“Thriving Holy Cross Parish Celebrates Fifty Years”
By John Mark Rowe (updated 2023 by parish)
“Confirm us in the faith of those who have gone before us…” This line from the prayer to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Hamilton in 2006 is a fitting opening to the history of Holy Cross Parish which celebrates its 50th anniversary. The sweeping roof of the modern Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church stands as a landmark on Maple Avenue and as a testimony to the Catholics in Georgetown and area. It links the faith of Catholics before us with our modern faith community. However the history of Catholicism in Georgetown and area stretches back to the early days of our township when Catholics were few and far between. We begin with the story of a backwoods mission.
When Esquesing Township opened to settlement in 1819, it was principally settled by the Scots Presbyterians and Irish Anglicans. As some Catholics moved to the township they found that the nearest Masses were being offered in the “Catholic swamp” at Lot 1, Concession 9 of Trafalgar Township. The first Mass was offered in the log home of the O’Hara’s about 1822 by Father Kelly. A log chapel was erected the next year and added to the circuit of Father Edward John Gordon (1791-1870), an Irish Anglican who studied for the priesthood after immigrating to Canada. Father Gordon’s register reveals six baptisms for Esquesing residents from 1830-1833. The first, in 1830, was for Alexander McKinnon, son of Daniel McKinnon and Jane Askew. The remaining five all took place on 11 November 1831. Randolph and Catherine McDonnell baptized their children being Janet, aged 13; Anne, aged 5; John, aged 3 and Mary aged one year six months. The fifth baptism was for Anne McKinnon, daughter of Daniel and Jane.
Father Gordon’s infrequent visits were improved in 1835 when a mission was established, the first in Halton county. This church, St. Peter’s, served Milton until they built their own mission church in 1859. The present 9th Line Church was built in 1882, but was closed for half a century from 1890 because of low attendance. Holy Rosary, Milton became a parish in 1938.
By 1842, the census showed a total of 66 adherents to the “Church of Rome” in the whole township. They would have traveled to St. Peter’s or to St. Patrick’s in Guelph.
Roman Catholics had celebrated the Eucharist in Guelph since 1827. In 1830, the citizens of Guelph erected St. Patrick’s Church, which was burned in 1844. In 1852, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) took charge of the parish at Guelph and set up a large mission area which included the counties of Wellington, Bruce and Grey as well as Dublin (near Acton) and Georgetown.
The 1851 census verified that Esquesing Township contained 240 Roman Catholics. This scattered community of believers was organized by the Jesuits into a mission at Acton and a second at Georgetown. Father Frank Dumortier, SJ added these missions to the other 26 he administered. A priest would visit monthly.
The establishment of these missions coincided with an economic boom in the area. The Toronto to Guelph Railway (later Grand Trunk) started construction in 1852 and lasted four years. The majority of workers were poor Irish immigrants. The rough and ready labourers were not welcomed in the area, often due to newspaper stories which confirmed stereotypical behaviour. During these years, burglaries were common, drunken labourers wandered the streets which led to a riot in Georgetown. Accidents like the death of boy named Mahon who fell from the railway bridge being built at Georgetown were coupled by a charge of attempted murder at Acton of Carroll by McConnell. Patrick Shannon was arraigned for stealing the watch of Thomas Kelly in Acton.
Life in Georgetown was rough, often due to these Irish Catholic immigrants. The twelfth of July and St. Patrick’s Day were great occasions for clashes between the orange and the green. However, as the main work on the railway moved on, the Catholics who chose to remain, settled in with their neighbours. The visiting Jesuit priest and his flock would hand out lilies to the marchers in the Orange Day parade.
The influx of Catholics however led to increase in church attendance. Father Dumortier was able to purchase land for a church. The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Diocese of Toronto purchased part of lot 15, East of Main Street in George Kennedy’s survey from Michael McLaughlin on 24 June 1854 for £87, ten shillings. Toronto Diocese was divided with the creation of Hamilton Diocese on 29 February 1856.
In 1855, a square wooden church was erected on the lot on Main Street near the present Park Avenue. It was consecrated to St. Patrick, the patron of Guelph’s first church. A letter dated 30 October 1855 referred to the “little chapel” of Georgetown.
