Senator O'Connor's legacy of generosity, faith

By 
  • September 25, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - In setting out to protect a Toronto heritage home, Mary Fay discovered the story of a man so fascinating she spent years researching his life and deeds.

Four years ago, while walking by Senator O’Connor College School, Fay fell in love with a stately old home that sat boarded up on the school’s property, surrounded by a wire fence. Moved by its Colonial Revival-style architecture, she thought it deserved a second chance at life and began to research its history and its pending fate.
It turns out that not only was the owner — Francis Patrick O’Connor — Irish, like her, but he was also the founder of Laura Secord candy stores, a member of the Canadian Senate, a philanthropist and a man of faith. His home once hosted elite parties in what was then the Borough of North York. It also sat on a property of more than 240 hectares where O’Connor and his wife, Mary Ellen Hayes, kept Ayreshire cattle and race horses.

Currently, as the chair of the  O’Connor Irish Heritage House committee, Fay is trying to raise $1.9 million before December so that the house will once again come alive with Irish music and culture. But she also hopes to keep alive the story of a man who generously donated millions of dollars of his fortune until he died at the age of 54 in 1939.

“Generosity is the hallmark of Senator O’Connor’s life,” she said.

O’Connor, born in Desoronto in 1885, began making his fortune with the founding of Laura Secord in 1913 and then established its American version in the United States under the name Fanny Farmer. During the Depression — a time when few were millionaires in Canada — O’Connor used his money to support his employees, the Catholic Church and a variety of charities. On the 10th anniversary of his store, this chocolatier became the first candy company owner to share profits with his employees. And that was just the beginning of his generosity.

In the mid-1920s O’Connor donated a total of $125,000 to the St. Michael’s College building fund. It helped pay for the world’s only Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies which exists on the University of Toronto campus today.

During the ‛30s, he donated $5,000 to the Toronto archdiocese to pay off the interest on its debt. Years later, he entrusted $500,000 to Cardinal James McGuigan, archbishop of Toronto, to pay off the entire debt and support charities such as the Sick Children’s Hospital, the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, the Christie Street Military Hospital, the Canadian Institute for the Blind and St. Joseph’s Hospital, among others.

“He has touched Toronto all over the place - East, North, South, West and Central. He has roots everywhere. He was an outstanding layman of his day,” Fay said.

Archives tell of O’Connor’s strong involvement in Catholic faith development. In September of 1925, he organized the diocese’s first laymen retreat and was made Knights of Columbus president in Toronto for the following seven years. In the early ’30s, he bought a building belonging to a Protestant denomination, had it consecrated as a Roman Catholic parish and asked the bishop to name it Precious Blood after his own personal devotion. His daughter was the first parishioner to be married there.

He was made Knight of St. Gregory in 1936-37 and was honoured by the De La Salle Brothers and Cadets

In a 1940 article of the Evening Telegram,it was reported that Archbishop McGuigan said: “The late Senator O’Connor knew the failings of human nature; he was deeply conscious of his own failings, but he loved mankind and saw in all humanity the image of his Creator. He was direct and practical in mental vision and speech. There was nothing in him that even remotely flavoured of the artificial or laboured for effect.”

Fay is determined to keep O’Connor’s legacy of generosity, faith and imagination alive for generations to come. The house itself provides inspiration for beauty and creativity, she said.

The house, which is in bad need of restoration (it escaped demolition in the 1970s when members of the Toronto Catholic District School Board lobbied to have its exterior protected under law because they could not afford to restore it), could deteriorate beyond repair if money is not raised by December, Fay said.

The home contains many unique features such as a cedar room, marble finishing around some windows, a bar footrest, a large cement sink in the basement and much more. The house is accompanied by a five-door coachhouse and a smaller building, which together make up 10,000 square feet.

“If we can bring this back to life in society, we can edify the young and remind the old that we can have beauty. That doesn’t have to stop. It’s something we can come alive with,” Fay said.

She hopes to restore the home so that it can be used as a local cultural centre for art, music, readings, displays, recitals, possibly retreats and school board staff meetings.

The charitable donation number for O’Connor House is BN 81563 3946 RR000. To learn more about the project, visit www.irishheritagehouse.com and www.oconnorhouse.ca/supporters.

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