When Susan Baker found out she had been hired as an English and phys ed teacher at North York’s Senator O’Connor College School in 1976, her husband took her for a drive so she could have a look at her new place of employment.
As they made their way up Victoria Park Avenue 37 years ago, Baker spied through the trees the stately O’Connor House, on the same site as the school.
“It was magnificent. It took my breath away,” said Baker, now the school’s principal.
Other than a couple of years at another Catholic high school as vice-principal, she has spent her career at Senator O’Connor.
In fact, Baker, who retires next month, stayed on longer to help organize the school’s 50th anniversary celebrations being held on Saturday, June 1.
“It’s going to be great. We expect 1,000,” she said.
The celebration will kick off at 2 p.m. with a mass and the opening ceremonies, including a special presentation to Brother Domenic Viggiani, president of De La Salle College, who will accept plaques on behalf of the school’s founding Christian Brothers, some of whom will also attend the event.
The opening ceremonies will be followed by an alumni basketball game.
During the afternoon, there will be arts presentations, live music, decade rooms, the sale of past yearbooks, and food and refreshments.
In the evening, there will be an alumni show and an after party.
However, the event will be about more than reuniting alumni and others with a connection to the school.
From 4 to 7 p.m., reunion guests will get a sneak peak of the restoration of the historic O’Connor House, which was severely damaged in a fire just over a year ago.
“We’re having the building come to life,” said Tony Wagner, chair of the O’Connor House board of directors.
Reunion guests will be able to tour the first floors of the O’Connor House and the adjacent Coach House, which has been used by students since last September for theatre arts. The Coach House was not damaged by the fire but has undergone renovations to restore the building.
Only the first floors have been restored at this time due to financial constraints, although Wagner said the board will soon launch a fundraising campaign to cover some costs to date and to finish restoration work in the future.
The original budget to restore the O’Connor House, the Coach House and a shed was $4.2 million. So far, $5.6 million has been spent on the work.
“It’s nobody’s fault. It’s an old building,” he said, adding unexpected expenses cropped up during renovations.
The O’Connor House was built in the 1930s as the home of philanthropist Senator Frank O’Connor, a politician and founder of the Laura Secord candy stores.
He died in 1939, leaving his 900-acre farm near Victoria Park and Ellesmere Road to the Christian Brothers.
In 1963, J.J. Lynch High School opened on the site, becoming the first co-educational Catholic school in the Toronto archdiocese. However, boys were taught by Christian Brothers and girls were taught on a different floor by nuns with the Daughters of Wisdom.
By 1965, the school had been renamed Senator O’Connor and by the 1966/67 school year, boys and girls were taught in the same classrooms.
For many years, the school’s future hung in the balance, Baker said. Before full provincial funding was extended to Catholic high schools in 1984, Senator O’Connor students, teachers and parents went year to year wondering if the school would survive, she said.
Baker, who has been at the school so long she has taught the children of parents she instructed years ago, said Senator O’Connor inspires loyalty.
For example, other faculty have also been there for decades, including Halina Cosentino who began in 1973, and Rose Colangelo, who joined in 1976.
“People stay. They’re lifers. The only time you leave is if you’re moving out of the city,” Baker said.
“To me, it’s always been the relationships (that make Senator O’Connor special). It’s really tight-knit. We treated the kids like your own kids. The idea is to turn them into people who are compassionate and caring and offer something to society. We all take great pride in the community.”