The Jesuits then began to visit the new church twice monthly for about four years. However the collections were so small they did not even come near to paying the expenses of the priest’s trips. The small congregation was poor and could barely keep the church up. Local resident C. W. Young recalls the building in his Reminiscences. The Roman Catholic Church stood on Main Street, near the street which runs down to the old woolen mill… It was a square wooden structure without any adornment, and as I remember it, unpainted. The congregation was never a large one during my recollection.
The building soon became run down. A report by the visiting priest in 1867 noted, The seats are not worth renting. The people are generally well disposed, but are all very poor. They are not in the habit of paying dues properly so called, all consists in Easter and Christmas collections.
The congregation nevertheless remained active. The Halton Herald of 1876 reported a regular meeting of the Catholic Temperance Society at the church. Elections yielded John Bird as president; M. Cleary as vice-president; James Kelly, secretary; William Morgan, treasurer and Miss Mary Morgan as librarian. (Georgetown did not have a free public library until 1880). They had about 25 members who had pledged to abstain from drinking liquor.
St. Patrick’s Church managed to get the Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton to visit them and administer confirmation. Peter Francis Crinnon (1818-1882), an Irish Canadian, became Bishop in 1874 with a determination to replace unsuitable churches with proper places of worship. Alas, Georgetown’s poor church so offended the Bishop that he refused to set foot in the building which he called a disgrace to the faith. The congregation knew they must now consider the erection of a more suitable house of God.
The project began in the winter of 1879. New foundation stones were hauled from the quarries at Silver Creek for the foundation of a new brick church. A collection drive netted $700 towards the costs. James Barber, leading industrialist of Georgetown, offered to exchange the St. Patrick’s lot for another one in the Young and Barber survey across the road. Lots 11 and 12 were purchased by the Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Hamilton in 1879. Alas enthusiasm waned and people began to quarrel over “their pews” in the small church. Lots 11 and 12 today contain #128, 130, 132 and 134 Main Street South.
In 1882, a fire consumed the original Barber family home across Factory Street (Park Ave.) from St. Patrick’s Church. Wealthy businessman John Roaf Barber proceeded to build an imposing Queen Anne mansion on the site in 1883. The neighbourhood suddenly achieved a status with the well-to-do. This undoubtedly influenced the congregation of St. Patrick’s Church.
In 1884, the Wesleyan Chapel became available after Methodist church union. The asking price was too steep for the Catholics. In spite of the good intentions of the congregation, they were not financially sound enough to pursue their dream. The only solution that was open was the power of prayer! Father Fleck’s prayers were answered the following year when a widow, Mrs. Helen Crawford offered a substantial interest-free loan!
Father Fleck decided to purchase land for their new church closer to where the church adherents lived – the railway district. The two church properties were sold and the stone from St. Patrick’s lot was transferred to the Guelph and John (Mill) Street property.
In July 1885, Bishop James Carberry (1823-1887) traveled by train to Georgetown to lay the cornerstone for a church dedicated to the Holy Cross, with St. Patrick as a secondary saint. The design was prepared by Irish-born Joseph Connolly(1840-1904), the well-known Toronto architect who designed St. Patrick’s in Hamilton, the Church of Our Lady in Guelph, St. Joseph’s in Chatham and St. Peter’s Basilica in London. Construction was supervised by Mr. Clohecy of Hamilton, the stones of the first church, apparently used in the foundations, being transported by John Gibbons and many non-Catholic friends.
The simple stone church was a substantial but affordable new home with a new name – Holy Cross. It was completed shortly before Christmas 1885. The building cost $4000. The mortgage held by Mrs. Crawford, was paid off within five years! Mass was celebrated every second Sunday and on important holy days. The Church reported 200 parishioners by 1893.
The year 1893 marked the establishment of St. Joseph’s, Acton as a parish, supplied with Diocesan priests. The Jesuits gave up their mission at Acton and also gave the missions of Holy Cross, Georgetown and St. Peter’s, Oustic to St. Joseph’s to administer.
Mass continued to be celebrated in Georgetown on two Sundays a month but under the first Pastor, Rev. Patrick Haley, there was a marked change in attitude towards the community at large. With a resident priest in Acton, Church activities began to grow and the parish became much more active in the broader community. Father Haley also encouraged an active parish life with picnics, concerts and lectures.
