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Publication: Globe and Mail add link
Issue: 18 Apr 2009
Web Link: link


From army padre to devoted parish priest

Cited for bravery during the Second World War, Father Dalton often urged Ontarians to pray for world peace


Special to The Globe and Mail

April 18, 2009

At 106, Rev. Michael Dalton was the oldest Roman Catholic priest in Ontario and probably in Canada. Although he continued serving mass 30 years after retirement, sometimes dispensing the eucharist from a tray attached to his wheelchair, he is mostly remembered for bravery on the front during the Second World War.

Father Dalton survived being shot at three times while observing death all around him. According to an oral history prepared for St. John the Evangelist Church, near Windsor, Ont., one of his most tragic war memories was his inability to reach wounded soldiers after the 1943 raid on Dieppe, France.

With nearly a thousand men killed in one battle, he desperately wanted to get there to offer last rites. Permission was granted. While protecting his mass kit in the folds of his overcoat, Father Dalton prepared to cross the Strait of Dover. Suddenly a storm whipped up in the channel, making the journey too dangerous. He was not granted permission again. Instead, he remained in Britain writing letters to the families of fallen soldiers, breaking the tragic news.

Another time, he defied orders from headquarters and crossed into "no man's land" in order to offer communion to men on the front. "I consecrated extra hosts ... and started off on foot," he wrote in his diary. "Their mortar guns appeared in the moonlight temporarily covered from the rain. After some searching and hollering, I found the men."

In 1943, Father Dalton was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the war. He was also made a member of the Order of the British Empire by King George at Buckingham Palace, the first Catholic priest to receive this recognition.

Michael Dalton was the seventh of 11 children born to Morgan Dalton and Mary Sullivan near Goderich, Ont. One July afternoon in 1896, six years before he was born, his father hitched up the wagon and rode into town for supplies. While there, he met the newly elected prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, who suggested that he quit farming and take a $1,000-a-year job as an Inland Revenue collector for the Canadian government. Years later, these increased earnings gave Michael the opportunity to enter the seminary.

At the age of 14, after attending elementary school in Huron County, Michael boarded at Assumption College in London, Ont. He graduated in 1925, well on the path toward priesthood.

He entered the University of London's St. Peter's seminary in 1926 and graduated two years later with a BA in philosophy and theology. In 1932, he was ordained as a priest and said his first funeral mass for the repose of the soul of his mother.

In 1939, after spending several years at Windsor, Ont., parishes, Father Dalton wrote these few, simple words to his bishop: "If you are called upon to furnish chaplains for the service, I shall be ready on land, sea, or air." With the bishop's blessing, he soon joined the Essex-Scottish regiment, the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Hamilton Light Infantry.

He went on to serve with them in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. But his first days in uniform were spent on home turf, administering last rites to his father as he lay on his deathbed.

In 1940, he boarded the Empress of Australia and sailed out of Halifax Harbour accompanied by nearly 50 ships, including a battleship and several destroyers. Two weeks later, they docked at Glasgow and he entered the war arena, carefully documenting events in his diaries.

"Young blokes get lonesome," he wrote in 1942. "Big scheme on Friday ... weather cold, manoeuvres hot."

Father Dalton held weekly "Padre Hours," opportunities for soldiers of all denominations to talk about anything at all, sometimes mere days before heading into battle. Each time invasion was imminent, knowing that they might not survive, the men asked him to gather farewell letters for home.

Two days before D-Day, Father Dalton took off his army cap and, sliding the alb (liturgical vestment) over his uniform, he said mass from the hood of his jeep. He also gave blessings while travelling from ship to ship. According to the oral history, Father Dalton set up a makeshift altar with a few sturdy planks laid across empty gas cans, or from the bow of a ship where men stood among ropes and anchors.

He even said mass in churches that had been pierced with shellfire. One time, he turned to give the final blessing only to discover that the men were all gone - they had ducked into the trenches for safety from an attack.

When troops were on the move, he occasionally carried the weapons of weary soldiers.

Father Dalton was hit by shrapnel three times, twice while in his vehicle and once while saying midnight vespers on solid ground. "The bombing commenced and before he could take shelter underground, shrapnel pierced through the jeep," the oral history notes.

"We trusted in God and kept the powder dry," the priest wrote at that time.

He emerged from these attacks basically unscathed, reporting that his most serious war injury was nothing more than the common cold.

Meanwhile, during these turbulent years, Father Dalton still managed to enjoy small breaks from the battles. For instance, he described sharing an excellent pot of Mulligan stew ("made by a Jewish cook"), as well as spending a pleasant evening teaching Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra, made famous by Bing Crosby, to a group of Dutch nuns.

Father Dalton returned to Canada in 1945 and to his life as a parish priest in the London area. In 1946, as pastor at Most Precious Blood Parish, he was also known for his innovative approach toward promoting Catholic Church missions. He would grab a loudspeaker and head out into the streets, announcing the importance of spreading the good word worldwide.

In 1951, probably in direct response to his experiences during the war, Father Dalton urged his parishioners to gather and pray for world peace. This was part of London Bishop John Cody's Holy Year Mission Crusade of Prayer and Sacrifice.

Father Dalton was frequently seen, surrounded by a retinue of altar boys, either on horseback or on foot, visiting members of his parish. "Even as he pulled into his rectory, many [children] ran up to greet him. How reminiscent this must have been of the children in Belgium who showered the Canadian jeeps with fruits and flowers when the soldiers arrived on the scene," according to the documented history of those years.

In 1970, Father Dalton retired to Sacred Heart Villa in Courtland, Ont. But for many years he continued to serve mass in the villa and as a guest in nearby parishes. For a long while, he tended gardens behind the home and when the fruits and vegetables were harvested, he set up a stand out front and handed them out to weekend visitors.

On May 5, 2007, the chief operations officer of the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association established a fly-by in honour of Father Dalton's 105th birthday. The priest appeared deeply reflective as the planes flew by to salute him.

Thinking back on his life as a priest, Father Dalton estimated that he baptized 400 babies, married 40 couples, buried 50 bodies, visited 4,000 homes and slipped the host into the mouths of more than 5,000 people at the communion rail. He accomplished all this, as well as being a war hero, a war diarist, and - well into his 80s, 90s and centenary - a survivor laden with inspirational stories.


Rev. Michael J. Dalton was born May 5, 1902, near Goderich, Ont. He died of natural causes on April 6, 2009, in Courtland, Ont. He was 106. He leaves many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, and one cousin.