A History of Blessed Sacrament Parish

A History of Blessed Sacrament Parish

The account below was written by John Grace. It covers the period of 1913 ~ 2000.

The beginning was on Easter Tuesday, March 25, 1913. The full name was “The Blessed Sacrament Parish”, formed by the southern portion of St. Patrick’s Parish and the open fields of the suburb called the Glebe ready to be filled by a slowly spreading city. It was, literally and figuratively, a great act of faith. “There were 200 families living”, as the first pastor John O’Gorman wrote, “a great distance from their parish church” and, since “no street car ran early enough Sunday morning to bring them to the 7:30 mass there, the total number of communions among the Catholics of the Glebe was by no means large.” This account of the parish’s origins is revealing of the Church rules of the time (a fast from midnight before communion) and Ottawa’s Sunday street car schedules.

The full boundaries, as Archbishop Gauthier set them out, were then as they are now: on the north, the predecessor to the Queensway, the Grand Trunk Railway tracks; the Rideau Canal on the east and south, and Booth Street on the west.

The story of how the parish grew within these boundaries is too rich to be contained in this sketch. The full chronicle is found in the parish’s own records of births and deaths, of baptisms, first communions and confirmations, and of the priests who served.

The important early years are authoritatively documented in a year book of more than 100 pages, published by Father O’Gorman in February, 1933, a souvenir of the opening of the new church the previous May. What follows here gives only a flavour of the passing years, concentrating on the beginning—on how we came to be what we are. By relying largely upon Father O’Gorman’s first-hand account, the founding fathers can be singled out. On April 1, 1913, parishioners, at the call of the pastor, met in St. Matthew’s school (the predecessor of Corpus Christi) and elected a building committee. The members were: F.X. Laderoute, P.H. Murphy, J.J. O’Meara, M.J. O’Neill, Thomas Clarey and T.J. Tobin.

The parish did not wait for a building to begin to function. Only 12 days after that first meeting, on Sunday, April 13, the first parish mass was said by Father O’Gorman in the chapel of the Precious Blood Monastery which stood on the Rideau Canal near Bank Street Bridge (it is now a condominium). Father O’Gorman reports that three masses were said there each Sunday for the next six months, and the chapel was crowded to capacity.

A church of course had to be built. The parish had inherited, as a dowry from St. Patrick’s parish, three lots on the comer of Percy Street and Fourth Avenue. They had been bought for $3,050. Two more lots on Fourth Avenue were needed and, after some months of apparently tense negotiations, they were purchased for the surprisingly high amount for those days, $5,000.

The Archbishop decided that before building the church, a parish hall should be erected to serve as a temporary chapel. Work began on August 1 and, on October 26, the first mass was celebrated there by Bishop J.T. McNally of Calgary. The parishioners, Father O’Gorman commented, had built a “simple but chaste chapel”. His hope was that they would form a “model” and a “missionary” parish.

Archbishop Gauthier and the Apostolic Delegate to Canada (who was pleased to have a church now much closer to his residence on what was then known simply as the Driveway) were among the clergy attending the chapel’s first solemn mass said by Canon Sloan, parish priest at St. Brigid’s. The sermon was preached by Father P.S. Dowdall of Eganville. The singing was provided by the University of Ottawa’s student choir. The Archbishop said the parishioners had built “a prettily furnished chapel”, the first step to a “stately parish church”. Father O’Gorman reported that the Archbishop “looked for the Blessed Sacrament Parish to become one of the most important English-speaking parishes in his diocese”.

Any immediate plans to get on with building that stately parish church were disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. The war took Father O’Gorman away from his parish from February 1916 until September 1919 during which time he served with great distinction as a military chaplain with the Canadian forces. He had a passionate belief in the rightness of the cause. Before he volunteered, he preached a series of sermons on the religious motives for enlisting: He was wounded in the Battle of the Somme. When sent home to convalesce for a few months in the summer of 1917, he bought the site for the first rectory, “The Glebehouse” at 191 Fourth Avenue. Before he returned, the contract for the building was signed.

When he was away, Father P.C. Harris was the “zealous” acting parish priest, completing and furnishing the Glebehouse, re-organizing the choir and conducting “a very successful Fair and Tombola”, as Father O’Gorman reported.

During the war, 117 parishioners volunteered, like their pastor, for overseas duty. Seven were killed, including three first cousins of Father O’Gorman.

Vignettes from the years:

1919: Father O’Gorman resumes his duties as parish priest on the first Sunday of September. Father Harris, the “war pastor” remains as curate.

