Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: St. John’s York Mills

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This one is all-new, all-different, not a reprint, etc

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Perched high above Yonge Street near Hogg’s Hollow, St. John’s York Mills may be Toronto’s oldest active cemetery. Its history, alongside St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church, ties into the early development of York Mills and North York.

History

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Pen and ink drawing of the original St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church (used 1817-1844), produced by an unknown artist around 1904. Toronto Public Library, JRR 3579 Cab.

The land St. John’s sits on was donated in 1816 by Joseph and Catherine Shepard, who also owned the land York Cemetery was eventually built upon. According to the land transfer document, the site was intended as a place for “Divine Worship according to the rites, ceremonies and articles of the established Church of England, and for the burial of the dead.” The cornerstone of the first church building was laid on September 17, 1816 by Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada Francis Gore and future Anglican Bishop John Strachan. A torrential downpour shortened the ceremony.

Burials appear to have begun soon afterwards. The January 2, 1817 edition of the Upper Canada Gazette reported the recent funeral service for John Willson, who “was killed by the fall of a log from a small house that he was assisting a poor man to raise.” The sermon was delivered by Strachan “to a large and respectable assemblage of friends and acquaintances of this much lamented young man.”

The church’s congregation included many who participated in the Rebellion of 1837, many of whom are buried here

Grounds

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Located northeast of Yonge Street and York Mills Road, you can either enter by foot off Old Yonge Street or by vehicle via Don Ridge Drive. From the parking lot, head east from the current church building. The cemetery is compact and flat, making it an easy stroll.

Burials are limited to members of the St. John’s York Mills Anglican congregation.

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The west side of the church grounds connect to a trail leading from the Don Valley.

Notable Names

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Lionel “The Big Train” Conacher was voted “Canada’s Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950 for his versatility. Conacher is a member of the Canadian football, hockey, and lacrosse halls of fame, and was also skilled at baseball, boxing, and track. He was also a successful politician, serving as both an MP and MPP for downtown Toronto ridings. He was a competitor to the end, dying of a heart attack in 1954 after hitting a triple during a charity parliamentary softball game.

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Sculptor Walter Allward designed the Canadian National Vimy Monument (1936) in France. His Toronto works include numerous statues around Queen’s Park, honouring John Sandfield Macdonald, Oliver Mowat, and John Graves Simcoe. Other notable commissions include the South African War Memorial at Queen and University and the Bell Memorial in Brantford. The plaque honouring Allward was dedicated in 2007.

Favourite Spots

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A monument in the southeast corner honours seven generations of the Van Nostrand family who have been buried here since the cemetery’s beginning. A Loyalist originally from Long Island, Cornelius van Nostrand settled in York Mills in 1805. He was too ill to attend the laying of the church cornerstone in 1816, but was able to view the ceremony from his home. “It is said,” church archivist M. Audrey Graham observed, “he was assisted to the window of his chamber that he might witness before his dissolution the germ, as it were, of the sacred edifice, and then, though feeble and infirm, expressed his joy and gladness at the prospect of leaving behind him the means of grace in the form he loved best for his numerous family.” He died the following year.

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At least 90 members of the family are buried in the cemetery, stretching back to a seven-year-old who died before the cemetery was officially established.

Sources: 150 Years at St. John’s, York Mills by M. Audrey Graham (Toronto: General Publishing, 1966); Pioneering in North York by Patricia W. Hart (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968); and 200 Years at St. John’s York Mills by Scott Kennedy and Jeanne Hopkins (Toronto: Dundurn, 2016).

 

 

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: York

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on November 1, 2012

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A block west of Mel Lastman Square, the greenery of York Cemetery provides an escape from the endless concrete of North York’s central strip. Amid its gardens and monuments reside tales of heroes, rebels, and royalty.

History

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The property was settled around 1805 by Joseph Shepard, one of several people Sheppard Avenue may have been named after. The site passed to his son Michael, a farmer who operated a mill near the present-day North York IKEA. Michael and his brothers were prominent supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

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The Shepards are said to have hidden the rebel mayor before he fled to the United States after his uprising fizzled. When Michael and his brother Thomas were released from jail after a brief stay, they followed Mackenzie south. Michael was pardoned in 1843, and he returned to the farm. By 1850, he had completed the farmhouse that currently serves as the cemetery’s office.

The property was purchased in 1916 by the Toronto General Burying Grounds, the forerunner of the Mount Pleasant Group, but no one was interred until July 1948. Some of the Shepard land, between Beecroft Road and Yonge Street, was later sold to build the North York Civic Centre and its associated projects.

Grounds

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The entrance from Beecroft Road is a divided boulevard dominated by a massive war-memorial cenotaph, dedicated in 1963. It bears a quote from 19th-century politician Joseph Howe:

A wise nation preserves its records—gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead, repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.

In 1986, the width of the roadway prompted then-city controller Howard Moscoe to ask North York council to study turning it into an extension of North York Boulevard, as a way of relieving traffic. Deemed an “intolerable desecration” by a fellow controller, the idea was quickly rejected. An apology letter was sent to cemetery officials.

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The grounds are dotted with special memorials ranging from a section devoted to the military to a monument to the Hungarian community. Near the office are a waterfall-laden “Garden of Remembrance” and a recently built columbarium, powered by solar and geothermal energy.

Like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, York is divided in half by a busy street. While the section east of Senlac Road is flat, hills dot the western portion.

Notable Names

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You won’t find stacks of coffee cups or empty doughnut boxes placed beside the grave of Tim Horton. What you will see is the epitaph “T.T.F.N. Daddy-O.” (That is, ta-ta for now.) Architect Uno Prii, also buried at York, was responsible for the curving modernist apartment buildings of the Annex. Broadcaster Barbara Frum’s gravesite bears an ornate gate and is lined with red stones. Percy Saltzman’s tombstone recognizes his role as “Canada’s First TV Weatherman.”

Favourite Spots

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Not far from Tim Horton’s gravesite lies genuine royalty. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and cousin of King George V of England. Forced to marry an older duke, she had the unconsummated marriage annulled by her brother in 1916 to wed her true love, Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky. After the Russian Revolution, the Kulikovskys fled to the Crimea, which prevented them from being murdered by the Bolsheviks alongside the Tsar’s family. There were close calls on their flight out of Russia. (After being arrested, they were saved when officials argued at length over executing the couple.) They stayed in Olga’s mother’s homeland, Denmark, until 1948, where the duchess was often called upon to debunk pretenders, like the woman who claimed to be her niece Anastasia.

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Fearing assassination by the KGB to extinguish the her claim to the Russian throne, the Kulikovskys moved to Canada in 1948. They settled in Cooksville, where the duchess preferred to be known as Olga. She developed a reputation as cat lady, and showcased her art at Eaton’s College Street store. Before her death in 1960, Olga briefly lived with friends above a beauty salon on Gerrard Street East. She is memorialized with a sizable cross and a special plaque.

Sources: The Final Word: The Book of Canadian Epitaphs by Nancy Millar (Victoria: Brindle & Glass, 2004), the November 25, 1960 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 4, 1986 and August 26, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1960.

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Toronto Star, November 25, 1960.

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“Last farewell: Carrying Tim Horton’s casket to burial plot in York Cemetery yesterday are pall bearers (clockwise) Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Allan Stanley, Billy Harris, George Armstrong and Dick Duff–all former Maple Leaf teammates of Horton.” Photo by Ron Bull, originally published in the February 26, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0055643f.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1974.

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Gravesite of architect Uno Prii, noted for his space-age, curvy apartment towers in the city

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More photos from my 2012 stroll through the grounds.