Graves discovered beneath downtown elementary school mean no expansion

The future of a downtown elementary school that was built over hundreds — possibly thousands — of buried bodies was on the agenda at a special meeting of the Toronto Catholic School Board Wednesday evening.

Thousands could be buried beneath old St. Paul Catholic School on Sackville Street

The St. Paul 's Basilica cemetery was covered over by the original St. Paul Catholic School and later, its playground. (CBC News)

The future of a downtown elementary school that was built over hundreds — possibly thousands — of buried bodies was on the agenda at a special meeting of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) Wednesday evening.

The meeting was called so parents could air their views about a plan to amalgamate schools in several parts of the city, because of changing enrolment numbers.

A plaque on the side of St. Paul Catholic School on Sackville Street commemorates the Irish immigrants who died and were later buried on the school site. (CBC News)

One of those areas is the Corktown - Regent Park neighbourhood, where St. Michael Catholic School is so desperately overcrowded that some children are taught in renovated squash courts leased from a neighbouring community centre.

Just blocks away is St. Paul Catholic School, designed to hold 447 students, but currently less than half full. 

However, board staff are against moving students from the overcrowded facility into St. Paul because, among other reasons, the school would have to be renovated. 

The cemetery that was adjacent to St. Paul's Basilica, on Queen Street East, was the destination for thousands of disease victims in the 1800s. (CBC News)

And before that work could take place, the board would have to overcome, in the words of the board's associate director of planning and facilities Angelo Sangiorgio, "a complication."

St. Paul school was built over the old burial ground, decommissioned in 1857, that served adjacent St. Paul's Basilica. That cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of Catholics, mostly Irish immigrants, who died during cholera and typhus outbreaks in the mid-1850s, according to Ron Williamson, chief archeologist at ASI Heritage, an archeological consulting firm based in Toronto.

Archeologist Ron Williamson says Irish immigrants who died of disease were often taken by cart from the so-called "fever sheds" for burial at what is now the site of St. Paul Catholic School. (CBC News)

And provincial regulations say to excavate a burial site, the owner has to first try to contact descendants of those buried there.

"Ideally, that's not a complication we want to deal with," Sangiorgio said.

Even if board staff did decide to satisfy the province's rules regarding building on burial sites, the St. Paul property would probably be too small to accept the students from St. Michael, said John Yan, the board's head of communications, who's also a graduate of St. Paul.

Although there's enough classroom space at St. Paul to accommodate students from both schools, Yan said the size of the land the school sits on is too small to satisfy the latest rules from the Ministry of Education. Those guidelines dictate that a school of 400-plus students should sit on about 1.6 hectares of land —  three times the size of St. Paul's lot.

Instead, staff are recommending that the board agree to build a new school, on the site of the old Duke of York public school in nearby Regent Park.

John Yan, head of communications for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, attended St. Paul Catholic School as a boy. (CBC News)

The TCDSB bought that site and demolished the school some time ago. It still needs provincial approval before a new school can be built there, according to board documents.

"The realization that the [St. Paul} site is on sacred property is unique and that's one of the reasons why, as students here, we always believed it was a special place to begin with," Yan said.

TCDSB trustees will take into consideration Wednesday night's input from parents before making a final decision on the future of the two schools at its meeting on Feb. 23, Yan said.