1920: It is decided to pay off the chapel’s debt of $20,500 in three years and begin a building fund for the new church.

1921: The number of Sunday masses is increased from three to four. The number of families increases by 30 in the year, standing now at 380.

1922: The population of the parish stands at 1,825, double that at its founding. The debt is now wiped out, thanks to receipts of $13,000 for the year: $1,800 is set aside for the building fund.

1923: The Glebe Boys Scout troop is established.

1924: Every student (31) of the parish school (then called St. Matthew’s) who has written the high school “Entrance” examination is successful.

1925: Rev. Robert Lowrey, a Basilian father, is the first person born in the Glebe to be ordained a priest. He is ordained in Blessed Sacrament on December 19 by the Apostolic Delegate.

1926: The new Corpus Christi School with eight classrooms is opened.

1927: Rev. Ernest A. Maloney is ordained. After almost six years as curate, Rev. E.F. Bambrick is presented with a “purse” on his transfer to another parish.

1928: Rev. M.L. Curtin replaces Father Bambrick.

1929: The Apostolic Delegate ordains Rev. Wilfrid Nevins in his parish church. Rev. A.E. Armstrong, the director of Catholic Charities, takes up residence in the Glebehouse and assists with parish work until his appointment as parish priest of St. Margaret Mary’s. (Father Armstrong was to become a long-serving parish priest of Blessed Sacrament).

1930: A parish building committee is struck; Rev. Martin Mooney is appointed curate.

1931: Parishioners subscribe more than $12,000 to St. Patrick’s College.

Shortly after Easter on the 18th anniversary of the foundation of the parish, the contract for the new Blessed Sacrament Church is awarded. The contract price is $219,525. (The final cost was $260,000, the average cost of a Glebe house today).

On July 5, the new church’s cornerstone is blessed and laid by the Archbishop of Ottawa.

1932: Rev. George Larose of the parish is ordained by Archbishop Forbes of Ottawa. Father O’Gorman decides to visit only one-third of the parish, the other two-thirds being visited by his two assistants. But the parish, under this system, will be visited twice annually.

On May 8, the new church is blessed and opened for worship.

The completion and opening of the new building is the most exciting event in the history of “The Blessed Sacrament Church” to give the full title which its founding pastor preferred.

The first thing to be said about the new church is that it was in its time, quite unlike any other Catholic church in Ottawa and probably the country. It was elegant and uncluttered. The interior seemed bare, without the colour and decoration which Catholics associated with a Catholic church. Thus, to many, this did not look like a Catholic Church. It was too severe, plain. To understand the impact, one should compare this church to other Catholic churches of the time with which people were familiar: St. Patrick’s, the mother church, St. Brigid’s or the old St. Joseph’s church. This new structure looked more Protestant than Catholic and the apparent severity caused a stir. Yet Father O’Gorman laid down a concept for the architects which was scrupulously faithful to first liturgical principles. He was, it was said, “ahead of his time”; in fact, he believed that he was returning to basics.

But let Father O’Gorman describe what he was doing for himself. He explained it so well that the overwhelming majority of his parishioners not merely accepted the concept, they came to glory in the freshness of the design, the elegance and classic beauty.

Father O’Gorman, was the intellectual leader of the Ottawa English Catholic clergy of his time. He had studied European church architecture, new and old. He argued that churches should not be multiplied like printed copies of a book. He wanted both faithfulness to Christian architectural tradition and originality. He believed his church achieved both: “Some of its features recall architectural traditions of the fourth and fifth centuries…The treatment of these very features…give a striking individuality to the church. The massive low altar with its Greek monogram, the choirs adjoining the Sanctuary…the unobstructed interior…all recall the Churches of the Roman Empire of the fifth century.”

These were the features he said, which “make the Blessed Sacrament church so different from the average Canadian church as to appear at first sight novel”. He believed that the church repaid study and, to enable his parishioners (and anyone else) to better see its “nobility and character’, he wrote a text for a visit to the church, a guidebook for the traveller coming upon this new territory.

A few excerpts:

“The east end is dominated by the rose window with its marvellous stone tracery. Its design is unusual – a heavy Maltese Cross in the centre surrounded by a series of cinq-foils.”

“The sanctuary is flanked…by choirs. It is dominated as is the whole church, by the altar, The altar is of the severest possible type. The material is Bothnia granite, its mensa or sacrificial table consists of one solid block of this granite (10 feet long, three feet, four inches high and two feet thick weighing over seven tons”.

