St. Ann’s pastor Fr. Jeff Oehring in the ring with McGrory’s Boxing Club owners Maria and Lawrence Hay. The famed club is housed at east end Hamilton’s St. Ann’s Parish and is hosting a fundraiser for the parish’s 100-year anniversary later this month. Photo courtesy St. Ann’s Parish

St. Ann’s, where the pugilists go

By  Sheila Nonato, Catholic Register Special
  • July 15, 2023

HAMILTON, Ont. -- St. Ann’s parishioners in Hamilton’s east end may not know that there is a world-class boxing gym right under their feet as they gather for prayer and worship at their century-old church.

On certain silent evenings, some may wonder about those muffled sounds of gentle force that may make their way up to the pews.

There are no grand signs advertising McGrory’s Boxing Club, a hidden Canadian national gem of a boxing gym, if not for the modest sign on its entrance door, to the side of the church’s main entrance on Sherman Avenue and Barton Street.

On July 28, parishioners will soon find out as McGrory’s Boxing Club owners, Lawrence and Maria Hay, have organized a boxing fundraiser, with all the proceeds donated to St. Ann’s to mark the church’s 100th anniversary.

And it all comes with the pastor’s blessing.

“Many of our parishioners have never seen the boxing club under the church. This event will give them a chance to appreciate the impact that McGrory’s is having on our local community,” said Fr. Jeff Oehring.

When you walk into the gym, you don’t feel any ego or bravado that has characterized the glitzy world of professional boxing. A calm confidence permeates the space and is embodied in McGrory’s team of owners, coaches and students. They prefer to let performance speak for themselves.

The Hays say they are continuing the legacy of McGrory’s legendary coaching couple, Vinnie and Val Ryan, who instilled in McGrory’s the idea that it is in the business of training champions in the ring and in life.

The Hays, who fittingly got engaged in a boxing ring years before taking over McGrory’s, are parishioners at Stoney Creek’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Both work full-time: Lawrence, 40, is a Special Constable with Hamilton Police. Maria works in insurance. After work, they lead classes at the gym three nights a week. Lawrence is a former provincial title holder and took home gold for Canada in the 2015 World Police and Fire Games in Fairfax, Virginia. 

Lawrence said he relied upon his faith when facing opponents in the ring. 

“Boxing is a martial art. You learn it for self-confidence. You learn it basically so you don’t have to use it. Vinnie, my coach, would always say, if he found out that any kids were using it to do bad, they would be gone. None of that. And I stress that with the kids,” Lawrence explained. 

McGrory’s Boxing Club began in 1965. Tim McGrory, an iron worker from Glasgow, Scotland, was retired from boxing when he opened the gym.

McGrory’s celebrates its 10th anniversary at St. Ann’s this year after moving to the church basement from the former Normanhurst Community Centre.

Vinnie Ryan, 84, took over in 1982. The club was warmly welcomed by former pastor Fr. Joseph Durkacz in 2013 and the fruitful partnership continues today with Oehring.

“Boxing is more skill than power. That’s the way I run the show,” Ryan said. 

Ryan is a Canadian boxing hall of famer, and a six-time Irish national boxing champion. He has coached numerous Canadian and Ontario male and female champions. Ryan has coached with the Canadian national team at the World Championships, Pan Am and Commonwealth Games, and coached a boxer at the Atlanta Olympics. He was also part of former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis’ team at a European Championships in the early 1980s. 

“My wife and I, our happiness and satisfaction is to see how these kids have moved on, are getting married and owning businesses,” he said. “We worked hard to make sure that after boxing, they have the skills to succeed in the world.”

 Val Ryan, 76, is also a Canadian boxing pioneer. She was a former head of Boxing Canada and Boxing Ontario.

“This is run like a family and there’s no attitude here. No one yells,” she said, adding that the philosophy is to nurture leaders.

Female participation is on the rise in the sport, said Val, and that can be seen at McGrory’s with 11-year old twin sisters Quinn and Mia Reddicliffe, who are training for their first competition.

“It gives me confidence,” Quinn said. “Going to competition is another level.”

Following the Ryan’s example, the Hays see their students as family. They have covered entrance fees for students needing assistance and have an equipment lending program.

“It’s all about giving back,” Maria said. “It’s prevented (some youth) from going into gangs because boxing gives them a community.”

Coach Rodolfo Velasquez, 29, is a three-time Canadian boxing champion. His father enrolled him at the gym “to keep him busy and stay off the streets.”

On McGrory’s, he said, “It’s like family here. I’m coming home to home. We love to share our knowledge and pass it on to the kids and coaches.”

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