Tombstones amongst towers

At one of Toronto's busiest intersections sits a giant, mid-19th-century cemetery that is almost completely hidden from sight.

To have never heard of St. Michael's Cemetery is entirely understandable. Although it was once amidst open fields and farmland far from the city limits, it is now almost entirely enclosed by storefronts, houses, and high-rise dwellings. Other than from above, glimpses of the graveyard from the surrounding streets are rare, even when one is on the lookout. Only from the one remaining semi-public entrance to St. Michaels Cemetery, down an alleyway just south of St. Clair Avenue on Yonge Street, are you assured a viewpoint.

Don't be put off by the parking lot barrier and perpetually chained gates: a doorway on the right will hopefully be demagnetized and you'll have your ticket in. In fairness, the Archdiocese of Toronto has every right to be protective of St. Michael's Cemetery. The city's oldest surviving Catholic cemetery, St. Michael's was opened in 1855 to accommodate the recent influx of Irish Catholics to the city, many of whom had died of disease or starvation while attempting to escape the Irish potato famine.

Because of the unique circumstances that prompted its creation, the cemetery is home almost entirely to the city's mostly anonymous 19th century working-class Irish Catholics. The field at the graveyard's western end was where the poor were buried, explaining the almost complete absence of gravestones or markers.

Yet grandeur and recorded history also reside in the 154-year-old site. Beside the many granite obelisks sits the winter vault (or the "Dead House" as some call it), where bodies were stored during the colder months until the earth thawed and graves could be dug. Built in 1855 by Joseph Sheard, the only architect to become a mayor of Toronto, the winter vault was crucially important during the 50 years when St. Michael's Cemetery was the only Catholic burial ground in Toronto. By 1900, nearly 27,000 bodies were buried there, almost completely filling the ten-acre cemetery.

While the graveyard is almost always empty of people, it is nonetheless full of life. Countless birds sing in the mature trees that tower above the faded tombstones of Murphys, Ryans, Flynns, and Callaghans. Activity can also be spotted in the backyards bordering the cemetery, many of which have been fashioned with Secret Garden