“Here is a set of Stations of the Cross in bas-relief, made especially for this church, in which figures are presented with a simplicity and straightness of line that from one point of view is modernistic and from another…so primitive as to be almost pre-medieval.”

“One of the interesting things about the church is its different appearance at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year. In bright sunlight its various shades of light Indiana limestone shine with splendour; in moonlight its outlines have an enchanting appearance; lighted at night its traceried windows pour out light and the rose window reveals to the outside world its seven archangels; but perhaps the church is most beautiful when covered with a mantle of snow.”

Perhaps because he heard some criticism, Father O’Gorman was glad to quote the Catholic Record’s favourable review of the new church, in which it was described as an example of the progress of the liturgical movement towards truer Catholic architecture. So it was not a Protestant church after all!

A word about the Architect, John Gibb Morton

Beginning in 1921, Morton freelanced on his own, soliciting work from local Baptist, Presbyterian and United Church congregations, but most importantly, from the Roman Catholic Archdioceses in Toronto and in Ottawa, which provided him with the bulk of his commissions over the next fifteen years. By 1924 he was working full time under his own name, and quickly developed a reputation for his robust and finely proportioned designs for churches in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, and in Nova Scotia. He possessed a wide-ranging scholarly knowledge of Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic precedents, and used these to great effect in his ecclesiastical commissions in Toronto. His finest work must surely be the remarkable design for Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Ottawa ( 1932-33), a convincing interpretation of the modern Gothic style clad entirely in Indiana limestone. Impeccably detailed, this work has a dignity and presence rarely attained in Canada.

The opening was a splendid day-long affair–no less than six separate services were held. An Ottawa paper reported the presence of more than 50 members of the local clergy, four of the “leading members of the hierarchy of Canada” and “some of the best known Catholic padres” of what was still called the Great War.

In the afternoon, Anne Margaret, infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. F.P. McKenna, was the first person to be baptized in the new church.

Perhaps a disproportionate amount of space and attention has been given here to these early years now only dimly remembered. But the church itself is such a distinguished, original structure that its story and the remarkable priest who built it deserve to dominate an account which never promised completeness.

Less than a year after the new church opened, Father O’Gorman was dead. His parishioners and the whole English Catholic community suffered a sense of loss beyond that experienced by the death of any Ottawa priest before or since. His education—he knew at least four languages and was often addressed as Dr. O’Gorman, having earned a doctorate in theology—as well as the strength of his personality made him the natural leader of the English Catholic clergy. His passing was all the more shocking because of its unexpectedness.

He had been admitted to hospital with an attack of appendicitis. The operation seemed to pose no difficulties. Within days, on April 24, 1933, he died. His parishioners mourned him and attended his funeral in the church he had triumphantly opened only the previous May. That church is his enduring monument and there are still those in the parish who remember the remarkable man himself.

A parish must have a pastor and, only a few days after Father O’Gorman’s funeral, Rev. George Prudhomme, parish priest of St. George’s, was named Blessed Sacrament’s second parish priest. The two men had complementary strengths. Father O’Gorman was intellectual, somewhat austere, meticulous. Father Prudhomme was a former football hero (at the University of Ottawa, he was always proud to recall), highly approachable and informal. He loved children and was known to entertain them with puppets. If he was not a distinguished speaker, he compensated by his great kindness and his common touch. He presided somewhat as the chairman of the board over a rapidly growing congregation.

The number of Sunday masses increased from three to four, most of them crowded to the doors. The job of paying off the church debt was begun. These were years of consolidation, not innovation except perhaps, for Father Prudhomme’s love of colour and banners. At special occasions, the church’s pillars would be covered with purple and gold hangings; for funerals, with black. He was much less the strict liturgist than his predecessor!

Father Prudhomme left Blessed Sacrament for St. Patrick’s parish in September 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. The new pastor was Father A. E. Armstrong, who moved over from St. Margaret Mary’s. That seemed natural progression of the time, Blessed Sacrament being second to St. Patrick’s in the unofficial hierarchy of English parishes.

Father Armstrong was no stranger. He had lived at the Glebehouse in Father O’Gorman’s time, and he had a reputation for both business acumen (before he entered the priesthood later in life than usual at the time, he worked in banks in Ottawa and Smiths Falls) and his close knowledge of Catholic social agencies which he strongly supported.

He brought his own style, self-deprecating, understanding, a problem-solver and an ecumenist before his time, His father had not been a Catholic, a fact which perhaps accounted for his instinctive understanding of and helpfulness in inter-faith issues.

