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New life awaits a storied estate Add to ...

Right now, with windows shuttered, the stately old home can't help but look inward and remember.

Remember being built in 1932 by talented craftsmen using the highest quality materials; remember playing host to then-North York township's grandest parties, political meetings and even plowing competitions. In 1940, it began a new life as home to the Christian Brothers; in 1963, it watched the city's first Roman Catholic co-educational high school go up, and generations of kids swarmed its former grounds each September.

It's a rich history to review.

But when Maryvale, the country home of Liberal Senator Frank O'Connor (1885-1939), has its plywood blindfolds removed, what will it face? A crew wielding tools to gut its interior and an uncertain future in the hands of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (which once planned to demolish it to make room for a new high school that opened in 2005), or fresh life as a hub for Irish culture and learning?

When Mary Fay first laid eyes on the still-stately building at 60 Rowena Dr. four years ago, she knew instantly that she had found the latter.

"What struck me was this is the kind of place you would have liked to grow up in," she offers, a lilt in her voice. "This is when you're on holiday in Ireland and driving down the country roads and you look down the streets and, behind the trees, these lovely estate houses."

While still possessing lovely bones, the estate has suffered abuse from teenaged vandals and the indignity of having its utilities shut off, which caused floors to buckle, paint to peel and mould to grow. Nevertheless, in 2005, Ms. Fay and a handful of others could see a rich future as the O'Connor Irish Heritage House. They spent most of that year incorporating, selecting a seven-member board of directors (of which Ms. Fay is chair) and creating bylaws.

The next year, they applied for charity status and got down to the brass tacks of fundraising ("Process, process, all this stuff!" Ms. Fay says), because it falls to them to restore the large Colonial Revival-style home, accompanying coach house (with its pretty weathervane-topped cupola), and a small storehouse.

The school board, happy to find a group so dedicated, has promised a one-dollar-a-year lease in return.

More importantly, Ms. Fay's group has spent long hours learning about the successful businessman and philanthropist who, in the late 1920s, purchased 600 acres in the Ellesmere and Victoria Park area (nearby O'Connor Drive was named in his honour). As proof, she produces a photo album crammed with vintage photographs and newspaper clippings that tell the story.

Born to Irish immigrants in Desoronto, Ont., in 1885, Francis O'Connor left school at age 14 to work at Canadian General Electric in Peterborough. He moved to Toronto in 1912 with his wife, Belleville's Mary Ellen Hayes, and the next year the couple opened the first Laura Secord Candy Shop at 354 Yonge St.

Expansion across Canada and the United States (as Fanny Farmer Candy Stores) soon made them rich. While this allowed Mr. O'Connor to buy Maryvale Farm, which was named after their daughter, and to support political campaigns (for which Mackenzie King named him to the Senate in 1934), it also gave him a lifetime to "pay it forward" with many charitable acts.

In another photo album, a more recent yet equally inspiring story of efforts by the O'Connor Irish Heritage House group: fundraising days at the ball game and racetrack, the construction of a parade float modelled on the house, garden parties, Celtic events and even the production of a colouring book for children. So many new memories generated in so short a time; how many more could be created if the OCIHH had a headquarters for all this energy?

If the house does become that conduit, Ms. Fay promises it won't be at the exclusion of non-Irish members of the community. As she points to photographs of happy, multicultural faces engaged in some serious Irish dancing, she talks of a survey that has just been delivered to 7,000 area households asking for programming suggestions. With heritage houses in short supply in suburbia, not only should recipients fill these out and return them (or do it online at ), they should jump at the opportunity to be involved with local history, if only to muzzle downtownies who lay claim to heritage bragging rights.

However, multiple deadlines loom. "We've got a time problem here," says Ms. Fay as she looks up at a gaping hole in the home's soffit and another beside the back door. "The longer this is not repaired, it's going to deteriorate."

And the longer repairs are put on hold, she adds, the more inflation will take a bigger bite out of her budget, which is itself facing a deadline. While the group has raised a fair bit of money and is working with many government officials (including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Toronto Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong) to arrange for grants, it is still a long way from the $250,000 hurdle it must clear before the school board will hand over the keys. After Dec. 31, the board won't hand them over at all.

Despite the pressure, Ms. Fay says she wouldn't trade this experience for the world. "I came alive with this project," she says with an infectious giggle. "If, over the last three years, we stopped when everyone said, 'It's too much, it's too big, you're never gonna do it,' you know, you can't listen to that.

"This has become too important, because we discovered the Frank O'Connor story out of doing this ... and to bring it to youth, to give them something to be inspired by, so that we don't have anger, we don't have no goals, that was part of what I saw here."

Right now, the only way to uncover those windows and allow the O'Connor Maryvale estate to come alive with light, laughter and learning is, quite frankly, to open our pocketbooks.

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