Two women take part in a July 29 tour of Mount Hope Cemetery in Toronto where they received a history lesson on the city’s Catholic past. Many prominent Catholics are buried in the grounds of Mount Hope. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Mount Hope offers glimpse into Toronto’s Catholic past

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  • August 13, 2017

Before being buried at Mount Hope Catholic Cemetery, Sheila Beck thought it would be nice to become acquainted with some of 76,000 men, women and children who will someday be her resting place neighbours.

So on a pleasant Sunday afternoon Beck joined about 40 others on a guided walking tour of Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto’s second-oldest Catholic burial ground, to learn a bit about some of the people buried there.

“I’m going to be buried here myself, I’ve already made the arrangements,” said Beck, on the paved loop inside Mount Hope. “So I thought I should come and get a little bit of the history.”

Beck, a life-long resident of Toronto, has been a frequent visitor to Mount Hope since relatives were buried there in 2008 and 2013. But she’s rarely taken time to actually look around the approximately 60-acre grounds.

“I come here quite a bit throughout the year to put flowers on my mother’s and my brother’s niche,” she said. “So I knew this place has a lot of history — it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the City of Toronto. (But) most of the time I’m here I spend it by myself driving around in my car.”

Among those who joined Beck on the July 29 tour was her good friend Florence Kidd, an executive member of the Weston Historical Society.

“I wanted to see the beauty and learn the history of this place,” said Kidd. “There is a lot of really special people buried here. So it is really a special place, a very special place.”

Asked who stood out most, the women simultaneously replied: “Johnny Lombardi,” with a hint of a school-girl crush in their voices.

Born the son of Italian immigrants in 1915, Lombardi grew up in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood. As a young man he enjoyed a taste of star status while playing lead trumpet with the Benny Palmer Orchestra, a popular big band during the 1930s.

Lombardi joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1942, where he rose to the rank of sergeant and received multiple distinctions during the war, which included his participation in the D-Day invasion. In Toronto after the war, Lombardi, often referred to as “Mr. Toronto,” launched a successful broadcasting career by hosting an hour-long Italian music show.

Two decades later Lombardi founded the multicultural radio station CHIN, which continues to serve more than 30 ethnic communities today. A recipient of the Order of Canada, he died in 2002.

Other luminaries buried at Mount Hope include Canadian novelist and broadcast personality Morley Callaghan; Francis “King” Clancy, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame as both a player and coach; well-known wrestling promoter Frank Tunney; and baritone Louis Quilico, who spent 25 years with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Then there is the tragic story of Jean Wilson. At age 22 she won a gold and silver medal in speed skating at the 1932 Winter Olympics, but died one year later from an auto-immune disease.

In addition to sports and entertainment personalities, Mount Hope is the burial place of former Toronto archbishop Denis O’Connor, who became archbishop in 1899, a year after Mount Hope Cemetery was consecrated.

He is joined there by Senator Frank O’Connor (no relation), a millionaire Catholic philanthropist who founded Laura Secord Chocolates.

Such rich history is more than enough to have Kidd already talking about a second visit.

“I definitely will be back ... for the history alone,” she said.

According to Amy Profenna, a spokesperson for Catholic Cemeteries, Kidd’s keen interest is not unusual. Tours have been popular since they began in 2005.

“People are always interested in learning about the past,” she said. “Many are curious to learn about the history of Toronto’s Catholic pioneers (and) others want to learn about the early history of the city.”

Tours were also conducted this summer at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery (consecrated in 1867) in Barrie, Ont., and at St. Michael’s Cemetery (1855) in downtown Toronto, which is usually closed to the public.

“The historic cemeteries are resting places for many Catholics who shaped and built our city, leaders in culture, arts, government, entertainment, scholarship, sports and the Church,” she said. “(In fact) it was the traditional Catholic belief in the importance of having a Catholic cemetery that prompted pioneer members of the Church of Toronto many years ago to acquire and dedicate Mount Hope Cemetery.”

As it enters its 120th year, Mount Hope continues to be an active cemetery in the heart of Toronto with a limited number of plots and considerable niches available.

“I found it to be very interesting,” said Beck, as the afternoon tour concluded. “It was very peaceful here and I am really glad that I came. It gives me peace in my heart.”

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