During the war years, masses were attended by service men and women in the parish who were stationed at Lansdowne Park and Dow’s Lake. Angus L. MacDonald, the former premier of Nova Scotia, a member of the War Cabinet (for the Navy) lived in the parish and this tall distinguished figure became quickly familiar at Sunday mass.

Father Armstrong kept his parish steady during the war years. The numbers of parish members enlisting far exceeded those of the earlier war. And so did the list of those killed in action. Their names, with all the parish’s war dead, are remembered on a plaque which Father Armstrong had installed.

During the years immediately following the war, the parish had more members than any time before or perhaps since. The Glebe was full of young families raising many children. The exodus to the suburbs had not begun. It was not uncommon to have extra rows of folding chairs lining the walls of the church to accommodate the overflow on Sundays. Even the choir area beside the altar was crowded with persons unable to find a seat in the body of the church.

These were the years of long-serving and popular curates such as Fathers Vincent Hogan and Leo Costello (as a former military chaplain and the holder of a flying license, he was a hero to the altar boys whose numbers often filled the sanctuary). Father John Macdonald, who lived at the Glebehouse, and was head of Catholic Charities in Ottawa, assisted at weekend and other services. They were the years of an extraordinarily active CYO (whose dances in the church basement drew overflow crowds week after week), Holy Name Communion breakfasts (catered by women of the parish), active Boy Scout and Girl Guide troops. The parish was an unofficial community centre.

Father Armstrong, the good administrator, nurtured these activities. He did not impose, but the organization knew that the parish priest was not pleased when he found beer bottles on the steps from the basement to the sanctuary on a Saturday morning after a Friday night CYO party.

The stained glass windows on both sides of the nave are a lasting legacy of Father Armstrong. The only stained glass in the church had been the rose window over the main altar. The new windows were installed 20 years after the church was built and after six years of planning. In his persuasive quiet way, Father Armstrong approached parishioners privately to donate individual windows. Thus was the project completed without diverting parish funds.

The window designs followed the general ideas laid down by Father O’Gorman. “Under no circumstances”, he had written, “will windows be accepted which darken the Church or which resemble paintings rather than stained glass or which makes only a mediocre devotional appeal”.

Costing $20,000, the windows were described by the Ottawa Journal as “outstanding examples of the glaziers’ art”. They were produced in Munich, Germany, took 18 months to complete and two days to install. They were first seen publicly In May 1953.

Father Armstrong (though, like most of the parish’s pastors, he was in turn Canon and Monsignor, he preferred “Father” and eschewed purple), was parish priest longer by far than anyone before or since. He “retired” only In January 1961 after 22 years of remarkable service.

His successor, Rev. J. Leo Lesage, had the generosity and good sense to invite Father Armstrong to make the Glebehouse his Ottawa retirement home. Though he spent winters in Florida (serving parishes there and playing his beloved golf—he was an honorary member of the Ottawa Hunt Club), Father Armstrong never really left Blessed Sacrament until his death, in Florida in 1977.

Father Lesage brought fresh energies. His first job was to build a rectory and new sacristy attached to the church on the land which had stood vacant since the parish was formed – and been an ideal spot for touch football. He took a close interest in the project and it bears the strong imprint of his taste.

Having built a rectory, Father decided (democracy had not reached the parish) that the Glebehouse was no longer needed. He made it a gift to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (the “Grey Nuns”) and it was turned over to that order in 1962.

Father Lesage’s other tangible legacy is almost as important to the parish as building a residence. He had the inspiration to commission a distinguished Canadian artist whose baptismal church was Blessed Sacrament, Gerald Trottier, to execute a crucifix to replace the traditionally-crafted original.

Mr. Trottier has described the relationship between the artist and his patron as “robust” (see Mr. Trottier’s full account below). But, as Mr. Trottier has written, the very tension between individuals with strongly-held opinions “leads to the best results”. Mr. Trottier recalls his relationship with Father Lesage with “fondness and respect”. Only two casts of the sculpture were made, the other being purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.

Corpus Christi school always received great attention from the early pastors, and no one was more interested in the school than Father Lesage. Yet his special affinity with older persons made it an easy step for him to move, upon retirement in 1973, to St. Patrick’s Home where he was the much-loved chaplain until his unexpected death in 1981.

Blessed Sacrament’s next parish priest, Rev. D. D. Macdonald, was a son of the parish. His parents had lived on Fourth Avenue, only a few homes west of the church. He was the brother of Father John Macdonald. It was a comfortable home-coming for “Father D. D.” and his parishioners, particularly those who had known him and his family.

