Catholic Colored Mission of Windsor, 1887-93, The - Ontario Heritage Trust

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The Catholic Colored Mission of Windsor, 1887-93

On August 19, 2015, the Ontario Heritage Trust, in partnership with St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church and the Windsor Emancipation Celebration Corporation, unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate The Catholic Colored Mission of Windsor.

The unveiling took place at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church in Windsor, Ontario.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

THE CATHOLIC COLORED MISSION OF WINDSOR, 1887-1893

    The first Roman Catholic mission for Blacks in Canada was established in Windsor in St. Alphonsus Parish in 1887 under the leadership of the Very Reverend Dean James Theodore Wagner. The “Catholic Colored Mission of Windsor” was created to serve disadvantaged Black children, while encouraging Blacks in Windsor to adopt the Catholic faith. It was first located in the original frame church building at Goyeau Street and Park Street East. With the support and partnership of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph (RHSJ), a new mission school and orphanage was built next to the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital near Erie Street. The sisters of the RHSJ were responsible for the management of the mission. Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary taught at the school. The mission educated and cared for vulnerable children of all races. The school and orphanage was an important initiative that provided access to education and child welfare at a time before government-funded social services were available.

    LA MISSION CATHOLIQUE NOIRE DE WINDSOR (1887-1893)

    La première mission catholique à l’intention des Noirs du Canada est fondée à Windsor en 1887, dans la paroisse St. Alphonsus. Initiative du très révérend doyen James Theodore Wagner, la « mission catholique noire de Windsor » vise à servir les enfants noirs défavorisés, tout en encourageant la population noire de Windsor à se convertir au catholicisme. Elle prend d’abord ses quartiers dans l’église en bois d’origine, érigée à l’angle des rues Goyeau et Park Est. Avec le soutien et la collaboration des Religieuses hospitalières de Saint-Joseph, une école et un orphelinat en lien avec la mission sont construits à côté de l’Hôpital Hôtel-Dieu, près de la rue Erie. La gestion de la mission est confiée aux sœurs de cette congrégation, tandis que les Sœurs des Saints-Noms de Jésus et de Marie assurent l’enseignement scolaire. La mission a éduqué et pris en charge des enfants vulnérables de toutes les origines ethniques. L’école et l’orphelinat ont constitué une initiative importante en faveur de l’accès à l’éducation et à l’aide à l’enfance, à une époque où l’État ne finançait pas encore les services d’aide sociale.

Historical background

St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church’s coloured mission began in 1887 out of the efforts of the Very Reverend James Theodore Wagner, Dean of Windsor, Ontario to serve disadvantaged Black children in the town. The mission was created to assist Black families with the building of a mission school and an orphanage, while proselytizing Blacks in Windsor to the Catholic faith. 

The first location of the free school was St. Alphonsus Hall, the original church frame building located on Goyeau Street at Park Street East. The school began on January 11, 1887.1 A secular teacher was hired and taught for the first month until Sister Camille de Lellis from the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary religious community (SNJM) took over at the beginning of February. 

Reverend Wagner and the church undertook several initiatives to raise money in aid of the coloured mission. The Diocese of London held a bazaar on February 19, 1887 to benefit the school.2 That same year, Reverend Wagner travelled to Europe to raise funds for the coloured mission. Wagner, Bishop John Walsh and Father Philip Brennan travelled through Austria soliciting paintings and relics from monasteries and had them shipped to Windsor. In Paris, France Reverend Wagner arranged a paid speaking engagement hosted by the League of the Sacred Heart where he preached to a crowd of 5,000.3 While in Europe during December 1887, Reverend Wagner received a letter of support written by Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, a papal office in Rome. The letter congratulated Wagner’s efforts, encouraged him to continue to grow the mission, and called for Catholics to provide support.4 While Wagner was in Europe, the work of managing the school for Black children was carried out by assistant priest Father Charles McManus until he passed away that fall. 

Flyers and letters were sent around the world to solicit funds. One group Wagner reached out to was the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph (RHSJ) in Montreal, Quebec. They informed Wagner that they focused on establishing hospitals and proposed that if they worked together to build one in Windsor, they would support the coloured mission as a joint cause. Both parties came to an agreement and soon after Mother Josephine Paquette with Sisters Lamoureux, Carriere, Boucher and Victoire of the RHSJ order moved to Windsor in September 1888 to assist in establishing the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, Windsor’s first hospital, and expanding the coloured mission. 

