By Pamela Vega, originally published July 7, 2010
A visit to one of our city’s oldest cemeteries
On the west side of Yonge Street, south of St. Clair, there is a break between the row of buildings lining the street. Walking down this small alley, the brick walls give way to grass and, a little further on, a walkway lined with trees. Nestled behind a wall of storefronts is this serene escape from city life. This is St. Michael’s Cemetery, Toronto’s oldest visible Catholic cemetery. The first in a series of articles, St. Michael’s is one of Toronto’s hidden gems.
Prior to the establishment of Catholic cemeteries, members of the Catholic community were buried in either family plots or public cemeteries. By the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Catholic population in Upper Canada had grown so significantly that the need for a proper Catholic cemetery could no longer be ignored. This was especially true when one took into account the high prevalence of disease and illness among those who had completed the hard voyage across the Atlantic. To accommodate the influx of Roman Catholics to the Toronto area, a new cemetery was established. As the only other Catholic cemetery-located at St. Paul’s church (established in 1822 at Queen and Power Streets) had reached capacity after the emigration from the Irish potato famine, a new resting place was desperately needed. To accommodate this, in 1854 Rt. Rev. Armand Rancois Marie, Comte de Charbonnel and Bishop of Toronto, purchased six acres of land north of the city for the new Catholic cemetery. He also established a committee to manage the new cemetery that was comprised of Denis K. Feehan, John Foy, Charles Robertson, Reverend Jean Bruyere, Rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, as well as the bishop himself. St. Michael’s Cemetery was officially opened in 1855.
Located on the second concession north of Toronto Bay, Lot 21 consisted of 200 acres that was originally granted to Hon. David William Smith (1764-1837), Surveyor General of Upper Canada, on March 14, 1798. The land then transferred hands to Chief Justice of Upper Canada, John Elmsley (1762-1805) in 1799, then to his son Hon. John Elmsley (1801-1863) in 1825 who subdivided the property ten years later and sold six acres to William Musson for £150. William’s widow, Mary, then sold the property to the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Toronto on September 12, 1854 for £1,000, receiving £100 in cash and accepting a £900 mortgage that was paid off on July 13, 1864. In 1866, the Diocese acquired a further four acres from a neighbouring plot owned by the late Charles Thompson and bought from his estate executors for £210. Before being used as a cemetery, this land was used as the home for the private school St. Charles as well as the chapel that was the forerunner of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.
According to architectural historian John Rempel, the Dead House is “the finest of the ‘dead houses’ in the Province of Ontario.” Built in 1855, the Dead House stored bodies during the winter until the ground was soft enough for graves to be dug. It was designed by Joseph Sheard (1813-1883), and constructed by Downey and Greenlees, with May, Lowe & Platt finishing the brick and masonry work. According to the biographical sketch in the City of Toronto Archives’ J. Sheard fond, Sheard was originally a carpenter, builder and architect before entering politics in 1851 when he was elected alderman for St. Patrick’s Ward. He was also alderman for the St. John’s and St. James Wards before becoming the mayor of Toronto in 1871 for one year. He designed numerous homes and schools throughout Toronto, as well as the Primitive Methodist Church on Alice Street (1854). An interesting tidbit, according to historian Pleasance Crawford, is that after the Rebellion of 1837, Sheard refused to build a scaffold to hang two of the rebellion’s leaders, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.
To soften the appearance of its harsh brick walls, the winter vault uses ornamental blind windows. The vault’s doorway is slightly too large for its scale and gives it a miniaturized look, but is otherwise perfectly proportioned. Another architectural quirk is that its buttress corbels, window sills, and window heads are made of wood. This is unusual for a structure of this design and use, as these were generally found in buildings of more modest design. Looking up to its roofline, one can admire the elegant cupola with its characteristically gothic pointed arches and spire-like roof. Its wooden finial, unfortunately, has rotted away. Inside the vault, all but the entrance wall are lined with shelves to store caskets during the winter months; according to A Quiet Gentle Surprise, during the 1918 flu epidemic the caskets were piled up to four layers high. Inside, the floor is paved with cement with bricks around the edges.
Above the century-old trees, condo towers line the horizon. Even though it is currently in the midst of an urban environment, it was only at the turn of the 20th century that the area around the cemetery-Deer Park-began to develop. Before this, it was far removed from urban life; parishioners complained that St. Michael’s Cemetery was too difficult to travel as it was too far from the city. This development “closed in” the cemetery and hid it from the busy main roads.
