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Facer Street Community Walking Tour – The Old “Foreign Quarter”

 

Welcome to the Facer Street community. Facer Street is named after William Facer who farmed in the area for 40 years until his death in 1827. The Facer Street neighbourhood dates back to the 1870s and 1880s when it was covered by orchards and farmland. At that time Irish workers moved into the area to work on the 2nd Welland Canal. Many more newcomers came into the area when the 3rd Welland Canal was being built from 1913-1932. At that time the area was known as the ‘foreign quarter.’ It was somewhat cut off from the city by the 3rd Welland Canal which ran more or less where the QEW highway does now.

 

It was and is a neighborhood with a rich life of its own; a community of familiar and known faces, working-class and ethnic – multicultural or cosmopolitan sounds too grand a title for Facer. It is a self-sufficient place, not heavily dependent on the powers-that-be and on their rules and regulations. In some sense it is beyond the pale. It could be a backwater, but no backwater to itself – a unique area.

 

It is a place of daily walks to the local corner stores and cafes, warm-scented Polish bakeries, welcoming Italian cafes, beautiful Ukrainian churches, and descendants of those who followed the North Star, escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, and many others that consider this place their home. There are proud gardens in front yards and fruit trees left over from an earlier era which welcome new waves of newcomers and offer quiet farewells for those who are moving on up.

 

In the early days there were ragmen, garage mechanics, candy stores on every corner, milkmen and icemen with horse-drawn wagons, egg-men and green-grocers with produce from nearby farms and “uva per wino.” Close your eyes and you can still catch the smell of beer rising from basement bars and hear the crack of billiard balls, familiar, but always with a sense of risk, friendly but with a tinge of violence, safe, but with a touch of danger. See in your minds-eye the old ladies in widowed-black or in bright flowered kerchiefs scurrying down Facer Street, perhaps the iconic image for the area.

 

Welcome to my part of town – Facer Street!

---Stan Skrzeszewski

 

  1. Sir Casimir Gzowski Park (corner of Niagara Street and Garnet Street)

Sir Casimir Gzowski is a shining example of those immigrants who came to Canada, to neighborhoods like Facer Street, and accomplished great things. 

Gzowski was a Polish nobleman who after participating in a failed uprising against Tsarist rule came to Canada and made a fortune as a railway engineer, contractor and promotor. Gzowski was instrumental in making Queen Victoria Park (1887) in Niagara Falls a public rather than a private park.  Among his many accomplishments, he was the first chairman of the Niagara Parks Commission (1885) and designer of the International Railway Bridge (1873) in Fort Erie.  He served as acting Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and was knighted by Queen Victoria.

The park is on Niagara Street which was originally part of the Indian Trail network that criss-crossed Niagara. It is quite likely that members of the Neutral or Attawandaron Nation stopped here to rest as they travelled along this trail. Attawandaron was the name given to them by the Hurons which loosely translated means "Those whose speech is awry," which could also be applied to the English spoken by many of the “foreigners” who later settled in this area.

The park is also the historic location of St. Joseph’s Mission Church, a small wooden structure built in 1876 to serve Irish canal workers and later Italian canal workers. In 1914, it was renamed Our Lady of Perpetual Help and served the Polish community. Finally, in the early 1950s it was taken over by the Italian community and was the precursor of St. Alfred’s Church.

 

  1. 82 Currie Street

One of the oldest homes in the neighborhood, it served as the parish rectory for the Polish Church once located in the park. In 1917 it became the home of the Polish Council which issued passports and identity cards in particular to Americans of Polish descent who wanted to join the Polish Army being trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1917-1919.  

 

  1. 193 Vine Street

This house goes back to 1880. The original owner was Henry Rolls and he built the house for farmhands. The house is a fine example of vernacular design, a category of architecture based on local needs, construction materials and which reflects local traditions. This form of architecture does not use formally trained architects but relies instead on the design skills and traditions of local builders. Several homes along this stretch of Vine Street represent original designs.

