Accordingly, in 1840, this small band of Catholics of Newmarket had the happiness of possessing a neat, rough-cast church of the modest dimensions of 30 feet by 20, (St. Mary’s), where the Holy Mass was offered occasionally. The adage proved correct, if you build it, people will indeed come. After the erection of the church more Catholics settled in and around Newmarket and a small congregation soon developed. 

In August 1839, the following communication from Newmarket was received by the Right Rev. Alexander Macdonell, first Bishop of Kingston: “We, the undersigned Catholics do hereby with great respect take occasion to inform the Right Reverend Remigius Gaulin, Bishop of Kingston, that we have undertaken the building of a frame church in this town within less than three months ago and that said church is now roofed, lathed and mostly plastered and will be completed and glazed in less than another month, dimensions to be 40 by 24 feet”.  

The letter was signed by John F. Walsh, William Wallis and Michael McFarlane, and a footnote, added by Father John Cassidy, advised the bishop that the new church was indeed “well forwarded”.

The first priest stationed here was Father Quinlan, taking charge, it seems, about the time the church was built. He was succeeded in 1845 by Father Nightingale. Father Proulx came in 1847 and remained four years.  Then after a vacancy of about two years Father O’Loughlin arrived in 1853; Father McNulty, a diocesan missionary served Newmarket for two or three years.  He was followed by a series of priests.

Many immigrants, the majority of them being Irish Catholics, arrived in 1847 and 1848, but the fever raging at the time crowded the cemetery much more than the church.  The Story of St. Paul’s Parish by the Rev. Edward Kelly, published in 1922, mention Father John Baptist Proulx.  

“On going to the Newmarket Mission, Father Proulx had charge of all the townships along Yonge Street and those around the southern end of Lake Simcoe. During the typhus epidemic of 1847, Father Proulx was called to Toronto to help in the fever sheds. Here he did heroic work, and by reason of his almost preternatural strength and vigour, passed unscathed through that terrible period when so many of his confreres throughout Canada fell victim to the disease. 

“Some of the poor immigrants with the dire infection came into his own mission and he set up a hospital of his own, and, having some knowledge of medicine, with the aid of a French Canadian layman, who volunteered for the dangerous work, was very successful with the patients.”

This information was contributed to Ethel Trewhella’s History of Newmarket through the kindness of a Miss Leslie Clarke of the Chancery Office, Archdiocese of Toronto. Trewhella tells us that she contributed so much valuable information but alas because of limited space, it had to be condensed. 

Full accounts of the hardships endured, and the courage exhibited by the early priests during pioneer days in Upper Canada, constitute a thrilling chapter in Canadian annals and is well worth checking out.

As mentioned,  the first Roman Catholic Church in Newmarket was composed of a frame and roughcast church, named St. Mary’s. It sat on 1-1/4 acre on a hilltop in St. Patrick’s Ward, specifically the north side of Ontario Street, just west of Main Street. Provision for a burying ground was arranged immediately to the west of the church. 

The first separate school was held in the basement of the old church and it was said to have been well supplied with maps and other school supplies. The land for the building and the burying ground was purchased from George Lount, brother of Samuel Lount of 1837 Rebellion fame who conveyed it by deed on Dec. 22, 1854 to the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Toronto.

Largely through the efforts of the Rev. Father Harris, then the priest in charge, a separate school building was built in 1882 and was enlarged several times to accommodate an ever-increasing attendance.

The cornerstone for a new Catholic church, St. John’s, was laid on Sunday, May 10, 1874, by His Grace, Archbishop Lynch of Toronto, assisted by Father O’Reilly from Dublin, Ireland, and Father Kean, the parish priest.   

High Mass was conducted in the old church, which was adjoining. It is reported that the attendance was so large that many people could not obtain admission, and 30 young people were confirmed. Following this, the archbishop, in his official garments and wearing a golden mitre, led the procession of choristers bearing lighted candles to the location of the cornerstone that was then laid with impressive ceremony.

Among the articles deposited in the stone was a piece of rock from the celebrated well of Our Lady of Lourdes. St. Mary’s church continued to be used while the new one was being built.

The new church was dedicated on New Year’s Day 1875, by the most Rev. Archbishop Lynch assisted by Fathers Kean, Lowler and Cassidy, under its new name, St. John Chrysostom. For the dedication ceremonies, the edifice was filled to capacity.  

During the afternoon of the same day, the new cemetery, Calvary, almost adjoining the Newmarket Public Cemetery at the north end of Main Street, was consecrated.  It was said that the remains of those laid in the old burying ground near the Church had been removed to this new site previously, but we may never know for sure.  

In June of 1883, stone pillars were erected to support the beautiful iron gates at the entrance of this new cemetery. Thomas Dolan was the designer and maker of the large double gates, while Mr. Coyle designed and made the smaller one at the side.

Father Kean, the priest in charge at the time of the building of the new church, bestowed considerable pastoral care and was able to call every child in the parish, as well as their parents, by name. At that time, prominent names in the congregation were Dr. Hackett, Edward Murphy and James Kelman.

The coming of Father Harris opened a new chapter in church history. A scholarly gentleman, humorous and broad minded, he lectured for the Mechanics’ Institute and impressed his people with the value of a public library. 

He was distinguished as an athlete and by his friendly personality he won the esteem of the citizens of every denomination, so much so, that when he was called to the Deanery of St. Catharines, he was presented with a handsome set of silverware and a tribute. The presentation was made in the town hall by the reeve of the village on behalf of the people.

The story was told that when the Methodists were canvassing for money to build a parsonage on Main Street, they approached Father Harris. He was most polite and hospitable but regretted he was not permitted to contribute to the erection of such a church, but he would be glad to give them $10 to assist in taking the old one down.

This admittedly short history is intended to pique the interest of those who may wish to read one of the excellent books out there on the complete history of the church, perhaps Mr. Nicholson’s or Ms. Christine Way-Skinner’s excellent histories for additional information.

This church had established itself in the heart of an Orange Protestant community and for that very reason alone is a vital part of our local history surely.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Jubilee Volume - History of the Archdiocese of Toronto, published in 1892; The History of Newmarket’s Churches, Newmarket Era Series 1930s; The Newmarket Era; Newmarket’s Centennial 1857 – 1957 by Jack Luck; St. John Chrysostom Church website (



About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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