TORONTO (CCN)—The victims of Toronto’s cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1834 can finally rest in peace.

Built to honour an estimated 200 victims of cholera epidemics that swept through the city of York in 1832 and 1834, a monument at the Cholera Cemetery at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Toronto was blessed Sept. 24 by Bishop Robert Kasun. The remains in the cemetery are believed to be those of residents of the city and British and Irish immigrants who contracted the illness on transatlantic voyages.

Five years ago, St. Mary’s pastor Father Fernando Couto learned of human remains outside the church when members of a construction crew working on a gas line barged into his office.

“One of the workers said to me, ‘Father! Come quick,’ ” said Father Couto. “They had been loading soil onto the truck and found what looked like human remains. I told them to stop what they were doing, put the soil back and cover it with a tarp.”

Father Couto’s initial thought was that a crime had been committed. He called the coroner and Toronto police, who watched the site overnight. The next day, Father Couto called Archaeological Services Inc. to identify the remains.

“Judging by the width of her hips and the age of her teeth, she was a young woman. They also said she was probably one of the cholera victims from the first epidemic.”

Hundreds of people died in the two epidemics and many were buried in shallow mass graves. The epidemics were a precursor of what Toronto would face in 1847, when more than 800 people, mainly newly arrived Irish potato famine refugees, died in a typhus epidemic. The Irish arrived sick and malnourished, having spent weeks in unsanitary conditions inside the hulls of ships that became known as coffin ships.

“They did not dispose of human waste properly,” Father Couto said. “The food and drinking water was contaminated. People thought the ships themselves were full of bad air and called it the ‘disease of the Irish.’ I do not like repeating that phrase because it’s untrue and offensive. But the Irish were blamed.”

Father Couto said the bodies of the cholera victims outside St. Mary’s Church were dumped in mass graves or buried hastily. Some graves were as shallow as two feet.

“Disposing of the bodies was done in a panicked hurry. The city was not prepared to deal with an illness epidemic.”

Due to the hurried and anonymous nature in which the bodies were disposed, Father Couto said it is impossible to know who was Irish or Catholic. With that in mind, he chose not to put a Catholic crucifix or the Virgin Mary on the monument. Instead, the marble statue shows a simple cross with a woman, the symbol of life, looking down with a sombre expression at flowers and the souls which rest beneath them.

“It’s very sad,” said Bishop Kasun. “(Many of) these people were immigrants leaving Ireland to start a better life in Canada and they never got a chance to do that. It’s devastating to think that someone’s life came to an anonymous end in an unmarked grave.”

But Father Couto says the monument is not intended to inflict sadness. It is there to remind people of a forgotten piece of the city’s history.

“People remember what they see. I wanted to bring the history of St. Mary’s outside of the church and onto the sidewalk.”

Father Couto printed 10,000 pamphlets explaining the monument and the history of Toronto’s cholera outbreak. They are available at the entrance to the church. He said many local residents and tourists have taken an interest in this piece of the church’s history.

“People come to me and say, ‘I’ve lived here for 20 years, how did I not know about this?’”

While the story of the cholera victims does not have a happy ending, Bishop Kasun is proud of Couto’s hard work and his dedication to memorializing the victims.

“It’s a significant part of the Catholic Church’s history here in Toronto,” said Bishop Kasun. “I’m proud that we are doing something now to honour and recognize these individuals.”

The Catholic Register

A marble statue with a woman looking sombrely upon the flowers and souls beneath her stands as a memorial to those who died in Toronto’s first two cholera epidemics. The cholera cemetery is at St. Mary’s church in downtown Toronto. (Photo courtesy St. Mary’s Parish)