Councillor Josh Matlow

The Catholic Register: Visitors trying to get behind St. Michael’s Cemetery gates

October 26, 2011

There are 29,000 Catholics held captive behind a rusty, two-metre high, chain-link fence in the middle of downtown Toronto. Mind you, they’re not clamouring to get out. They’re dead and buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, a little south of St. Clair Avenue and hidden behind the stores on the west side of Yonge Street.

Martha Crean and Mary Egan want to get in. Each of them is related to early sextons (maintenance men) of the 156-year-old cemetery. They have relatives buried there and they would like to see the historic gem opened and advertised to Torontonians.

Vandalism, dog-walking, skiing, neighbourhood fireworks displays, baseball games and litter on the cemetery grounds forced Catholic Cemeteries, Archdiocese of Toronto to lock the gates in 2005, said executive director Richard Hayes in an e-mail to Crean and Egan.

Hayes concedes the locked gates are an “extreme action.”

“The decision to keep St. Michael’s locked was deemed to be a last resort effort to preserve the historic uniqueness of the cemetery,” Hayes wrote in his Oct. 20 e-mail to Crean and Egan.

But Crean believes locked gates are the wrong way to protect the cemetery. A large number of the surrounding residents have backyard gates that open onto the cemetery, and there are other hidden, unofficial ways of getting in, said Crean.

“I climbed in very easily from the parking lot of the Esso building,” she said. “It’s a bit of subterfuge to say you can’t have access. There is access, but not through any legitimate means. The people who legitimately want to walk through the front gate can’t do it.”

Crean’s connection to the cemetery runs pretty deep. Her father was born in the cemetery. Her grandfather had taken over as sexton from his older cousin, Patrick Colleton. At the time there was a sexton’s house on the property fronting on Yonge Street. Crean’s father was born inside that house in 1910. The house and the property fronting Yonge Street was sold in 1929.

St. Charles School was also at one time located on the property. Several of the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught at the school are today buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

Crean and Egan argue “more eyes” in the form of legitimate, regular visitors would better ensure the cemetery isn’t misused. They point north to the Mount Hope Cemetery near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton — larger and nearly as historic — which welcomes casual visitors and walking tours daily.

Nobody has been buried at St. Michael’s for years, therefore there’s no reason for Catholic Cemeteries to keep staff on site, said public relations manager Amy Profenna. At Mount Hope they’re still selling plots and that means staff on site to watch what goes on.

Vandalism and inappropriate use of St. Michael’s Cemetery got worse as population density increased in the neighbourhood about 10 years ago. Condo buildings went up along the cemetery’s north boundary and traffic through the quiet, green cemetery grew, said Profenna.

“These condo residents are using it as a park. I don’t think they really look at it as a sacred, holy place,” she said.

The cemetery is open by pre-arrangement to historical walking tours and to people with relatives buried there. It’s also open Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.

City councillor Josh Matlow, whose district includes the cemetery, believes there must be some compromise that will open up the cemetery to the city at least some of the time, and has requested a meeting with Hayes.

“I recognize how that cemetery is sacred space. That would have to be respected,” said Matlow.

Hayes has indicated he’s open to some of Crean and Egan’s proposals to beautify the entrance. Planters just inside the gates will be considered in the 2012 budget.

Crean doesn’t imagine seven-day-a-week access, but she thinks Catholic Cemeteries can do better than no access.

“There are many parts of our Catholic heritage that we should kind of take out from under the bushel,” said Crean.

“I do believe that the community thinks of it as valuable. It isn’t just a few people who need to be worried about looking after it. The more people who care the better it’s going to be.”

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