Though the history of the Czech and Slovak immigration to the North American continent dates back to the 17th century, we will briefly share the events of the 20th century that led to the establishment of the Masaryk Memorial Institute (MMI).
As World War II was raging in Europe, the Czechoslovak community in Toronto was growing. Eventually there was a natural need to acquire a gathering place where the community could come together – to celebrate, relax and to maintain their cultural heritage.
History relates the story of Lida, the daughter of Gustav Přístupa, who was one of the founders of MMI and its first president. One Saturday night Gustav found out that his daughter and her friends were getting ready to go to a dance and when asked where the dance was held, Gustav was told that as usual, it was being held at the communists’ hall. As soon as the girls left, Gustav called all of his friends and they all agreed that their children could not continue to support the communists.
The search for a suitable hall soon began and Masaryk Hall on Cowan Avenue was purchased in 1944 (pictured on the right). All members of the community contributed generously. Contributions averaged between $30 and $50, which were really substantial gifts considering that the average wage was about $0.70 cents an hour at that time.
Masaryk Hall on Cowan Avenue, Toronto
For the next three decades, Masaryk Hall became a lively centre for Czechs and Slovaks from Toronto and the surrounding areas. The Hall accommodated children’s Czech language classes; the athletic federation (Sokol) which was provided with a gym in the building; a restaurant and a stage for theatre and performances. The Hall also served as a place for Scouts as well as for meetings, bazaars and dances. A Czech library was also established there. Regular Saturday Bingo games were organized and for a long time presented the only steady income for the Hall.
Having happily settled on Cowan Avenue, the members of Masaryk Hall realized that they wanted to spend their weekends with their families in the countryside (please visit the Ontario Heritage Trust for more information about the now renamed Masaryk-Cowan Community Recreation Centre). Consequently, the 64-acre Robert Jackson Farm in Highland Creek, Scarborough was purchased in 1948 (pictured to the right). Once again, the community immediately started to enjoy the naturally hilly terrain with beautiful trees boarded by a creek. Summer camps for children were organized in the very first year and for that purpose, several cottages and later, a swimming pool were built on the property. In addition, the farmhouse was renovated and turned into a restaurant featuring Czech cuisine and subsequently also into the administrative head office of the Institute; both of which continue to operate to this day.
[Please view the videos to the right to see footage, filmed by Gustav Přístupa II back in 1949, of the construction of the cottages (three of which are still standing to this day) along with visits by Vojta Beneš and Alice Masaryk (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk's daughter) and the Sokol slets (mass gynmastics).] Here is a link to a Czech slet from 1948: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sQOXzBUqhI]
Furthermore, it was decided to hold a celebratory “Czechoslovak Day” (now Czech and Slovak Day of Canada) every year in late June or early July. This tradition has continued into present day and the members of the Czech and Slovak community, chief among them Sokol Canada, as well as visitors and officials from the now freed Czech and Slovak Republics, members of the local, provincial and even the federal government come together to enjoy and celebrate the culture and history of the old home countries as well as the good will of the Canadian people.
The 1950s were an eventful time for the Czechoslovak community and important changes were instituted in the 1960s. Masaryk Hall Inc. was changed to Masaryk Memorial Institute Inc. (MMI) on July 16th, 1960 and has been operating under this name ever since. Following a lengthy period of hardship, Masaryk Hall was sold and the administration and the heart of the community were moved to the Scarborough farm, which became known as Masaryktown.
The incredibly fast pace of renovation and construction in Scarborough was made possible by hundreds of hours of work by hundreds of enthusiastic and willing volunteers. Many of these wonderful volunteers were also religious people, and therefore built an open-air chapel that was consecrated St. Anthony’s in 1955.
Many generations of newcomers have enjoyed themselves at Masaryktown and they have come to view it as a piece of their old homeland. This feeling was shared by many members of MMI, and encouraged the creation of a more permanent place for young families and seniors at Masaryktown. To this end, the Masaryktown Non-Profit Residences were built and unveiled in 1991, marking a new chapter in the history of our organization. Several generations of children of Czech and Slovak origin have come to consider Masaryktown as their home.
A mere ten short years later, Masaryk Park Homes were built on the property. These life-lease residences offer a stimulating and supportive environment for residents 55 years and over. As a result of this development, another community of like-minded people was created at Masaryktown.
Today, Masaryktown is a thriving community of people, young and old, who can enjoy the natural beauty, peaceful surroundings of our property and our shared cultural heritage.