Father Dowd had firm belief in Montreal
It’s not often
that a mere parish priest can get away with defying the pope. But Father Patrick Dowd did, for which Montreal and its Catholics can be grateful.
Father Dowd was born 200 years ago this month in Ireland. Educated there and in France, he was ordained in 1837, accepted into the Paris-based Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice in 1848 and immediately sent to St. Patrick’s Church (now Basilica) in Montreal, the new home of Montreal’s Irish Catholics.
He took on his new duties with astonishing force. In 1849, he was instrumental in founding St. Patrick’s Orphanage to care for children whose parents had died in the typhus epidemic two years before. He helped found St. Patrick’s Hospital in 1852. Later, he was the driving force behind St. Bridget’s Home for the old, infirm and destitute (which by 1928 had evolved into the Father Dowd Memorial Home).
Such energy quickly drew him to the attention of his superiors, and in 1852 Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel of Toronto urged Rome to appoint Father Dowd as his coadjutor. Pope Pius IX duly issued the bulls elevating him to the episcopacy but, much to Charbonnel’s surprise, Dowd refused the appointment.
Perhaps Charbonnel should not have been surprised, for as Father Dowd’s friend and fellow Sulpician Pierre-Adolphe Pinsonneault later wrote to him, “Obstinacy is a defect in M. Dowd.”
Obstinacy, indeed. He had a mixed bag of reasons for shunning the appointment. He distrusted his ability to get along with Charbonnel. He feared he was ill-equipped to deal with the Protestant realities of Toronto. Most pertinently, he somehow feared that accepting the mitre would jeopardize his soul’s salvation.
And lying behind all this was his desire not to abandon the Irish Catholics of Montreal, advancing whose welfare he believed was his true calling.
Obstinate though Father Dowd was, Bishop Charbonnel was not about to give up. Through the first half of 1853 he pressed Dowd three more times to come to Toronto. Parallel to this, he went so far as to petition the Holy See to command the priest to accept, which only prompted Dowd himself to write to Rome outlining why he could not.
In May, Father Dowd received a letter responding to Charbonnel’s petition. “It is necessary that you accept the burden,” he read. “This is the will of the Holy Father.”
But he wasn’t done yet, and asked “to postpone the hour of sacrifice” until he had received a reply to his own letter. This came in June, and was delivered by Father Pinsonneault.
“When I delivered it into his hands,” Pinsonneault wrote the next day, “he felt rather nervous for a while. Then, having invited me to follow him into his room, he broke the seal and read it silently and then exclaimed, ‘Deo gratias, I am safe.’ ”
As Father Dowd explained to his friend, he had stated to Pope Pius that nothing short of a positive command would induce him to accept. “Well, although I see that the Holy Father wishes me to submit,” Dowd continued, “yet he declines to force me by a positive order. Ergo, I am not obliged to accept.”
It was a thin logical reed, and the Canadian bishops as well as Dowd’s Sulpician superiors saw it as such. Through June and into July they increased their pressure — but to no avail. Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal went so far as to compose a letter deploring Dowd’s flouting of the authority of the bishops and, indeed, the pope. Such disobedience would oblige Bishop Bourget to dismiss him from the diocese.
But before it could be delivered to Father Dowd, Bishop Charbonnel got wind of the letter. Evidently convinced at last of the depth of Dowd’s torment, he urged that any idea of such discipline be dropped, effectively ending as well the campaign to make him his coadjutor.
Later, Father Dowd would be offered the bishoprics of Kingston and of Halifax, but these, too, he was successful in refusing.
He served as curate of St. Patrick’s until December 1859 when at last he was named its pastor. He served the church and its people with undiminished vigour virtually to the day of his death on Dec. 19, 1891.