Knights mark 100 years in Toronto

  • February 6, 2009

KofC.jpgTORONTO - Philip Walke remembers the day Toronto’s first subway cars ran. At 75 years of age, he has seen plenty of Toronto’s history, but also that of the Knights of Columbus’ Toronto Council 1388, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Many of these highlights for people living in the city of Toronto were also closely linked to the Knights, Walke said.

Currently acting as the council’s public relations director, Walke once worked on the Knights of Columbus Ontario state council as administrative assistant, sending out media releases. Although he started out on a Scarborough council, he later moved and joined the original Toronto council, the first council established in Toronto and the 11th in Ontario.

The Knights of Columbus’ first council started in Connecticut in 1882 as a fraternal benefit society. It ascribes to its founding principles of charity, unity and fraternity. Council 1388 was the first group of Knights to assemble in the Toronto area, beginning business at the Independent Order of Foresters building at Bay and Richmond Streets, where it rented space.

 Walke recalls sending a black and white photo and a press release to The Catholic Register when it was on Bond Street as the Knights donated the first “burn bed” to St. Michael’s Hospital.

“It looked like any bed except (the burn victims) are kept off a firm surface with air,” he said. “That was about 28 years ago.”

He also remembers that in 1949, when the luxury cruise liner SS Noronic caught on fire in Toronto’s harbour, members from the council called each other to the scene to provide comfort and information to relatives and friends of those who had died or were injured in the fire.

“You could mobilize people back then,” he said. “There used to be more than a thousand members. But now there’s a little less than 300.”

Smaller parish councils began to dot the GTA, naturally drawing membership away from the original group, which still considers nine parishes in the centre of the city as its outreach territory: St. Michael’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Basilica, St. Patrick’s, St. Basil’s, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Holy Rosary, Blessed Sacrament and St. Monica’s.

Because of the smaller membership, the Toronto Council had to sell its downtown headquarters of 96 years at 582 Sherbourne St. to developers in 2006. The Knights had purchased the building from a cobbler (the equivalent of a shoe manufacturer today) for $26,500, a year after the council’s first meeting in 1909, according to a booklet prepared for the council’s 75th anniversary. The council now continues its operations from 250 Davisville Ave.

Over the years, the Knights have contributed to many projects, as varied as supplying aid to the Catholic chaplains overseas during the First World War and picking troops up at the Summerhill train station to drive them to their barracks during the Second World War, to putting new doors on St. Paul’s Basilica and supporting the Lifeline program at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

 But one of Walke’s personal favourite memories was the entertainment the Knights provided to the seniors at Providence Villa for close to 60 years.

“We’d put on barbecues and special concerts and we used to make up gift packages for them at Christmas. I would get dressed up as Santa Claus and distribute them.”

Walke highlights the council’s Columbus Boys’ Club and Camp, which the Knights operated for 75 years in Orillia, catering to underprivileged boys. He said upwards of 80,000 youth had attended by the time it closed in 2006.

Patrick Francis, a past Grand Knight with the council, said it was hard to let go of that responsibility.

“It was very sad when we had to let it go and sold the property,” he said. “It was something we were involved in for such a long time.”

But the list of things the council has contributed to continues, with concerts at Princess Margaret Hospital and a lot of work for the poor and the aged, Francis said.

The council also continues to draw new blood, said Quentin Schesnuik, the council’s financial secretary. Schesnuik, 37, joined only three years ago.

“If you want to learn about your faith, there are so many way to do that theologically — there are so many classes you could take, Scripture readings you could do... but you also need an avenue with which to do something in terms of good works,” he said. “I was looking for a place where I could do good works with a group that has Catholic components.”

Over the past 100 years, the council has had 61 Grand Knights, whose photos adorn the walls of the new council headquarters. Many recognition plaques and awards which also adorn the walls attest to the Knights’ charitable work in Toronto.

To highlight the centenary, Council 1388 will be hosting a gala dinner April 25 at Le Parc Banquet Hall in Markham. Tickets are $100. For more information, call Patrick Francis at (416) 767-9579.

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