I often have a hard time imagining Toronto's past lives. In Dublin, there's always a foot in its past, a sense of connection with the age of Joyce's Dubliners and Maeve Brennan's Derdons and even sometimes with Swift and Strongbow. I tend to think that's as much to do with our storytelling as the ostensive evidence. And that those stories of Dublins past sink into our consciousness before memories are formed, giving them a deep and resonating sense of foreshadowing.
Not so with Toronto's past lives (for me at least), which I'm unravelling only as an immigrant. And adulthood often strips the magic from a city's past lives - one foot is always in the reality of poverty or oppression or the flip story of privilege and pomp. But still, there are some things that strike those magical chords and one is just up the road in Mount Pleasant cemetery — the Odd Fellows monument. It was only recently, after years of eyeing its symbols, that I uncovered its story.
I dug up a microfiche of a document from 1897, when the monument was constructed. It begins:
"The Odd Fellows of Ontario have every reason to be pleased with the success that has crowned the efforts of their Toronto brethren, in their endeavor to place a lasting tribute to the memory and respect of those for whom they had a kindly regard and fraternal feeling, but who were separated by distance, more or less, from the paternal home and, in some cases, were strangers in a strange land, but not without friends."
The monument - designed by Mr. Herbert Paull and built by F.B. Gullett & Sons - is a column, 27 feet tall. Its base is grey granite, the pillars are New Brunswick granite and the other pieces are limestone with elaborate and symbolic carvings. There are seven columns "the perfect number", on the lower part and three "representing Faith, Hope and Charity" in the upper, supporting a sphere which is a globe that reads "In God we Trust"
"The carvings in limestone include the all-seeing eye, the scythe, skull and cross bones, bow and arrow, a bundle of rods, the brazen serpent, a hand and heart, the axe, the hour glass, and the Holy Bible." Around the base is inscribed "Erected by the members of the I.O.O.F. of Toronto, A.D. 1897".
When it was unveiled 500 members participated in the ceremony, forming two lines at the entrance of the plot.
"Bro. Cl. T. Campbell Past Grand Sire, delivered a strong address on the advantages of the order, speaking of its beneficiary system and the spirit which prevailed in the lodges, where all members met together—all nationalities, all churches, rich and poor, high and low ; social caste did not link them to the Order… Dr. Campbell then unveiled the monument. The cords were unloosened that reached from the base to the globe, until they were unwound and the white covering fell to the ground, leaving unconcealed the magnificent column in all its freshness and polished whiteness, unspotted by time or weather. As the monument was unveiled those present applauded lustily."
I really don't know a lot about the Odd Fellows. But I guess I know enough of societies and organized religious groups to be skeptical, to know there's usually a gap between what's professed on paper and what's embodied in real life. Still… I love imagining this version of Toronto past - with their outward chivalry and their epic talismans. And I'm glad to have discovered layers hitherto hidden to me.