Transubstantiation and the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

John Elmsley, an Anglican, was one of the most powerful men in early Upper Canada.

He died in 1805 and his son--also John--eventually came to manage the family’s investments and land holdings. John Elmsley was a bank director and he was appointed to the Legislative and Executive Council of Upper Canada.

In 1831 Elmsley married Charlotte Sherwood. Although her father and brother were Anglicans, Charlotte and her mother and sister were Catholics. John and Charlotte were married at two services: Saint Paul’s Catholic and Saint James Anglican.

After he married, he decided to study the teachings of the Catholic Church. He got caught up in trying to determine the meaning of the 6th Chapter of Saint John’s Gospel verses 51 to 57, which reads:

I am the living bread, which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he shall live forever: and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. The Jews then argued among themselves, saying. “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “ truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

In his search for an answer, Elmsley read a work by the Bishop of Strasbourg on the defense of the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

John had 5000 copies distributed in Upper Canada. He also wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Toronto, a longtime family friend. In the letter Elmsley stated his determination to join the Catholic Church, unless the book’s argument could be refuted. Bishop Strachan’s reply was published in 1834, which supported the Anglican position. The doctrine was hotly debated during the winter of 1833-34.

The following is an excerpt from Bishop Strachan’s, “A Letter to the Congregation of St. James Church.” The Bishop writes,

Mr. Elmsley seems to think that the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is only acknowledged by the Church of Rome; - in this he is greatly mistaken, for the doctrine of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper is held by all Protestant Churches: Not indeed as the Church of Rome holds it, a corporal or physical presence of Christ’s natural flesh and blood; for that Church maintains that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the very substance of Christ’s personal body and blood; but the Church of England believes that the bread and wine become holy and the spiritual body and blood of Christ, and therefore the real presence which she maintains is spiritual. 

Elmsley was not convinced by Strachan’s argument. He became a Catholic with a strong devotion to the Eucharist. This was not an easy decision. Some of his former close friends and business partners called him a fool. Others would have nothing to do with him. At many important social functions, he and his wife were no longer welcome. 

In the years following his conversion, John Elmsley became a pillar of strength to the local Irish Catholics and to the Catholic Church.

To help the poor and sick, he helped establish the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Toronto, and financed the building of the House of Providence for homeless men and older people. He also donated land for schools to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Christian Brothers, and the Basilian Fathers.

John Elmsley attended Mass and received communion every day. He usually meditated for an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of each day, he would often slip quietly into one of the several churches he helped build. He died in 1863, at 62, and his body is entombed in the crypt beneath the altar at St. Michael’s Cathedral, the construction of which he helped finance.

Well done good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord. (Mathew 25:23)

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