Yesterday and Today - June 2021

Humber Summit's changing elementary school

By Tim Lambrinos

School enrollment is an ever fluctuating number. When schools are closed due to declining enrollment, individual boards hang onto properties anticipating neighbourhoods will bounce back.

And an informal competition occurs between the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board when one board occasionally takes over another property to intermittently run their own school.

The story behind Venerable John Merlini Catholic School at 123 Whitfield Avenue is an intriguing one that illustrates growth, reduction and modifications while adjusting to shifts in enrollment.

Along Islington Avenue in the late 1940’s, it was clear an elementary school was needed for children in Humber Summit. At the time, school kids were required to stroll more than a mile, rain or shine, to the Emery Public School at Finch and Weston Road. However, the number of children in Humber Summit had increased due to post-war expansion. At the time, Humber Summit’s parents held a strike and petitioned the township of North York to build a new school closer to Islington Avenue.

In 1949, Humber Summit’s first two room schoolhouse was built west of Islington on the northeast corner of Borden Avenue and George Street. The building was constructed from wood but covered in sheets of asphalt/granular siding called, Insul-brick.

Today the intersection where it once stood is known as Whitfield Avenue and Larchmere Avenue. A much larger red brick school was built further west shortly afterward in 1951. The new school was also called the Borden Avenue Public School and it had five classrooms. Vince Fox was the original janitor at the old school and he joined William Hamilton at the new one. Hamilton also served as the school’s gardener where he was known to expertly prune the red geraniums in the front garden.

The school’s name was changed shortly afterward to become the Whitfield Avenue Public School. The school was built over a market garden owned by Ulysses Cerracini. A whole field of Cerracini’s wild asparagus grew for several years in the school’s enormous yard as area residents were often seen picking it and taking it home.

Whitfield Avenue’s new school was quite basic for its time with an extremely small gymnasium and only a portion of one hallway used as the school’s library. Once a week, the bookmobile visited the school to supply new reading material for students.

Elgin Skinner served as a long standing principal of the school along with well known teachers Allan Cox, Ruth Awrey, Mrs. Singer, Leta Norris and Ruth Stephen.

Other teachers included Marilyn Broad, Kathryn Durham, Teresa Kowalchuk and Rosalie Sniderman.

The new school encouraged residential builds on new streets called Emily Avenue and Apted Avenue. During this time, most young couples built their own homes.

In 1955, one new student at the school was Bonnie Sinclair. Her father had just built their family a new home on Apted Avenue.

Sinclair attended the school from 1955 to 1964 and has many fond memories. In particular, June’s Play Day that included athletic events like high jump, long jump, relay races and make-shift parades. School trips as well as some distinct disciplinary tactics used by teacher Ruth Awrey.

The school continued to grow and an addition, library and a nurse’s office were all added.

In 1959, a principal’s assistant named George Meek was added to the school’s roster to address some unruly behaviour. Meek also taught Grade 7 and 8. He had extensive teaching experience in numerous rural schools near Woodstock, Ontario. He came to Humber Summit out of the blue after seeing a newspaper advertisement for 300 teachers at North York’s new schools.

Meek brought a different style of leadership. He would use his position to contact parents of rowdy children, explaining to them that trouble brought into the school became his problem and he would act to prevent it. The parents agreed, and he would receive their support. Occasionally, he was required to administer “the strap” to uncontrollable boys. Looking back, Meek finds that the use of the strap during this time period did not accomplish what it actually was intended to do. He has thought it to have a far more profound and negative effect on shaping children’s lives as a form of physical punishment and fear.

By 1963, Meek left to become vice-principal at a new school in Emery, Daystrom Drive Public School.

Sinclair graduated from the school in 1964 and immediately enrolled in Grade 9 at Emery Junior High. Marsh Morris was the first principal of the junior high.

Currently, Whitfield Avenue’s school has been transformed into Venerable John Merlini Catholic School.

And Sinclair has been happily married to Fred Martin for the past 45 years. They are proud grandparents, while residing in St. Catharines. Bonnie (Sinclair) Martin’s book entitled, I Remember – Growing up in Humber Summit, provides an account of the area and the legacy of Humber Summit in the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

Meek turned 85 this year and reflects fondly on his time at the school and the impact that he made.

The Whitfield portion of the school closed in 1982 after operating for one year in conjunction with the catholic school. This was due to declining enrollment and public school students were then required to attend nearby Gracedale Public School.

The current principal of Venerable John Merlini is Pasquale Paolitto. And the school is named after a famous Italian disciple of St. Gaspar from the early 1800’s.

Appropriately in 2002, nearby St. Gaspar’s school merged with Venerable John Merlini to provide classes for all of Humber Summit’s catholic school children.

As time goes on, some things never seem to change.

The proud tradition of learning that has helped shape countless numbers of children who live, play and learn at all of Whitfield Avenue’s remarkable elementary schools from years gone by continues in the people who help to shape futures today.