Father Hailey was followed by Rev. L. J. Feeney (1898-1908); Rev. J.J. Arnold (1908-09; 1910-11); Rev. E. R. Walsh (1909-10); Rev. J. J. Treanor (1911-14); Rev. J. J. Flahaven (1914-15); Rev. Thomas P. Doyle (1915-19); Rev. William G. Goodrow (1919-22); Rev. F. J. McReavy (1922-29) and Rev. J. Leo McBride (1929-41). In 1936, a new parish was created at Sacred Heart, Rockwood and Oustic was transferred to that Church as a mission. Thereafter, the Mass was celebrated each Sunday in Georgetown.
Under Rev. McBride, stained-glass windows and a bell were installed and a group of dedicated parishioners undertook the excavation of the basement to provide a parish hall. As far as can be recalled, Mr. Ambeau, engineer at the Provincial Paper Mill, made the technical preparations, while the work was done by Martin Cummings, Dick Licata, James Boyle, William Carney, Henri Isley, J. J. Gibbens, P. tucker, Sid Hulme, William Carlyn and Mr. Caruso. In those days there was no sacristy and the priest would vest behind one of the side altars. A little cubicle was first added and then a proper sacristy eventually added.
Father Vincent J. Morgan became Pastor in 1941 and supervised many improvements, redecorating the church about 1951. The gallery was enlarged to increase seating capacity. New pews, Stations of the Cross, electrical fixtures and a new floor covering were all installed. During his last few years, the Catholic population grew rapidly, so that by 1955, two Masses were needed each Sunday with the assistance of Resurrectionist priests from St. Jerome’s College, Kitchener.
The growth of the parish was due to the influx of new residents to Georgetown. Credit must go to two groups in particular – migrants from Bell Island, Newfoundland and Portuguese immigrants from the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. The community eventually quadrupled, necessitating its independence as a full-fledged parish. Father Morgan had his farewell service on 29 April 1956. He remained as Pastor to St. Joseph’s, Acton until 1972!
Toward the end of 1955, the Most Rev. Joseph F. Ryan (1897-1990), Bishop of Hamilton, acquired additional property adjacent to the church, including a house suitable for a rectory. The Franciscan Capuchan Fathers from Downsview were invited to accept the pastoral care of the new parish and the first parish priest, Father Anselm Spacey, took charge on 6 May 1956. When Father Spacey was elected Provincial of the Capuchin Order in the following September, he was succeeded by Father Thomas van Laer, who remained as Pastor until 26 June 1960 when father Otger Devent was appointed.
On 17 October 1958, the first Separate School, Holy Cross, was dedicated and opened by Bishop Ryan. Its first principal was Tom Fitzmaurice, and the first permanent teacher engaged was Mrs. Lorena Norris who remained on the staff until her retirement in June 1979. The continued population growth necessitated a four-room addition, plus an auditorium in 1961.
The first full-time assistant, Father Zeno DeRoo, took up duties in the parish on 2 January 1962, being followed by Fathers Martin Vandersteen (1967); Gerald Craig; Mark Neilssen; Patrick McCarroll; Pierre Wood; and Michael Sawchuk – all of the Capuchin Order.
With a continuously expanding community, the need for a larger building was becoming obvious and during 1963, Richard Dzwonnick was engaged to design a new church and hall. On 23 March 1964 construction of Holy Cross Church on Maple Avenue was begun by general contractors Harm Schilthuis and Sons. Bishop Ryan authorized construction of the rectory adjacent to it, in August of that year. The new church was opened and blessed by the Bishop on 14 March 1965.
The construction of a bold hexagonal church, which predates the reforms of Vatican II, was a remarkable achievement for a small town. Upon entry into the church the worshipper is presented with the baptismal font, the vessel by which one enters the church. In a direct line from the font, stands the focal point of the church, the altar, elevated to draw one’s eyes upward where a magnificent twenty-foot wrought iron figure depicting the second coming of Christ hangs. Parishioner and artist Gastone Fantuz was responsible for creating the works, along with the simplistic wrought iron Stations of the Cross.
Almost a quarter of the parishioners were French speaking, many of whom had a limited knowledge of English and who were most anxious to have a separate parish. On 25 January 1965 L’Association Canadienne-française made a formal request for the old church which would soon become vacant. Bishop Ryan had been aware for some time of the likelihood of this request but was not anxious to create a new parish for the 150 or so francophone families in Georgetown. At the same time, the group was demanding a French language Kindergarten at Holy Cross School, where 138 pupils in grades one to eight were already in bilingual classes. When the Georgetown Separate School Board refused, due to lack of space, the Minister of Education was petitioned to reverse the decision and group threatened to withdraw all francophone pupils if this was not done. It was on 15 June 1965 when Bishop Ryan was finally able to secure the services of a French-speaking priest and the old church was then taken over by the French-speaking Catholic community to continue as Sacré Coeur Parish.
