Life for Frank O’Connor began in Desoronto in 1885 – born to Mary Eleanor McKeown and Patrick O’Connor. Young Frank left school at 14 and went to work at Canadian General Electric in Peterborough. Originally posted April 11, 2008
In his late 20s he met and married a young widow, Mary Ellen Hayes from Belleville. They moved to Toronto in 1912 and the next year opened the Laura Secord Candy Store on Yonge Street, north of Elm. They used only the best ingredients and they hand-chose their workers – many of whom became long-time employees. Benefiting from the good business acumen of his wife, Frank opened Laura Secord shops across Canada; within a decade they branched into the USA where, their enterprise was known as Fanny Farmer Candy Stores. Eventually the O’Connor fortune was in the multi-millions. Mr. O’Connor recognized that his success was in great measure due to his good and faithful workforce, and in 1923 he was the first candy manufacturer in the world to introduce a profit-sharing plan. Frank and Mary Ellen had a daughter, Mary and Frank adopted Mary Ellen’s young son William.
Frank’s recognition of the needs of people did not stop at employee profit-sharing. This was just the beginning. During the 1920s Frank was very involved in his church and local community. In the mid 1920s Frank organized the first laymen’s retreat at St Augustine’s Seminary on the Labour Day weekend. Thirteen men signed up. He became a Brother Knight in the Toronto Knights of Columbus and served as president for ten years. Before the Twenties were over Frank responded to St. Michael’s College and gave the full $125,000 they asked for their building fund. His picture hangs in the Celtic Studies Hall today. The De La Salle Brothers at Jackson’s Point were also beneficiaries of Frank’s generosity, making the De La Salle Camp a reality. Likewise the Newman Centre was supported by Frank O’Connor – today his portrait hangs in a place of honour at the top of the staircase.
Foresight was Frank’s greatest personal gift. Frank O’Connor’s activities during the 1930s Depression years that reveal a bonanza of generosity. To the Archdiocese of Toronto, he first gave $5,000 which took care of the interest on its debt. In the mid 1930s he gave the Archdiocese of Toronto a half-million dollars under the trusteeship of Cardinal McGuigan. Under the terms of this donation, the money was assigned to specific charities benefiting hundreds of thousands of people in Ontario and beyond: Sick Children’s Hospital, Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, Christie St. Military Hospital, Canadian Institute for the Blind, St. Joseph’s Hospital, among others and the 20-year debt of the Toronto Archdiocese was wiped out. This gesture was reported in newspapers across Canada yet few know of the extent of Frank O’Connor’s good works. So much took place quietly and without fanfare – as was aptly noted after Frank’s death, during the dedication of O’Connor’s portrait by Cardinal McGuigan: “integrity, charity, sincerity were his characteristics.”
In the late 1920s Frank O’Connor purchased 600 acres at Victoria Park and Ellesmere, in what was referred to as ‘Wexford’ and named it ‘Maryvale’ for his daughter. Here he built the O’Connor Estate then consisting of a Colonial Revival-style house, coach house and shed. In addition were farm sheds for his herd of Ayrshire Cattle and race horses. International ploughing competitions were a popular sport in which Frank O’Connor entered teams, and Maryvale is noted to have hosted the last World Ploughing Competition. To the left of the house was the indoor swimming pool which, when a button was pushed, covered over to become a ballroom. Also part of the estate was an incredible greenhouse – longer than the length of the house itself. At Maryvale, Frank held parties and he invited daughters of neighbouring farms to act as hostesses. To these young women Frank left a generous bequest after his death.
Near Maryvale Estate was an unused Methodist church, located at Lawrence and Victoria Park. In 1932, a Eucharistic Congress year, Frank purchased this church. He had it renovated and re-dedicated as Roman Catholic in memory of his late wife who died in 1931. Frank’s own request was to have it named Precious Blood. Recently, in June 2007, Archbishop Collins and the parishioners celebrated the 75th anniversary of their parish, giving fond remembrance to the benefactor who made it possible. In 1957, the church itself was rebuilt – the new church having celebrated its 50th anniversary at the same time. He did not stop at just purchasing the building: he purchased a bus for parishioners. On Sunday, the bus went around the neighbourhood to collect folk to take them to Mass. Weekdays, the bus went around the neighbourhood to collect the ‘childer’ to take them to school – another building which he had purchased for them next door to the church.
A staunch supporter of the Liberal party of the day, Frank O’Connor helped the Mitchell Hepburn campaign (Ontario Premier) and the Mackenzie King campaigns (Prime Minister of Canada). Both were successful. In the Hepburn days, many talks took place at the King Edward Hotel – where Frank O’Connor had a suite. Mackenzie King appointed Mr. O’Connor to the Senate in 1935 – filling the seat of Senator Murphy who died. Senator O’Connor represented the Irish and Catholic population. Among his efforts was funding for separate schools.
Frank O’Connor was 54 when he died in August 1939 having been ill a year or so prior. The year before, a testimonial dinner was held with Frank as the guest of honour, attended by 700 people in the Crystal Ballroom of the King Edward Hotel. He was humbled by the attention. He died in his second-floor bedroom at Maryvale. Since he died while in office he was laid in state – at Maryvale. His funeral was attended by the premiers of both Ontario and Quebec. The O’Connor family plot is at Mount Hope Cemetery – beautiful in its simplicity – should one care to pay their respects.
Today the board of O’Connor Irish Heritage House works tirelessly to restore the O’Connor Maryvale estate and remember his incredible legacy. If you would like to learn more about Frank O’Connor and O’Connor House and support their efforts, please visit http://oconnorhouse.ca/