Bishop Joseph F. Ryan was considered a “true son of the Diocese of Hamilton.” He was born in Dundas on 1 March 1897 and attended St. Mary Parish in Hamilton with his family. He was then educated at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, before attending theological studies at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. On 21 May 1921, he was ordained at St. Patrick Church in Hamilton. This strong connection to the Diocese of Hamilton was an important element of Bishop Ryan’s episcopacy. He was well-known within the community and inextricably linked to the growth of the diocese. Even now, 31 years after his death on 22 March 1990, people speak about him with a sense of deep personal association.
This quality of Bishop Ryan’s tenure, as the 6th Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton, makes a recent donation of photographs to the Bishop Farrell Library & Archives (BFLA) especially poignant. The donation included class photographs from St. Jerome’s College and St. Augustine’s Seminary, all of which depict a very young Joseph Ryan. The photographs were gifted to the BFLA by a great nephew of Rev. Joseph Cremmen, a contemporary of Bishop Ryan, who is also depicted in the photographs. Rev. Cremmen served the Diocese of Hamilton from 1921 until this death on 30 May 1975. He was active in many cities throughout the diocese including Brantford, Drayton, Cambridge, Hamilton, and Waterdown. Other clergy who went on to serve as priests for the Diocese of Hamilton are also included in these school photographs, such as Rev. Daniel Ford, Rev. James Leo McBride, and Msgr. Felix McHugh, all of whom were ordained with Bishop Ryan in 1921. Rev. Dr. John O’Reilly is also present. He was pastor at the Church of Our Lady in Guelph for 25 years and in 1962 was named Domestic Prelate (a title granting honorary membership in the papal household and some of the privileges of a bishop).
Looking at the photographs of these young men about to embark on a life dedicated to teaching and sharing the Catholic faith, it is heartening to know they ultimately worked side by side for the good of the Diocese of Hamilton. It must have been both challenging and enriching for Bishop Ryan to serve so closely with men he had matured with and studied alongside.
Bishop Ryan’s term as bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton, from 1937 to 1973, was a period of rapid growth. There was a population boom that required him to open more than fifty new parishes, doubling the number. Twelve of these were created to serve various ethnic groups that had arrived from eastern and southern Europe. Bishop Ryan expanded high school education throughout the diocese, created many new elementary schools, and helped to upgrade the status of St. Jerome’s College to that of a degree-granting institution. He also attended the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and skillfully guided the diocese through the period of change that followed. It can only be inferred that Bishop Ryan’s connection to his fellow priests and the diocesan community, to which he was so rooted, helped him to weather the adjustments and provide strong leadership for the Diocese of Hamilton. We are only as strong as those that support us!