 

  1. Saints Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church (14 Rolls Ave)

In 1943, a plot of land was acquired for $600 at the intersection of QEW and Niagara St under the guidance of Father Isidore Borecky. A well-known architect, Rev. Philip Ruh, who already had designed and built many Byzantine style Ukrainian churches in Western Canada and Ontario finalized the plans and build the church. Construction began in the spring of 1944. On January 1, 1950, then Bishop Borecky consecrated the completed church.  Inside the church you will find incredibly beautiful iconography done by Igor Suchachew. Don’t miss any opportunity to have a look inside this church. It is a true gem.

 

  1. Corner of Niagara Street and Facer Street – Green Space

This bit of green space is built on fill from the 3rd Welland Canal and was originally known as the Facer Street Playground on land leased from the Department of Railways and Canals in 1921. People from Facer used to pasture their cows and goats on this green space. Next to the park is the Boys Club of Niagara, once the QE Centre, which was a great place for dances and fights in the 1960s.

 

  1. 9 Facer Street

In 1906 William Gill a gardener lived here; part of this home was originally a fruit and vegetable cold storage shed built to supply the ships on the 3rd Welland Canal. In the 1960s it was famous as Ubaldo’s Barber Shop. Ubaldo Tesolin was considered the honorary mayor and a defining presence of Facer.

 

  1.  17 Facer Street – Fusion Dance Studio

On June 20, 1927 the All People’s Mission of the Queen Street Baptist Church was dedicated. In the 1930’s the Baptist Mission had English services, a Bible School, and a Ukrainian and Polish service, conducted by Rev. D.W. Shumilo. In 1947 the Baptist Mission on Facer Street became a full- fledged Baptist Church. A few years ago, the church closed due to a shrinking number of parishioners, although you can’t close the incredible history of this church.

 

  1. 22 Facer Street – Roberto’s Pizza Passion

From 1906-1915 this was the location of the home of Walter Carlson, a blacksmith and in the 1920’s it was the home of Stan Piatkowski-Bulanda, one of the founding families of Facer, and the proprietor of the St. Catharines Packing Company on Garnet St. Later it was the site of Cotroneo’s Roman Villa Tavern and today it is home to the best pizza in St. Catharines. Once upon a time the story goes, a witch lived in the house, just back across Currie St., which has since been torn down. Don’t ask me why.  The witch was probably just a funny, old lady with a mean disposition. By the way look across the road and back the way you came and you might see the “Doll’s House” – a small building made of stone.

 

  1. 25 Facer Street – Your Deli Polonez

Drop in to this little deli for an authentic European Deli Experience. Make sure to check out their meat counter for all your preferred sausages and cold cuts. Their ‘pączki’ are not to be missed.

 

  1. 29 Facer Street – The Original Bakery

This is the most storied building on Facer Street. In 1919 there was a baker’s strike in St. Catharines when the Anglo-Canadian bakers tried to push up the price of bread. Well, the “foreigners” of Facer decided to take matters in their own hands and ninety-nine of them formed a co-operative company and secured a permit for the erection of a $4,000 bakery on Facer street. At first it was known as The Polish Co-Operative Company. Later it became the Co-operative Bakery, then the Square Deal Bakery, and finally Sorrento Bakery which closed on November 23, 2008.

Upstairs was a large meeting room and stage. At one time it was used by the Baptist Church for Sunday School classes, and it was reputed also to have been the home of a regular and well-known, gambling establishment. The members of the Ukrainian National Federation used it as a meeting hall and staged plays and concerts here.

However, things were not altogether peaceful at the new bakery. The cooperative bakery on Facer was bombed in 1920. It could have been bombed by the Baker’s Union which was upset by the formation of an independent bakery on Facer, or by some anti-Bolsheviks, who did not like the idea of a ‘co-operative’ bakery and who were concerned about the left-leaning politics of some of the foreigners of Facer. Maybe it was just someone who didn’t like foreigners. In early 1921 there was another bomb at the Cooperative Bakery on Facer Street. This time a black resident of the Facer Street neighborhood, Charles Smith, ran out to the bomb and pulled out the sputtering fuses preventing a 2nd explosion. And you thought, it was just about the bread!

