During the seventeenth century, French missionaries - first the Franciscan Recollets and then the Jesuits - came to Southwestern Ontario to evangelize the Huron Indians. Although early missions were established along major fur trading routes, it would be some time before a church was formally established in the region. The mid-eighteenth century was a pivotal time for the Catholic Church in Upper Canada: a permanent location for what would become the first parish in the Diocese of London and the mother parish of the Catholic Church in Ontario was founded. Our Lady of the Assumption, originally located on the north shore of the Detroit River, was first moved to Isle du Bois Blanc (now commonly known as Bob-Lo Island) before a mission church was built on the south shore of the river.
At this time the French began to settle in the area of La Pointe de Montréal (present day Windsor) and by 1767 Our Lady of the Assumption was erected as a parish. By the early nineteenth century, southwestern Ontario had a few priests and a small Catholic population. The Church in Upper Canada was under the control of Québec, but soon would be at the hand of Bishop Alexander Macdonell who was appointed the ordinary of the newly created Diocese of Kingston in 1826. As the province’s Catholic population continued to flourish, the Vatican erected a diocese in Toronto in 1841 to tend to Canada West (the former Upper Canada) which included southwestern Ontario.
The slow-growing Catholic population of Southwestern Ontario greatly expanded in 1851 with an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants, arriving in wake of the Great Famine. The bishop of Toronto, Arman-François-Marie de Charbonnel, was aware of the pastoral needs of the growing Church in Southwestern Ontario which ultimately led him to make the decision to divide Toronto into three dioceses.
The Vatican announced the erection of the Diocese of London on February 21, 1856 and the Diocese of Hamilton on February 29, 1856. The second half of the nineteenth century proved to be a time of growth and expansion for the Church in Canada West. The first Bishop of London was Bishop Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault (1856–1866). Bishop John Walsh (1867–1889), the second bishop, spearheaded the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was completed in 1885. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were prosperous times in the diocese with a steady growth of Catholics and new churches. Bishop Dennis O’Connor, CSB (1890–1899) and Bishop Fergus Patrick McEvay (1899–1908) were fervent promoters of separate school education.
A new era for the Catholic Church’s history in Southwestern Ontario began with Bishop Michael Francis Fallon, OMI (1909–1931). A man of great accomplishment, Bishop Fallon worked to claim Catholic men and women their rightful place in the religious and social spheres. He was a proponent of Catholic education, founded St. Peter’s Seminary and supported the establishment of Brescia College.
As the world was dealing with the Great Depression, Bishop John Thomas Kidd (1931–1950) was the right man for the time. A leader of great piety and shrewd in financial affairs, Bishop Kidd managed to keep the diocese financially sound and adopted strategies to continue to open churches during the Depression. By the late 1940s, the face of the diocese quickly changed with the end of the Second World War as Catholic immigrants flooded the Southwestern Ontario landscape. The influx of the myriad Eastern and Western European Catholic immigrants resulted in the establishment of many new churches, national communities and a new diocesan culture. This period of integrating a new Catholic populous into the diocese also characterized the episcopacy of Bishop John Christopher Cody’s (1950–1963) who also organized the First Synod of the Diocese, established Peruvian missions, opened Christ the King College (now King’s University College), two junior seminaries (Sacred Heart in Deleware and Regina Mundi) and founded the Diocesan Catholic Immigration Centre. In 1962, coinciding with Bishop Cody’s 25th anniversary as a bishop, Pope John IIXXX named St. Peter’s Cathedral a minor basilica.
By the mid 1960s, both Church and society were evolving. Bishop Gerald Emmett Carter (1964–1978) led the diocesan-wide dissemination of the formal teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and implemented the new liturgical changes across the diocese. In addressing renewal and church reform, the bishop called upon clergy, religious men and women and the laity to participate in the Second Synod of the Diocese of London (1966–1969) resulting in a new diocesan administrative structure and a progressive move to have the laity actively participate in church affairs. Bishop John Michael Sherlock (1978–2002) ensured that many of these administrative changes were carried through and also adapted to the new realities of a changing church in the 1980s. A great shift in the concept of ministry emerged at the administrative and parochial levels. Lay people became increasingly involved in the ministry of the local Church and a new approach to have lay people working for a salary was introduced.
Bishop Ronald Peter Fabbro, CSB (2002-present) is known for his pastoral planning and focus on healing, revitalization and progress. With strong faith and dedication in preparing the diocese for a future full of hope, Bishop Fabbro initiated a process of parish and diocesan reorganization where the map of the diocese itself was essentially redrawn.
More information about the Diocese of London is available in "Gather Up of the Fragments: A History of the Diocese of London." Available for purchase by calling 519-433-0658.