Pieta Council 6026 Knights of Columbus was instituted on 21 January 1967, the first Grand Knight being William J. Kent and since inception, a youth group of Columbian Squires has been formed.
In November 1971, due to continued expansion of the community, a second Separate School, St. Francis of Assisi, was blessed and opened by Bishop Ryan. Its first principal was Joseph Huston.
In January 1975, the Charismatic Prayer Group was formed by Brother Michael Sawchuk. This group flourished with the appointment of Rev. Dave Cote as pastor and the arrival of Winston Robinson. Mr. Robinson became the spiritual director of the group. Some of the earlier members assisted in the formation of similar groups in Brampton and British Columbia.
September 1976 marked the formation of the Holy Cross Parents’ Association under the presidency of Tom Ramautarsingh, to foster and encourage the best possible environment for education at the school.
International attention focused on refugees from Indo-China in 1979. Barry Aucott became chairman of the Holy Cross Indo-Chinese Association, which brought two families to Georgetown in 1980.
In June 1978, Father Devant became seriously ill, requiring a long hospitalization and convalescence. Father Pierre Wood took over many responsibilities for running the parish. A parish Council of 15 members was formed that year with Jim Langedyk as chairman to help with church activities and building maintenance.
The Capuchin Fathers found it necessary to inform the Bishop in 1980, that they could no longer administer Holy Cross Parish. Several illnesses and deaths among the Capuchin Fathers forced them to reconsider their commitments. Consequently on 3 September 1980, Reverend David Cote (-2005) was appointed to take charge of the Parish.
In March of the following year, Father Cote hired Mr. Winston Robinson as pastoral assistant. Reverend Murray J. Kroetsch was appointed associate pastor at Holy Cross in June 1981. His part-time work as diocesan director of Liturgy became full-time in 1982 and Father Murray was replaced by Rev. Cornelius O’Mahony as associate Pastor.
Bishop Paul Reding (1925-1983) came to Georgetown on 17 October 1981 to celebrate Mass in honour of the parish’s 25th anniversary. This was followed by a formal dinner.
Another special Mass was celebrated in February 1983. Bishop Anthony Tonnos (b.1935) came to concelebrate with Fathers Dave Cote and Otger Devant to honour the retirement of the Church mortgage. Father Otger, who had returned from retirement in Holland for the event, died a few days after the happy occasion.
Increasing generosity of parishioners following the mortgage burning, allowed for the re-shingling of the massive roof and renewal of the lighting system. In 1983, a chair lift was installed, making the sanctuary wheel-chair assessable for the first time. A new chapel in the original sacristy areas was constructed and is often used for daily Mass.
Father Kroetsch was followed by other priests who served as associates under Father Dave Cote: Rev. Con O’Mahaney (1982-1985), Rev. Ken Miskiewicz (1985-1988), Rev. David Reilander (1988-1989) and Rev. Joe Durkacz (1989-1991).
Father Dave worked with his associates and the Parish Council to achieve many things for the large parish. His work in establishing Holcro Senior’s Residence was recognized by renaming it, Cote Terrace. He worked to establish the St. Vincent de Paul Society in town. Another successful initiative during his time was the staging of “His Last Days”, a passion play produced by a large number of parishoioners. “His Last Days” was the brain child of Father Dave Cote with the assistance of Fred Marks as stage Manager, Joe Del Guidice as Director and a cross section of the parishioners ranging in ages from 5 years to eighty years old. The play was presented for two years in a row and was sold out each time. Other churches in the community asked that we extend the number of days it played. It was a great presentation before Easter. There were set builders, painters, seamstresses, makeup artists, musicians, vocalists, others responsible for feeding the crew at each rehearsal, advertisement and various other duties – a wonderful way of bringing a large cross-section of the parish together in one project! These parishioners committed to a half a year of practice and planning at the Church and played to great acclaim in 1987 and again the following year.
Holy Cross Church was the site of an ordination for the first time in history on 30 September 1988 when Rev. Paul McAuley, a native Holy Cross parishioner, became a priest. Rev. Omer Fagin, a widower, was also ordained at the Church.
