A gravestone is uncovered under the parking lot at St. John the Evangelist Church in Toronto Photo courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc.

Cemetery found under Toronto church parking lot

  • November 14, 2014

TORONTO - In Toronto’s west end a long-forgotten, paved-over cemetery has been unearthed on the grounds of St. John the Evangelist Church.

“A parishioner brought it to the attention of the pastor of the church that there was a possibility of there being a cemetery associated with the church,” said Ron Williamson, chief archeologist at Archaeological Services Inc. “This was brought to the attention of the archdiocese ... who contacted us.”

Williamson sent out a team to do a preliminary test dig excavating about 50 square metres of the parking lot this past September.

“Very quickly we determined that yes, St. John (the Evangelist) did have an associated cemetery at some point in the 19th century,” he said.

The church opened in 1853 in the old village of Weston and the cemetery was likely in use between the 1850s to the 1890s.

Four graves were found in the test dig — three of which still contained human remains. This led the Archdiocese of Toronto to foot the estimated $50,000 bill for the full excavation.

A significant additional factor, said Williamson, was the redevelopment of the adjacent school which shares a property line with the parish.

“The point was to help the archdiocese and the Catholic school board in this planning,” he said, adding that demolition has already begun on the school.

A formal document citing the location, depth and contents of each grave is formulated and sent to the Registrar of Cemeteries to ensure the records are kept safe for the future.

There are no plans to move the bodies from their final resting place.

Williamson said it isn’t rare for a church to have lost past records of a cemetery. He’s worked with the archdiocese alone a dozen or more times during his 40-year career.

“Forgotten cemeteries,” he said, “it is something that we deal with quite often. It is rare that you have a plan of where people are or complete records.”

One case in recent years stands out to Williamson.

“Back in the late 2000s we were called to move an Irish Catholic cemetery called Elmbank Cemetery from Toronto’s Pearson Airport,” he said, adding that based on records the educated estimate by a genealogist was 311 graves. “In the end we removed 622 people.”

At St. John the Evangelist, however, Williamson expects significantly fewer graves will be disturbed based on what has been found already.

“It is actually over 70 graves and most of them the bodies are there,” he said, expecting that number to rise before the work is completed, which is expected by the end of the year. 

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