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Principal, former students remember storied history of York Memorial Collegiate Institute

Last Updated May 7, 2019 at 5:00 pm EST

The exterior of York Memorial Collegiate Institute in 1930, the year it opened to students. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Public Library archives.

As firefighters continue to battle a six-alarm blaze at York Memorial Collegiate Institute, several former students and principals are remembering the storied history of the 90-year old school.

It was first built in 1929 as a memorial to the youth killed in World War I and it officially opened on Jan. 30, 1930

There are 11 terraced steps at the entrance to represent armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m.

In 1949, a mural was painted outside the auditorium by John Hall and dedicated as a World War II memorial. There are also six stained glass windows created by Will Meike and installed by Robert McCausland Glassworks on both sides of the auditorium.

Four of the windows were created to represent the industrial heritage of York, while the other two depict two famous battles, the Battle of Ypres in 1915 during World War I and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759.

The side panels of the windows contain various mottoes, and the Provincial Coat of Arms.

The school was declared a heritage property in 1985.

Principal Donna Drummond was on the scene Tuesday morning and said, tearfully, she was devastated and heartbroken over the news of the fire.

“We’re losing a phenomenal history. There’s brick and mortars, and people say brick and mortars can be replaced, but this is a very significant, special school,” she said. “The legacy of this school, you cannot replace it. Rebuilding this school is not going to replace the significance of what this school meant to so many people.”

“The auditorium is gorgeous. Every stained glass window had meaning, the architecture, the columns, the pillars, everything had significance to York Memorial and our fallen soldiers,” added Drummond. “The auditorium was a reflection of that great sacrifice.”

Former principal Suzanna Greenway called York Memorial a unique and special community.

“The school itself has such rich history (and) memories and that truly makes a community,” Greenway said. “We are going to have to cherish those memories because the building is gone and, thank god, nobody died, but it’s really hard to fathom.”

Many former students have spoken in an alumni Facebook group about the school and the significance of the auditorium and the stained glass windows.

One said, “Even if it is rebuilt, those plaques, old photographs, and those amazing stained glass windows can never truly be replaced.”

“So many first loves happened here, so many athletes excelled here, great art, and music was created here. The history is long and defined.” said another.

A large reunion had been planned for the 90th anniversary of the school for May 24. There is no word yet if it has been cancelled or moved to a different location.