1847 was a defining year in the history of our region and the rest of British North America. Across the Atlantic in Ireland, a number of factors including the failure of the potato crop contributed to widespread famine. As many as one million succumbed to hunger and disease, and as many as two million left Ireland to find better circumstances. Of those, approximately 110,000 landed in Canada. For most, their first stop was at Grosse Île near Québec City. Many continued upriver to points such as Montreal, Bytown and Kingston. Approximately 38,560 made it to Toronto in 1847. This number is staggering when you consider that the population of the city at the time was only 20,000. Unfortunately, the Irish emigrants carried with them the Typhus epidemic that had struck at home. Roughly one in six died either on the voyage, in quarantine at Grosse Île, or upon arrival at their destination. This resulted in a problem that Torontonians of all denominations banded together to ameliorate: parentless children.
The city was not caught unawares. The calamity in Ireland was reported in local papers, and even Bishop Power wrote from Europe to ask Toronto Catholics for their prayers and charity. A Board of Health was formed, as well as a Widows and Orphans Committee. A barracks on Bathurst Street was given for use of the widows and orphans in August. The facility began operating in September.
The committee was sure to regularly give recognition to its donors in the Globe. Top of the October 16th, 1847 list of donors to the Emigrant Widows' and Orphans' Fund was The Honorable John Elmsley, a prominent Toronto Catholic, who donated £12. Church of England Bishop John Strachan gave 11 new pairs of shoes. In November Mrs. Justice Jones gave "several articles of new clothing." Mrs. Dr. Beaven gave "new clothing, woollen yarn, unmade drugget, calico, etc." In February 1848 Miss Dawson of Queen Street organized a bazaar to benefit the asylum. The 'Coloured Young Men's Improvement Society' and the International Order of Oddfellows also held events. Donations came from as far away as Uxbridge and Chatham.
In March the secretary of the Committee of the Toronto Destitute Immigrant Widows and Orphans Society reported that the committee resolved,
"That the cordial thanks of this Committee be given to the Committee of and the contributors to the Irish Relief Fund, for the large sum just received from their Treasurer amounting to £633 - together with 140 Barrels of Flour, and 132 Bushels of Wheat, being the Balance in Cash and Provisions, remaining on hand, belonging to said Relief Fund, which munificent contributions will enable the Committee, to continue to afford that shelter and support to the destitute Widows and Orphans, which they would have shortly been obliged to withhold, but for the timely aid so liberally supplied."The Widows and Orphans Asylum operated until the end of May, 1848. The committee left a report giving details of the previous nine months. Of the 627 who passed through the institution, 129 "went to relatives, found means, and left at own request," and 258 were "placed in a position to earn their own livelihood." The report gives a partial list of placements, and notes that several were given to "Rev. Mr. Kirwan."
Here in the archives, we have a list of some Catholics from Adjala township who were willing to take in orphans. The list was given to Bishop Power by Fr. Kirwin, pastor of St. Paul's. Those on the list were likely motivated by Christian charity, but they would have also benefited from extra help on the farm:
The events of 1847 left an indelible impression on the city. Many citizens, prominent and otherwise, were lost to the Typhus epidemic. Nevertheless, Torontonians and of all backgrounds worked together to care for the destitute who arrived on their doorstep. We pray that we have the courage to continue their tradition of cooperation and selflessness as citizens of Toronto, Canada, and the world.