Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tombstone Tuesday: Be careful what you wish for...

As many of you already know, I do the vast majority of my research in Ireland. Having an Irish father, mother, and brother, I always felt as though I was the 'odd woman out', so when it came to researching my family history I felt I had to go back to Ireland. I had not spent a lot of time on Canadian based research in areas such as pre-Famine and Famine period Irish emigration; however, once I began to look into the history of emigration to the Americas I uncovered some aspects of this history which are very unsettling.

In researching Famine emigration into Canada, I found that a significant number of Irish had landed at Toronto, and some of them did not survive for very long. I decided that I would go to the cemeteries in which these Famine victims were buried, photograph the space and stones, if there were any from the period that signified Irish interred, and record the names and any other information about the interred.

Be careful what you wish for...

The first cemetery on my photo wish list was St. Paul's Cemetery. On one very bright and sunny morning I set out to go to St. Paul's. Having travelled this street many times before, I found myself wondering why it was that I had never noticed the cemetery on any previous trips. I decided it must be a very small cemetery behind the church and that was why I had never noticed it.

Established in 1822, St. Paul's was the very first Catholic cemetery in Toronto, and was opened on the land adjacent to St. Paul's Basilica, which is at the corner of Power Street and Queen Street east in downtown Toronto. The beautiful church which now stands on the site is a rebuild and expansion of the original church.

From my research I knew that St. Paul's Cemetery had been closed around 1855 and replaced by St. Michael's Cemetery (more on that in another post). Due to the Great Famine of 1845-51/52, there was a marked influx of Irish Emigrants; during the single navigation season of 1847 alone, the population of the city literally doubled in size. With a typhoid epidemic in full bloom, it was inevitable that St. Paul's Cemetery would soon be filled to capacity. Nonetheless, when I arrived at the site I was surprised by what I discovered. The cemetery no longer exists; the site is now under a school playground.

According to the archivist at the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, when the cemetery was closed some stones were transferred to St. Michael's Cemetery. Also, some persons were disinterred and reinterred in St. Michael's Cemetery; however, it is impossible to know exactly how many persons were interred at St. Paul's during those desperate times. According to the archivist, there are no extant records for St. Paul's prior to 1849, but the Ontario Genealogical Society has produced what he described as the "definitive" book on the subject, so I will need to add that to my bookshelf.

There are the requisite plaques and monuments honouring the memory of those Irish interred on these grounds, but in truth I cannot help but feel unsettled by the loss of this sacred space. In my conversation with the archivist he indicated that people are often upset when a lost cemetery is uncovered during the process of construction, and perhaps ancient bones are found; however, this was neither an ancient cemetery, nor a lost one. The 'burying' of this cemetery was a choice. I do not know who made the decision or how they justified it, but they did. The school was erected on the site in 1959. The Great Famine ended around 1852. Apparently 100 years is enough time to forget.

As I stood on the site, a father and his young son played basketball, and I wondered if they had any idea of the place and its history. The world moves on, but I am stuck with the history of the past.

St. Paul's Basilica

Monument to the Irish Emigrants who were interred at St. Paul's Cemetery



Plaque embedded in the wall of St. Paul's Catholic School.   It faces the school yard which was once the cemetery site.

The school yard
*Click on photos to view larger version.
All Photographs ©Copyright J. Geraghty-Gorman 2011.

4 comments:

  1. What a sad story. As someone who has spent a great deal of time researching and teaching about the Famine, I am saddened to know that so many of the people who made that dreadful crossing will never be known or remembered

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  2. Oh wow. So hard to believe they were so pressed for land that they felt it appropriate to cover over the final resting place of so many...

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  3. What a sobering state of affairs, which you have recounted and photographed with great grace and respect. It is sad that those who came before, and suffered so much, can be brushed aside so easily by later generations.

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  4. Thank you for a reflective post. I agree it's so sad that many peoples' lives passed unmarked, especially in this tragic time. I wouldn't have chosen concrete to cover over their final resting place, but there's something positive about children playing and enjoying life that counterbalances the sadness.

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Cheers, Jennifer

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