 

  1. 43 Facer Street - Dom Polski / Polish Hall

This is the heart of the old Polish community on Facer. There have been Polish halls on Facer dating back to at least 1917. The original building was dedicated on October 11, 1942 by the Polish Consul General. Dr. Tadeusz Brzezinski, the father of Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter.  The parking lot next to the Dom Polski was the site of the White Eagle Café and later the original Pizzaville, the first pizza place in the area. The Dom Polski houses the Canadian Polish Society. Ah the stories this corner of Facer could tell.

 

  1. 50 Facer Street – Club Guardia Lombardi

The is the club house, and yes, you can drop in for a coffee or a drink, housing the “Association of Former Citizens of Guardia Lombardi”, Province of Avellino, Campania, Italy. Although this small town in Italy has a population of just over 1,600, it has along and proud history and there are enough people in St. Catharines who come from that town to warrant a club house. The president of the club is Frank Gentile, and the Mayor of Guardia Lombardi is his cousin, Antonio Gentile. Just another interesting component of the rich European heritage on Facer.

 

  1. 53 Facer Street – St. Joseph’s Bakery

Since the 1960s this has been the source of excellent breads and desserts. Step inside for that warm bread smell. Facer was known for its bakeries over the years. Make sure you try their ‘incredible’ cakes.

 

  1. 4 Augusta Avenue – St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The sod for the parish hall was turned in 1949 and in 1960 construction of the church began. Make sure that you have a look at the brilliant mosaic of St. George battling the dragon over the front entrance. The iconography of a horseman with spear overcoming evil is a defining image of Christianity.

 

  1. 60 Facer Street – St. Catharines Christian Centre

The Christian Centre was originally the Anglican Facer Street Mission of the Good Shepherd, which began its work in 1914. In the early days this Anglican Church was the host to many plays, concerts and gatherings (some intended to save “the ungodly”, including Catholic foreigners in this area). 

 

  1. 88 Facer Street – Italian Café

Drop in here for a real Italian Espresso Coffee and join some Italian gentlemen in a friendly card game. Remember that in the 1950s this was a Red & White Grocery and later a pharmacy. But today, no place is closer to Italy than this unique café.

 

  1. Prince of Wales School

On October 1, 1922 the Prince of Wales School opened its door for the first time. It consisted of 4 classrooms. At that time the school was at the very edge of the city and there were no paved roads or sidewalks this far down Facer Street. This was the end of town.

 

  1. 11 Charles Avenue

This little house was the childhood home of Steve Oneschuk, an outstanding four-sport athlete – football, hockey, basketball and lacrosse. At the University of Toronto Oneschuk was an all-star in football and in basketball. He played for the Tiger-Cats and won three Grey Cups.

Remember too that across the school yard is Marlborough Avenue the site of the childhood home of hockey star Stan Mikita and a little further away on Sikorski Avenue that of super-model Linda Evangelista. It may be a humble neighborhood but it bred some excellent people.

 

  1. Paroisse Immaculée-Conception - 99 Garnet Street    

In the 1950s and early 1960s this was the United Mennonite Church and it is now the francophone Catholic Paroisse Immaculée Conception.

 

  1. 85 Garnet Street - Rosa's Italian Food Market

The building housed the St. Catharines Packing Company in the 1930's. During the great depression the packing company closed and it was reopened as a produce market in the 1940's.  Later it was the Italia Fruitland and Meat Market ran by the Gasbarini family. Rosa began working at the store in 1974 and now she runs it in the tradition of great food in a family owned establishment.

 

  1. Our Lady of Perpetual Help

This is the Polish Church in our great and varied community.  It was completed in 1958. Inside in the front doors, immediately to the left, is a small chapel and in it you will the original grave markers from the Polish cemetery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. These marked the final resting place for 25 Polish soldiers who were training in the Polish camp during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Have a look at the stained-glass windows on the left side, near the front of the church. These windows tell the history of the Polish community in St. Catharines. See if you can see the image of the Polish soldiers arriving in St. Catharines just after WWII.