On April 6, 1857, notices appeared in newspapers and broadsides across Toronto announcing the closing of St. Paul’s Cemetery on June 1, 1857 and the opening of the new burial ground up north. St. Paul’s Cemetery reached capacity after the Irish potato famine, and had to close due to sanitation and space reasons. St. Michael’s became the main place for Catholics to be buried. By this time, the cemetery’s first person had already been buried for two years: James Fitzgerald was interred on September 17, 1855.
The graves in St. Michael’s Cemetery tell the history of Toronto. Many date to the last half of the nineteenth century, when Irish immigrants came to Canada to escape the potato famine, and from 1918-1919, the victims of Toronto’s flu epidemic. The large number of Celtic crosses is evidence of the prevalence of Irish immigrants in Toronto, who almost unfailingly inscribed their gravestones with their homeland county’s name as a sign of pride and perhaps of homesickness.
There are three general stages in the styles of memorials in St. Michael’s cemetery. The first stage-beginning at the cemetery’s establishment-has memorials mainly constructed from marble, slate, or boulders. As life during this time was simple, a lavish afterlife was often depicted on gravestones. The second stage is from approximately 1880 until the end of the 19th century, when granite memorials were first imported from Scotland. As a result of the boom in the limestone industry during this time, the majority of gravestones from this period are made from limestone, as well as from iron and zinc. This time period is also characterized by more elaborate memorials, the result of the Catholic community becoming more established in the area. Tall marble spires are especially common during this era.
The arrival of highly skilled craftsmen from Europe and their effect on memorial work-especially the deep carvings preferred by Scottish carvers-characterize the third and final stage in St. Michael’s cemetery, from the beginning of the twentieth century up until the present age. During this time, granite was the stone most often used, but the lower sections of gravestones were often still made from limestone. As the years progressed, more and more gravestones began to be made completely from granite.
Graves were originally owned and maintained by the family of the deceased; for some families, it was the only land that they owned. Fences were often erected around family plots to define the boundaries of the graves and, more importantly, to protect the graves from passersby. Cemeteries received much more attention than they do today, when it was customary to visit the graves of loved ones on Sundays, and grave decorations were at higher risk of being damaged. But as more and more families moved away from the area and the traditional Sunday visit became less common, graves were left unattended and became run-down. To help fix up the cemetery, Dr. Muckle of St. Michael’s Cathedral assumed control over the maintenance of the cemetery in the early 1930s, trimming overgrown shrubbery and straightening crooked stones. Older monuments that had fallen in disrepair were replaced with ground-level name stones to lower maintenance costs, and religious shrines were erected to improve the aesthetic and spiritual essence that was diminished when the larger and older monuments were removed. During this time, the cemetery caretaker was provided with living quarters, firewood, vegetable garden, and chicken coop. For digging graves, cutting the grass, and maintaining shrubbery, the salary ranged from $4 to $8 per day. In 1961, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Archdiocese of Toronto transferred ownership to the Toronto Catholic Cemetery Association, who has controlled the cemetery’s maintenance ever since.
Up until 1900, St. Michael’s Cemetery was the only Catholic cemetery in Toronto accepting new burials. Once other cemeteries began to open in 1900-such as Mount Hope Cemetery-St. Michael’s has been considered “inactive,” though burials may still be accepted. During the 1920s, the section of the cemetery fronting Yonge Street was sold to the Glen-Yonge Development Company, who then built the stores that now line the street and hide the cemetery from view.
Some of St. Michael’s more well-known inhabitants include: Francis Collins, editor of the Canadian Freeman and fighter for responsible government; Barry Hayes, chief English Translator for Canada’s House of Commons; Mother Delphine, founder of the St. Joseph’s Order in Toronto; Denis Dempsey, one of the first recipient of the Victoria Cross; and John Pickford Hennessy, grandfather of silent film star Mary Pickford.
Since 1961, the Toronto Catholic Cemetery Association has taken responsibility for the cemetery from the Rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, and it is now maintained by the caretakers of Mount Hope Cemetery. The cemetery lands and the winter vault were designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act for being of architectural value and interest by the City of Toronto in December 10, 1975. In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the Dead House was given a new roof, its cupola was restored, and some monuments were reset. Twenty-nine thousand people are buried in its land, the resting place of many of Toronto’s first Irish immigrants and the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic. Some of the bodies that were removed from the overcrowded St. Paul’s cemetery also rest here.