Good to Know Stories of Caledon

Father Leo: Rare Century+ Photos Now in Public Domain

Photo: Pilgrims at Jerusalem
Written by Dan O’Reilly

Photo above: The Pilgrims at JerusalemFather John Leo O’Reilly and group of other priests who accompanied him to the Holy Land are shown on the right hand side in this group photo of Pilgrims sitting on the steps the Monastery of the Assumptionists.

More than 100 years after they were taken in Europe and the Holy Land, a fascinating collection of pre-World War 1 photographs has now been digitalized and posted to a web site created by the Archdiocese of Toronto archives.

The photos include one of a dirigible flying over Rome, a religious procession at Lourdes France, an overview of Constantinople (now Istanbul), a camel caravan passing through Nazareth, and the Dead Sea.

Pasted into an album with an accompanying travel diary, they were taken by Father John Leo O’Reilly, who was born, raised, and educated in Wildfield. He is buried at the family monument at the St. Patrick Church cemetery there.

Father John Leo O’Reilly

Father John Leo O’Reilly

Ordained a priest in 1912 Father Leo (most of his colleagues and relatives used his second name)  left for Rome the same year to study at the Pontifical International Institute, “Angelicum”. It was a theological university whose origins date back to the 13th Century.

Where the money came from for his studies, and later his travels, is somewhat of a mystery. When he was about the age of one, his father was killed – so the family story goes – in a barn raising accident. His mother later had to sell the family farm.  So perhaps it was proceeds from the sale and scholarships which financed his studies.

In addition to being a scholar, Father Leo was a rather good amateur photographer who chronicled his travels throughout Europe. That included different regions of Italy, France, and Switzerland.

Along with a group of other priests, he travelled to the Holy Land in 1913. There he took a series of equally interesting photographs, two of which are rather intriguing. The first shows than 100 individuals sitting on the steps of the Monastery of the Assumptionists.  The caption written by Father Leo is: The Pilgrims at Jerusalem. Father Leo is in the photograph, so obviously he didn’t take actually take it.

As these people just didn’t bump into each other, there undoubtedly was a large pilgrimage to Jerusalem that year and perhaps an official photographer took it. Unfortunately, the Archdiocese of Toronto could not provide any background.

The second photograph is one I think about a lot. Titled Russian Pilgrims at the Jordan (Jordan River), it raises more than a few questions. How did Father Leo know they were Russian Pilgrims? Did one of them speak English? Who were they? From the grainy black and white image, they don’t like they’re the Russian nobility.

Perhaps the most important question is: What happened to them? The photo was taken in 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War 1. Were they killed in that global conflict, the Russian Revolution or the ensuing Civil War?

The photo album was preserved for more than a century by the O’Reilly/Rickett families. It was acquired by Father Leo’s brother, his only sibling. Then later to the brother’s daughter and eventually to her two daughters. A few years ago those daughters, who are distant cousins, gave the album and the diary to me. Just before the outbreak of COVID, I donated it to Archdiocese of Toronto archives to ensure that the album and the diary would be kept in the public realm and that the story of Father Leo would be known. It is a story with a certain amount of poignancy.

After obtaining a Doctorate in Divinity in 1914, he returned to Canada that same year. He became a professor at St. Augustine’s Seminary Scarborough (which is still operating) and was appointed vice-president in 1925. He was widely known throughout Canada and the United States as a theologian. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia in 1930 at the very young age of 43. His untimely death was a shock to his many cousins and, judging by newspapers articles, many others as well.

According to those accounts, anywhere from 250 to 300 clergymen participated in his funeral procession and motorcycle police had to hold back the mourners so the procession could proceed unhindered. After the funeral at St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown Toronto, a lengthy funeral cortege made its long way to Wildfield for another service and internment.

To view the online exhibit visit:

Once there click on “Details” beneath each photo to link to a page with more information, and the option to see the full-size image (on the right-hand side) where you can zoom in on each photograph.

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About the author

Dan O’Reilly

Dan O’Reilly is a freelance writer specializing in design and construction, the environment, and historical preservation. He is also a regular contributor to the Daily Commercial News and Ontario Home Builder, the official magazine of the Ontario Home Builders Association.

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