At Weston Road and Lawrence West, St. John the Evangelist Church is currently under renovation.

Remains under church reveal a curious pattern

Discovered bodies spark further investigation

Archeologists weren’t expecting to find bodies under St. John the Evangelist Church in Toronto. Then again, recent history indicates that maybe, they should have.

“We’ve seen this many, many times before,” said Dr. Ron Williamson, chief archaeologist at Archaeological Services Inc.

The bodies belonged to a cemetery, built well before the city grew around it. According to Williamson, cemeteries were often moved to accommodate building plans and the bodies underneath are supposed to move as well. Records show the cemetery at Lawrence West and Weston Road had moved, but as this recent discovery reveals, that might not be the case.

“A few weeks ago, in September, we did initial tests, found that there were bodies in the ground,” said Williamson. “We decided to investigate further, to determine the nature and intent of the cemetery.”

Father Fernando Couta has experience dealing with situations like this. In 2012, four years after he became pastor of St. Mary’s Church on Bathurst Street, a mass grave was uncovered under the parish. However, instead of an old graveyard, the bodies under St. Mary’s were cholera victims from the 1830s.

St. Mary's Church, at Adelaide Street W and Bathurst Street.
St. Mary’s Church, at Adelaide Street W and Bathurst Street. (Louis Pin)

“We called the cardinal, police, the same archeologists … that are working on St. John’s,” said Couta. “They knew there were people buried, but no one could say much.”

St. Mary’s church is in the midst of a renovation project, but they’re still planning a memorial for the bodies found under the parish.

“[We’re planning it in] bronze or stone,” said Couta. “Either an angel kneeling down, or a cross; we want something people going down the street [will] notice.”

For now, archeologists are still determining the size of the graveyard under St. John the Evangelist Church, and Williamson is not sure when, or even if, we will discover other graves like these.

“I don’t know if we’ll find another one … but we’ll continue to investigate [St. John’s] until we’re sure we have the full cemetery, and then we file a report,” Williamson said. “These investigations are triggered only when human remains are found; that’s why this is good. Plans can be changed.”