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