An artist’s rendition of Grasett Park, which will open in downtown Toronto with a virtual ceremony July 16. Photo courtesy Canada-Ireland Foundation

Park honours caregivers from past pandemic

  • July 4, 2021

A virtual ceremony will be held July 16 to open Grasett Park in downtown Toronto to commemorate the physicians, nurses, clergy and other caregivers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in caring for the influx of Irish migrants struck down by typhus in 1847.

Located at the corner of Adelaide Street West and Widmer Street, where Toronto’s first general hospital was once situated, the park is named after Dr. George Robert Grasett, the medical superintendent of the hospital who died of the illness he treated so many for. Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, also lost his life after contracting typhus during his twice daily visits to the fever sheds to treat the sick.

The names of Grasett, Power and 10 nurses, orderlies and caregivers who succumbed to the illness have been engraved in the granite benches in the park.

The typhus epidemic took place during the massive Irish famine immigration where roughly 100,000 embarked across the Atlantic. About 20,000 perished during the journey in what became known as “coffin ships.”

Robert Kearns became involved with the project in 2008, after an archeological investigation discovered the original foundations of the hospital. Kearns, chair and founder of the Canada-Ireland Foundation, engaged Mark McGowan, historian and principal at University of St. Michael’s College, to research the history as there was very little published on the famine events at the time. Those who died carried their stories with them to the grave and survivors were less inclined to reflect on the trauma of the famine after the painful loss of so many of their loved ones. 

“Many of them were orphans and/or became widows or widowers who lost their wives or children,” said Kearns. “It was just a ghastly story of mortality, so it very quickly disappeared into the ground not long after the people died.”

Grasett Park is preceded by Ireland Park which opened on the Toronto waterfront June 21, 2007. It commemorates those who fled Ireland during the Great Famine and is located on the shores of Lake Ontario on Éireann Quay, adjoining the Canada Malting Silos, at the foot of Bathurst Street.

Kearns wanted to continue the work in paying homage to the medical staff through the Grasett Park project.

“It was very important to complete that story by also restoring to memory the very courageous doctors, nurses and hospital orderlies and members of the clergy who had volunteered and lost their lives to help these migrants,” he said.

Unlike Ireland Park, Grasett Park doesn’t display any figurative sculpture, but instead consists of abstract contemporary art in the form of panels of glass with cheesecloth laminated inside. An 1842 map of Toronto is etched into the granite floor plane. During the outbreak in 1847, cheesecloth was tacked onto the fever sheds and was used to provide relief from the flies and offer some privacy to the migrants receiving care.

To give some definition to the glass, photographic images of cheesecloth were printed and then laminated inside the panels of glass. Those standing on the north side of Adelaide after sundown can look to the south to see the provocatively illuminated glass with the cheesecloth lit through an in-ground lighting system.

“These panels of cheesecloth would have been billowing gently in the warm evening air of the city in 1847,” said Kearns. “We decided to use glass as a material in the park because very few other public memorials use glass and we thought this was a way to show the openness and transparency of history revealed and restored to memory.”

A supporter of the initiative secured the 80-by-20 foot site of the park and made that available to the foundation together with a million-dollar contribution. The government of Ireland contributed $200,000 and the federal government of Canada contributed $500,000. The rest was raised privately in the Toronto Irish community.

“We believe that this will be the first major public art memorial to doctors, nurses and hospital orderlies who lost their lives in pandemic situations and the work began 13 years ago,” said Kearns. “With the current pandemic it’s a kind of an extraordinary serendipity or rendezvous with history.”

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