Historic cemetery an oasis of peace

Toronto’s modern Yonge/St. Clair intersection is one of the busiest in the entire city. But, while hundreds of cars, trucks, streetcars, buses – and thousands of work-weary pedestrians – wrestle each other for space, few realize, that just a few short steps away, there’s an oasis of quiet.

Nestled behind a row of stores on the west side of Yonge Street, just south of St. Clair Avenue (and accessed via a short laneway beside a hardware store at 1418 Yonge Street) is the historic St. Michael’s Cemetery – truly, as the cemetery guide extols a “quiet gentle surprise.”

First Catholic parish
And it has quite a pedigree. As early as 1822 (when Toronto was still the little Town of York) the community’s first Catholic parish, the Parish of St. Paul’s, was established in the northeastern outskirts of the town and a small church erected on the south side of a narrow, dusty pathway that is now part of Queen Street East.

In those far-off days, land around the newly consecrated church was plentiful and it was not difficult to lay out a cemetery east and south of the little brick building to serve the needs of the Catholics residing in and around the young provinci capital.

In 1848, St. Michael’s Cathedral opened at the northwest corner of Church and Shuter streets and while several prominent Catholics were buried in crypts under the cathedral, most continued to be interred in the cemetery adjacent the older St. Paul’s. Four years later, the city’s third parish church opened on Bathurst Street, and a small cemetery was established nearby to serve its deceased adherents. Nevertheless, most Catholics continued to be interred in St. Paul’s churchyard.

Larger cemetery needed
However, as the city’s population continued to grow – with many of the new arrivals Irish Catholics fleeing the devastating potato famine back home – it became obvious to church officials that a larger cemetery would soon be needed. A small committee was established to come up with an alternative site. After much deliberation, it was decided that 6 acres of land on the west side of Yonge Street, just south of the Third Concession Road in the small community of Deer Park (an appropriate name considering the multitude of deer that roamed this early Toronto suburb), would be purchased for approximately $5,000. The cemetery was enlarged a few years later when an additional four acres were purchased for $1,050.

Many members of the church were upset the site of their new burial ground was so far out in the countryside, especially since the old, familiar St. Paul’s yard was almost in the heart of the city. Back then, a trip up a dusty, unpaved Yonge Street to the new burial ground and the return trip would take almost a whole day, and if it rained, well…

Nevertheless, on Sept. 17, 1855, James Fitzgerald, age 59, became the first person to be buried in the newly consecrated St. Michael’s Cemetery. Just two years later the burial ground next to St. Paul’s Church closed, the old headstones removed and the property eventually paved over.

In 1933 a pieta and memorial stone were erected at the corner of Queen and Power streets as a memorial to the numerous, and for the most part anonymous, Catholics buried in the nearby churchyard.

Buried Legends
Since that early fall day in 1855, almost 29,000 burials have taken place at St. Michael’s including the grandparents of the legendary Toronto-born movie actress Mary Pickford, Theresa Small (wife of Ambrose Small whose disappearance in December, 1919 has never been solved), brewer/philanthropist Eugene O’Keefe and young Irish immigrant Matthew Sheedy. This latter burial was particularly sad since Matthew was only 23 years old when he was stabbed to death during a peaceful St. Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of downtown Toronto in 1858. In the burial register Sheedy’s interment notice is accompanied by the words “Killed by an Orangeman.”

Burials in St. Michael’s today are rare, though on occasion members of families with longtime plots are interred. Since 1961, these sacred grounds have been administered by the Toronto Catholic Cemetery Association who encourage visitors to discover an earlier Toronto just steps from a busy city intersection. A peaceful repose… for all concerned.