 

  1. 63 Garnet Street (Home of Mal Nicholson)

Just to the left (west) of the church is a cute, brick house. This was the home of Mallagy A. K. Nicholson and his wife Jean (Raymond).  Popularly known as “Mal”, he was a building contractor. One of his many contracts was to haul gravel and cement for the building of the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The Nicholsons were also one of the many Black families who had settled in the Facer area. Facer was one of the final terminals on the famed Underground Railway. But, more importantly this home was one of the best places to go for good treats on Halloween, given that in this community, this Black family was better off than many of the newly arrived “foreign” families.

 

  1. Grotto dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (5 Oblate Street)

Beside the parish rectory stands a beautiful grotto dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was built in 1954. No matter what your faith, or lack of, take a minute to take in the peace and tranquility of this corner of the Facer Street neighbourhood.

 

  1. Dr. Huq Family Branch, St. Catharines Public Library / St. Catharines Kiwanis Aquatic Centre (425 Carlton Street)

Come on in and visit this beautiful and modern branch library and aquatic centre indicating the continued vibrancy of the community. However, step outside and for those of us old enough to remember you can still smell and taste the apples that once grew in an agricultural research centre where the park now stands. Most of us who grew up here in the 1950s and 1960s can remember jumping the fence and eating those delicious apples. Look across the park and you will see an old brick building, once the centre of the research centre and before that the Buchanan Farm house, one of the original farm buildings in old Grantham. The sense of the farm is never far away from the good people of Facer.

 

  1. St. Alfred’s Church (272 Vine Street)

Our walking tour appropriately ends in a sense where it started, at a church. Facer Street is anchored by its churches. St. Alfred’s represents the Italian centre of Facer Street. This church also began its life in that little triangle at the corner of Niagara and Garnet. In 1951 when the Polish community relocated to the new Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Oblate the English-speaking Catholic families in the area took over the old mission church.

More space was needed, and so in 1952 land was purchased from the Presto family at the corner of Vine and Carlton Streets. A concrete basement, that was built to serve as a hall, was used as temporary quarters for the new St. Alfred School, which opened in September of 1952. Cardinal McGuigan blessed a prefabricated Church, erected on the foundation by the parishioners, on November 30, 1952.

The beautiful and large church you are looking at now was opened in 1967 and Bishop McCarthy blessed the new Church on June 18. The old Church was renovated for use as the Italian Catholic Center. It is gone now but as you wander around the new Church, look for the old “Pieta” statue, which harkens back to the old church and to the faith of the Italian community.  

 

We hope that you have enjoyed this walking tour of the Facer Street community. You have now joined the innumerable waves of people, newcomers who have been introduced to Canada through Facer Street – a unique neighborhood and now we hope that you will become a regular visitor to our little corner of the city – Welcome, to Facer Street!

 

 

 

 

Further Reading on the Facer Neighborhood

 

 

Favro, Terri. Illustrations by Ron Edding. Bella and the Facer Street Gang.

grey border books, 2017. (Graphic novel about a girl growing up on Facer in the ‘70s) http://greybordersbooks.jigsy.com/bella

 

Favro, Terri. The Proxy Bride. Quattro Books. http://quattrobooks.ca/books/the-proxy-bride/ (Novel inspired by Facer Street)

 

Favro, Terri. Sputnik’s Children. ECW Press, 2017. (Novel inspired by Facer Street) https://ecwpress.com/products/sputniks-children

 

Radecki, Henry. Facer Street Block. Facer European Festival, 2016.

 

Radecki, Henry. The History of the Polish Community in St. Catharines. Project History, 2002

 

-Skrzeszewski, Stan. Facer Street Poems. grey border books, 2016.

Skrzeszewski, Stan. A Walk Down Facer Street:1870-1939 . grey border books, 2018.

http//greybordersbooks.jigsy.com/stan-skrzeszewski

Donate Now

The Facer District Merchants and Residents Association is a volunteer group working towards beautifying the Facer District area. if you would like to make a donation to the organization you may do so via PayPal below, or by sending a cheque to:

The Facer District Merchant and Residents Association

22 Facer St, St Catharines, ON L2M5H3