St. Joseph’s-on-the-Lake: A Look Back
From Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto's Waterfront Heritage - A short distance to the east, the Sisters of St. Joseph established St. Joseph’s-on-the-Lake Convent and Novitiate in 1918. The imperious three-story neo-Gothic structure stood near the highest point of the Bluffs, until it was torn down to make room for development in the early 1960s.
The only remnant of St. Joseph’s today is Cathedral Bluffs Drive, which runs south from the Kingston Road and was formerly the long driveway that led south to the convent above the cliffs.
Having arrived in Toronto in 1851, the sisters already had a long tradition of service in the city. Some years previously they had sold their farm in the Beach and had established another property in Scarborough, located at present-day St. Clair and Warden Avenues, to grow food for their House of Providence Charity Centre in downtown Toronto. This tradition of service continued in the Bluffs, with the sisters offering Catholic education to boys and girls. The convent also operated as a working farm, infirmary, and home for retired sisters.
Lifelong Bluffs resident Bob McCowan recalls that one of the main sources of water at the novitiate come from the lake, pumped halfway up the side of the cliff and held in a large cistern. He remarks that this was a clever departure from the practices of the local farmers, who, in dry summers, resorted to digging successive wells on their properties. He recalls that the nuns went out routinely to the Bluffs for picnics: “They had a path, and took their exercise down there … To this day I remember what they looked like playing badminton in those dog-gone long dresses.”
The Annals of the Sisters of St. Joseph of 1919 describe the setting of St. Joseph’s-on-the-Lake as “beautiful, quiet, intensely spiritual…the nature and surroundings are so inspiring,” and add, “May its fruits be lasting.” Mrs. Barbara (née Beech) Kennedy had fond memories of attending St. Joseph’s School in the 1940s. As she lay in her bed during the long nights of winter, her mind would drift to the stern but fair Sister Frances Xavier, whom she imagined standing on the balcony in the luminous moonlight, overlooking the lake.
Excerpted from Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage by M. Jane Fairburn. Copyright © M. Jane Fairburn, 2013, janefairburn.com Published by ECW Press, ecwpress.com.