Reverend Wagner and his contingent returned to Windsor in March 1888. A committee, chaired by Reverend Wagner, was organized comprised of sisters of the RHSJ and the SNJM, along with the diocese bishop. At the end of the school’s first academic year in June, the school was suspended so the hall could be used to house the sisters of the RHSJ who had been invited by Wagner to begin the hospital building project. There was no school for the next 17 months while the hospital and orphanage asylum and school building were under construction on the property they shared. They purchased six vacant lots on Ouellette Avenue to build the hospital and facilities for the coloured mission.5

The construction of the new 100-bed care facility included a new building to house an orphanage and a school program behind the hospital by Erie Street. It cost just over $4,450 to build the orphanage, a two-and-a-half-storey frame building, insure the property, and purchase furniture and other necessities. They received charity status from the Ontario government October 1, 1890, qualifying them for government support.6

On May 19, 1890, the orphanage registered its first two charges: two white siblings. The first Black children, three young sisters, arrived in June. Then, in July, a brother and a sister were taken in, concluding the intake for 1890. In 1891 and 1892, nine children were admitted to the orphanage. Eight were Black and one was white. Reverend Wagner established the orphanage to accommodate 20 children. He and the sisters of the RHSJ continued to collect money to fund the operation of the mission. They received donations from churches of surrounding parishes and obtained private donations from community members, such as wealthy distiller Hiram Walker, who gave a $500 contribution to the building efforts. For the 1891-92 fiscal year, the orphanage’s revenue and operating costs were $470.11 and received $37.80 in government assistance.

In the day school, students received academic and Christian instruction as well as training in housework, sewing and knitting. Two of the older children assisted in the hospital. Children learned how to read and write and received catechism instruction to prepare for, and participate in, Catholic customs, including attending mass, taking communion, the Feast of the Sacred Hearts and Christmas services. Students were also taught to memorize Bible verses. Sister Patrice of the RHSJ order was the teacher when the school reopened.

In their efforts to evangelize Blacks in Windsor, St. Alphonsus held separate catechism classes for Blacks on Sundays. A Black man who was a patient at the hospital was baptized June 26, 1890. At least five of the children were baptized and six had their first communion and confirmation. Wagner wanted to continue the expansion of the mission to include a separate chapel for Blacks, speaking to the harsh reality of racial segregation of the time.7

In the spring of 1891, the new bishop of the Diocese of London, Denis O’Connor, and RHSJ Mother Superior Justine Bonneau felt that the approach to the mission project had to change because of the challenges they faced in operating the school. Mother Bonneau thought that there should be a focus only on girls because of the classroom management issues that they were experiencing with the boys. The sisters documented that some of the boys in the mission school had not been accepted in the public school for Blacks because of their misbehaviour. A number of them were dismissed from the mission school. Mother Bonneau expressed her feelings that the girls had a better chance. Bishop O’Connor expressed the difficulty in focussing on helping both Blacks and whites and felt they should focus their charity work solely on white Catholic children and seniors. Reverend Wagner was disheartened by the choice they faced as this was a cause dear to his heart. The parish priest interacted regularly with the children. He watched their recitals, brought them small gifts, and imparted encouraging words. Wagner hoped for social elevation for the children of the mission through a Christian education. For the academic year beginning in September 1891, it was decided to limit the school to only Black female students.

In all, 93 Black children were registered in the school (12 in care and 81 externs), but on a day-to-day basis, only six to 10 attended classes. During the time it operated, the orphanage asylum had a total of 20 children in its care – 12 Black children (10 girls, two boys) and eight white children (four boys, four girls). The children served by the mission were between the ages of six to 15 years old.8

The children who were housed in the orphanage were not orphans per se. Many came from families living in difficult circumstances, whose parents wanted better for them. Some children were “half orphans,” having a parent who was widowed and left to care for several children. Their families may have otherwise found it financially difficult to provide an education for their children. Many parents likely could not afford the quarterly school rates. The children were counted in the 1891 census enumeration with their biological families. None of them were adopted out. Except for three young sisters, the children in care went back to their families during the summer months. The families who sent their children to the mission school and to the orphanage likely took advantage of the charity of free schooling, shelter, food and clothing offered by St. Alphonsus Church and the RHSJ and SNJM sisters. 

Of the children in the orphanage, six were born in Windsor, three came from other communities in Essex County, and four were born in the state of Michigan. They were born to parents who themselves were either born in Ontario or in the United States. Past relatives at some time or another permanently or temporarily immigrated to the Windsor area in pursuit of a better life, stable employment and educational opportunities. Parents and older siblings were employed in a range of occupations to support their families. These children were born one, after the end of American slavery, and two, generations from Canadian slavery. The legacy of racism in the institution of enslavement had a very real impact on the lives of these children and their families.

