‘The 30-acre site was purchased for $18,000,’ writes Susan Goldenberg
Eighty-seven years ago on Dec. 7, 1933 the cornerstone was laid for St. John’s Rehabilitation Hospital, today North York’s oldest surviving hospital. It was the Toronto area’s first rehabilitation hospital. Previously farmland, the 30-acre site was purchased for $18,000 — an outstanding bargain in retrospect. Today, houses in the area, with frontage from 55 to 140 square feet, cost around $2 million.
The hospital was founded by the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, a Canadian Anglican religious order started in 1884 “to heal the mind, body and soul.” It had set to work immediately caring in Moose Jaw, Sask. for those injured in the 1885 Riel Rebellion.
Subsequently, it opened a women’s hospital in downtown Toronto. In the 1930s the sisters switched their focus to rehabilitation, a medical field gaining increased support as vital. They felt it required its own hospital. They could carve out a niche that general hospitals downtown would regard as complementary, not competitive, especially as it would be far apart in then remote North York.
According to “A Journey Just Begun,” the order’s history published in 2015, sister Dora (Grier), mother superior 1916-1945, “was very much her own woman and not shy about voicing her opinion or corralling people to assist in various ventures.”
She “corralled” prominent Torontonians to be trustees and raise building funds, persuading wealthy businessperson/philanthropist Vincent Massey (later Canada’s first native-born governor general) to be chair. In his 1963 memoir, “What’s Past Is Prologue,” he wrote: “She had all the compelling force of a medieval Abbess.”
She “corralled” hospital design and administration expert Dr. Harvey Agnew (1895-1971) of Toronto, executive-secretary of the Canadian Hospital Council (now, Association), for advice.
The hospital was opened officially May 22, 1937 by Gov. General Lord Tweedsmuir. Initially, there were 64 patients, full capacity. The Sisters planted trees and gardens with a walkway, believing the outdoor accessibility would help healing.
In 2012 St. John’s became part of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Expanded over the years, it now has 160 beds, thousands of patients and is Canada’s only hospital providing organ transplant convalescence and Ontario’s only one for burns rehabilitation.
Written by Susan Goldenberg.
Originally published on November 27, 2020, on toronto.com.