When there’s a nip in the air and the leaves start to fall, the time is right to visit Leaside’s Father Caulfield Parkette, a tiny parcel of land sometimes called Triangle Park because of its unusual shape, located behind St. Anselm’s Church at MacNaughton Rd. and Cameron Cres.
Naming parks after prominent figures in the community is a well-established tradition. But beyond the name there’s often a fascinating tale of a bygone era. That is certainly the case with Father Caulfield, a well-known and seminal figure in the years when Leaside was growing up.
Father Francis Caulfield was St. Anselm’s first pastor and a driving force behind the first Catholic community in Leaside. He led the building of not only the parish but a new church and school as well.
It was 1938 and the new Catholic community, like communities everywhere, was facing the hardest of hard times: the grinding poverty of the “dirty ’30s,” when a worldwide economic depression crushed lives and shattered hope.
No one had any money. Newspapers of the era wrote that in 1938 the average salary in Toronto had been $17 a week for five years; it took $23.66 a week for a family to live.
In Europe, nations were sliding into the frightening prelude to chaos, as Hitler launched a series of invasions that would soon lead the world to the most destructive war ever seen.
While the world teetered on the brink, in July 1938, Father Caulfield came to Leaside. He was 47 years old.
Before arriving in Leaside, Father Caulfield was a country priest “with twinkling eyes and a disarming manner,” as one parishioner described him in a magazine commemorating the 50th anniversary of the parish in 1988. “He had charisma before we knew what that was.”
Leaside was predominantly a Protestant town at that time with only about 100 Catholic families.
One of the new priest’s first tasks was a quick tour of the neighbourhood. While striding down Bayview Ave. with his dog Tinker, he spotted a bankrupt meat market. The empty storefront soon became the site of his first church.
The Bayview Ave. “church” met the immediate needs of the congregation, but there was more to be done, so he turned his attention to building a two-room school at a site on Millwood Rd., which opened to 79 pupils in September, 1939.
The new parish grew rapidly to the point that a new church was needed by 1941. Some 12 years earlier the Diocese had acquired an ideal parcel of land on Millwood Rd. between MacNaughton Rd. and Bessborough Dr. Father Caulfield began raising money for the new church.
The building program would cost $50,000. According to the church magazine, Father Caulfield raised $30,000 from a grant from the Episcopal Corporation and personally donated $20,000 of his own money, no small sum. The new church, designed to seat 400 people, was completed by December 1941.
Although the war years slowed down development in Leaside, the Catholic community continued to grow rapidly. By 1959 when Father Merrit Griffin took over as second pastor at St. Anselm’s it was clear to everyone that a much bigger church was needed.
The church built by Father Caulfield was demolished in 1965 to make way for a dramatically “new style” church. Seating some 1,000 parishioners, it is considered today one of the most beautiful churches in Toronto.
Father Caulfield’s generosity was legendary. He was deeply touched by the plight of the poor, and instead of collecting money he frequently found himself giving it away.
According to the parish commemorative magazine, he had inherited some $90,000 – a staggering sum for the times. He made a point of giving it away to those “down on their luck or just poor” – and there were many in those days.
To honour this special figure, the Borough of East York officially named the triangle of land at MacNaughton and Cameron the Francis M. Caulfield Parkette as an enduring tribute to the generosity and many contributions to the public good of St. Anselm’s first pastor.