There was a history of limited educational opportunities for Black children in Windsor, other parts of Essex County and Ontario. They were barred from attending common schools in the town. Parents fought for integration and sought alternatives for their children to receive an education. Black families wanted a good education for their children. The first separate school for Blacks opened in 1862 at McDougall and Assumption after a temporary shed-like structure was rented since 1858. Before this, parents who could afford to do so sent their children to private schools run by Black teachers. Others sent their children to mission schools established by other Christian denominations or enrolled them in Sunday schools. 

Many parents challenged the fact that their taxes were collected to support public schools that their children could not attend because of their race. In 1859, a committee of Black residents fruitlessly petitioned the Chief Superintendent of Education Egerton Ryerson to intervene in the practise of racial exclusion in public schools after Clayborn Harris’s request to have his son attend a nearby school was rejected by white school trustees. Twenty-four years later, businessman James L. Dunn unsuccessfully sued the school trustees in Windsor to allow his daughter to be admitted to Central School.9

By 1889, there were three elementary and high school separate schools for Catholics and four public elementary and high schools to accommodate the growing urban centre. There was still only one segregated separate school for Black children until 1891 when Mercer Street Public School opened its doors as the first legally integrated school in Windsor. Students, however, were separated by race inside.

Shortly after the mission’s reopening, they encountered several challenges. Many of the students had inconsistent attendance. The teacher had to deal with the classroom management of the boys. The enrollment decreased at St. Alphonsus’s mission school, partially attributed to the opening of the Mercer Street Public School. The parents who used the mission and other Blacks in Windsor demonstrated a low interest in converting to Catholicism, preferring to maintain their faith in Baptist and Methodist Episcopal denominations. Wagner’s interest in the welfare of Black children and their families residing in Windsor and his efforts to evangelize them was also affected by the opening of the hospital, the project that made the school and orphanage a reality. The white clientele using the services of the hospital found the idea of Black children in such close proximity to be repugnant and complained about being in contact with them. This sentiment was reflective of the wider public opinion of the time where whites did not want to comingle with Blacks in Windsor. 

On March 4, 1893, the day school and orphanage for Windsor’s Black children closed its doors forever when the three young sisters who were admitted in June 1890 were reclaimed by their father once the eldest sister sent a letter to him. They had stopped, however, enrolling students in January 1893. Reverend Wagner was “grieved at the disappointment” of having to discontinue the mission. Wagner was passionate about the well-being of disadvantaged Black children. His genuine concern for this cause through the establishment of a mission that focused on African Canadians was also a direct challenge to the prevalent racial attitudes of the time. He saw that establishing social institutions to support families in Windsor was a benefit to all. Although St. Alphonsus Church’s mission for Blacks was short lived, it had a lasting impact on the children, families and community it served for four and a half years. 

In the summer of 2015, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital Foundation installed and unveiled a granite bench and stone marker on the original site to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the opening of the orphanage and school.


© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2015


1 School Register, 08.11.001-6, St. Joseph Region Archives of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, Kingston.

2 Catholic Record, 12 February, 1887: p. 8.

3 Windsor Evening Record, 11 March, 1901: p. 3.

4 The Irish Canadian, 12 April, 1884: p. 4.

5 Colling, Herb, Turning Points: The Detroit Riot of 1967: a Canadian Perspective, Toronto: Dundurn, 2003.

6 Ontario. Legislative Assembly, “Report upon the Houses of Refuge and Orphan and Magdalen Asylums for the year ending 30th September, 1890.” Sessional Papers of the Legislative Assembly of the 7th Legislature, Volume 24, Part 1, No. 6, 1892: p. 92.

7 "Annals of the Religious Hospitallers of the Hôtel-Dieu of Windsor, Ontario 1888-1903 Volume 2 & 3 of 4," written by Reverend Mother Joséphine Paquet, transcribed by Sister Antoinette Lajeunesse (1962) Translation by Mister Aurèle Bénéteau. Community of the Religious Hospitallers of Hôtel-Dieu of St. Joseph, Windsor, fonds, 04.03.009 & 04.03.010, St. Joseph Region Archives of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, Kingston.

8 School Register.

9 Winks, Robin. (1997.) The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd Ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. ; Knapp, Jessica. (2013). “On the Importance of Education ... it is as necessary as the light – it should be as common as water, and as free as air … ”: Perpetuating Racial Discrimination through Education in Nineteenth Century Windsor and Sandwich," The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 2. Available at: http://scholar.uwindsor.ca/gljuh/vol1/iss1/2.