In June of 1991, Father Dave Cote and Father Joe Durkacz were transferred out of the parish, being replaced by Father Edward House and Father Daniel Cyr. For three years, Father House and his associate Daniel Cyr cared for the parish. On 29 June 1994, they were transferred and the present pastor, Father Peter Hundt was appointed along with associate pastor Ian Duffy.
In September 1996, Cynthia Tobin opened Georgetown’s third English Catholic School, St. Brigid. This took the pressure off of Holy Cross School, which had expanded into the former Howard Wrigglesworth School next door. The joy of spacious halls was short-lived. Continued expansion of Georgetown, south of the West branch of the Credit River, necessitated the construction of a fourth English Catholic School. Miss Tobin opened St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic School in September 2001.
The opening of St. Brigid presented an opportunity to bring the Word of God to Georgetown South. In the spring of 1997, an additional Mass was celebrated weekly in the school gymnasium.
Although Father Duffy left in June 1997, he led several local youth to the World Youth Day in Paris, France in August. The Rev. Kevin Cull replaced Father Duffy at Holy Cross. Fr. Cull was a relation of Father Vincent Morgan, who had guided Holy Cross from mission to parish. He was sent to Rome the following year to study Canon Law for the Diocese of Hamilton.
Rev. Frank Freitas joined the parish in 1998 and worked hard with Father Hundt to meet the needs of the growing parish and its burgeoning school rooms. Four schools and two priests meant that school visits and celebrations had to be approached in a different way. The days when Father Otger Devant used to visit every class and talk for 40 minutes were definitely over!
After three years at Holy Cross, Father Freitas moved on and Father Hundt had the assistance of Rev. Wayne Lobsinger (2001-2003), Rev. John van Hees (2003-2004) and Rev. Adrian Lee, appointed in June 2004. During this time, Father Hudnt also took on the final stages of training for two seminarians, who have recently been ordained, Rev. Wojciech Kuzma and Rev. Jerzy Tomon
Christ the King Catholic Secondary School on Guelph Street opened in September 2002 with transfers from Bishop Reding Catholic High School in Milton and new local students, under Principal Nijole Vaitonis. Our first Catholic secondary school opened with 640 students.
In November 2002, the Catholic Women’s League celebrated 50 years of service to the parish. Original president Beth Yates Chappell attended the Mass celebrated by Bishop Tonnos and the banquet.
The growth of Georgetown prompted Father Hundt and the Parish Council to look at expanding the parish capacity. Although Father Dave Cote had purchased land for a new parish, it was decided to plan on building an entire new parish plant at Mountainview and Argyll Road. Fundraising continues towards the day when this dream will be realized.
The Year 2006 has already proven to be a banner year. Father Peter Hundt left the parish and indeed the Diocese on 16 April and was installed Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Toronto on 25 April 2006 at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Hamilton. Bus transportation was provided for parishioners to attend the event, which included students from St. Catherine’s School.
Father Lee carried the burden of operating the Parish, including First Communion and Confirmation, from April until 28 June. The new pastor of Holy Cross, Rev. David Wynen took over operation of the Parish on that date. Father Dave came to Holy Cross from St. Matthew’s in Oakville.
The year 2006 marked the 50th Anniversary of Holy Cross Parish and 151 years since the building of the first Catholic Church in Georgetown. We have certainly built upon the achievements of our ancestors in faith. Their early vision of the Catholic Church in Georgetown has been confirmed and the parishioners of Holy Cross are proud to bear witness to their faith.
Fr. David Wynen continued his tenure as Pastor from 2006 to 2013, leaving as his legacy a new Catholic church for Georgetown! Fr. Dave over saw construction of the new Holy Cross parish church at the corner of Argyll and Mountainview in Georgetown South. The beautiful new church has seating for 900 people, and will continue to be a place of prayer and worship for many decades to come in the growing community of Georgetown and Halton Hills.
From 2013 to 2018 Holy Cross parish was shepherded by Fr. Kevin Cull, who saw much growth in the community during his time in Georgetown. Holy Cross is thankful for his years of dedicated service.
During the fall of 2018 until January of 2019, Msgr. Edward Sheridan served as the Administrator of the parish, faithfully guiding the people during his time at the church.
In January of 2019, Fr. David Walter was named the new pastor at Holy Cross parish. He continues to serve the people of Georgetown and Halton Hills to this present time. Assisting Fr. Walter have been Associate Pastors Fr. Hayden Staczala (2020-21), and Fr. Carlos Diaz (2023-present).