When Father Macdonald took over a “de-population” of the Glebe had occurred. Families were moving to the suburbs. Blessed Sacrament had become a parish of older persons. It was also the time of great changes in church-going. There was new freedom to pick and choose one’s parish. Old loyalties broke down and the numbers of active parishioners dropped significantly. It was a difficult inheritance for any pastor. Father Macdonald persevered with gentleness, faith and holiness, raising his parishioners sights beyond the parish, keeping the need of the Third World before his people.

Given his interest in other parts of the world, it was fitting that Father Macdonald seized the opportunity to open the church to new Canadians from South-East Asia, notably Korea. They supported the parish financially, provided their own choir for the 12:15 mass, used the church auditorium for meetings and were made to feel at home.

The parish was also enriched at this time by the work of a priest with, for Ottawa, an unusual background. He was Father Vincent Perrera who, after ordination in India where he was born, came to St. Paul’s University to advance his studies.

He quickly became much more than a “boarder” at the parish. Over the years, he made many friends, especially among the young. He established such deep roots that he became a priest of the Ottawa Archdiocese.

Father Macdonald retired in September 1987. His curate, Father Joseph O’Donnell served as acting parish priest until the appointment of Blessed Sacraments sixth pastor, Rev. David Corkery on September 7, 1988.

A new era in Blessed Sacrament began with the coming of Father Corkery. The remarkable attendance at the 75th Anniversary celebration on November 26—a packed church for the mass said by Archbishop Plourde, a large reception and a dinner for 320 persons afterwards—was evidence of years of both loyalty to and affection for the parish.

Father Corkery brought enthusiasm and remarkable organizational skills. Within months, he conceived and planned the successful anniversary observances and established for the first time at Blessed Sacrament a formal and working parish council.

After eight years at Blessed Sacrament, Father Corkery, (then Monsignor), was appointed pastor of St. Patrick’s. His successor was no stranger to the parish. Father Leslie Laszlo had been living in the rectory, assisting Father Corkery and serving as chaplain to Ottawa’s Hungarian Catholic community.

He brought with him a unique personal history: an escape to the United States from Hungary during the 1957 revolution and a distinguished academic career. He added to his scholarly qualifications as a political scientist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a teaching appointment at the University of Virginia. In 1967 he came to Montreal to become a faculty member at Concordia University.

That was the background to the late vocation to the priesthood which brought him to ordination at Blessed Sacrament in 1991 and gave him such a close affinity to the Hungarians as their chaplain.

The Hungarians, it should be noted, brought a presence which went beyond the “Hungarian Mass” on Sundays and their welcome financial contributions. From participating in parish bazaars to bringing a Hungarian ambiance to the parish hall, with colourful wall designs, they added a lively new dimension to Blessed Sacrament. All this made Father Laszlo’s change of status from chaplain to parish priest a natural transition. The vitality of the Hungarian presence was perhaps not widely enough recognized and, somewhat ominously, parish numbers were in decline.

In summer 1997, Archbishop Marcel Gervais decided that St. Ignatius Church in Vanier should become the new home of the Hungarian Catholic community and Fr. Laszlo its pastor. At the same time Father Joseph Le Clair became the eighth parish priest in Blessed Sacrament’s history.

Parish organizations with life cycles of their own also make a claim for attention: The Tabernacle Society (in an annual report, Mrs. J. D. Larose, president, wrote that the society had for 19 years been making and repairing church vestments and linen and decorating the altars with flowers); the Confraternity of Our Lady of Compassion whose object was to obtain the return of all English-speaking nations to the Catholic faith; The Glebe Young People’s Club whose first achievement was the presentation of a drama “My New Curate” starring Neil O’Donnell as Father Dan and Ray Labarge as Hale, Fagan’s English friend; The Glebe Boy Scout Troop (John Amyot qualified as Scout Master).

The Holy Name Society, the Catholic Women’s League, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society each deserve its own history. So, too, the CYO and of course, the parish schools. The concerts and communion breakfasts, bazaars and dances are all part of the story.

But no attempt at completeness has been made. But perhaps enough has been reported to catch something of the heritage, the blessings and a feeling for what has gone before.

Father O’Gorman once wrote, “In any history, it is the unusual which is chronicled; what happens regularly every day, though far more important, is left unrecorded”. He was, of course, right as he was in so many things. And he should have the last word.