An Elephant Visits St. Christopher House
Pack up the trunks; St. Chris is on the move with help from Rex, the elephant.
In the title poem from his 1965 collection, Ten Elephants On Yonge Street, Raymond Souster retells in verse an episode in which a herd of elephants parade down Toronto’s main thoroughfare. Souster describes the passing scene this way; Ten grey eminences moving / with the daintiest of steps / and the greatest concern. / Too bored to yawn / or toss the fools riding them
An impressive image created by one of our city’s greatest poets.
In 1985, St. Christopher House had its own encounter with pachyderms on parade. Actually, it was a single pachyderm, named Rex. As the story goes, a 4,500 kilogram Asian elephant led a parade through the streets of Toronto organized by St. Christopher House.
Considering the scale of the subject matter, it is odd that details concerning the parade remain sparse. Presently, no one at St. Chris can recall with certainty how a tusked, three metre tall elephant came to be St. Christopher House’s mascot for a day.
An email from Susan Woods, great granddaughter of St. Chris founder, Sir James Woods, changed all that.
During the 1980s, St. Chris experienced significant change. As the decade opened, a new executive director was hired, a long range plan initiated, programs relocated, and staff unionized.
Not only was the House in flux, the community was also changing. The surrounding area was no longer a primary destination for new immigrants arriving to the city. Home prices were climbing and the number of children residing in the community was in decline.
Three decades ago, St. Chris operated primarily out of a building on Augusta Avenue. In 1982, a decision was made to relocate west of Bathurst Street. By 1984, the plan had been finalized. The Augusta Avenue property would be sold with profits from the sale going toward the purchase of two neighbourhood houses, as well as the creation of a centralized administrative hub.
Unfortunately, economic uncertainties intervened. It quickly became clear this strategy was unattainable. The board acted decisively. Instead of two properties, they would purchase one; a neighbourhood house located at 53 Argyle Street. With programs already operating out of 761 Queen Street West, administrative duties would now function out of this location, as well.
Early in 1985, St. Christopher House was on the move. The stage was set for Rex to make his brief, but lasting appearance.
Since its founding, St. Chris had a longstanding tradition of taking to the streets in celebration and protest. From annual Easter parades to peace marches, parading through the community was a common House occurrence.
After being a Kensington Market fixture for seventy-three years, now that St Chris was moving, what better way to decamp and introduce themselves to the new neighbours then with a parade?
The question still remains, how the heck did organizers manage to get their hands on a four and half metric ton elephant?
This is where guidance from Susan Woods proves invaluable. At the time of the parade, Mrs. Woods was a board member. Queried on the subject, she immediately recalled event details. “Patricia Outerbridge, a volunteer involved with the music school had won the use of an elephant in [a] fundraising auction. [She] lent it to the House for the occasion.”
Mrs. Woods suggested names of others who might be of assistance.
Back then, Paul Zarnke was the executive director of St. Christopher House. Mr. Zarnke said he couldn’t recall any event at the House which included an elephant. “It doesn’t mean it did not happen,” Zarnke said, assuredly, “I just can’t recollect [an elephant].”
Bob Ellis should. In 1985, one of his responsibilities was the newly opened neighbourhood house on Argyle Street, the terminus of the two kilometre parade. Sheepishly, he admits today, “[Even though] I was responsible for [the] Argyle neighbourhood house, at the time [of the parade] I was on holidays.”
It was Kristine Outerbridge, daughter of the late, Patricia Outerbridge, who finally resolved the puzzling tale of the St. Chris pachyderm. And in the process, she provided the elusive elephant-on-parade with a name: Rex.
Kristine Outerbridge explains, “Mom won [Rex] at a Bar Association convention. It just so happened St. Chris was moving location. What do you do when you have an elephant [for a day] but have a parade.”
Rex’s home was forty minutes outside Hamilton, Ontario, at African Lion Safari. The Outerbridges drove to Rex’s safari home to make introductions. Kristine had brought along her niece, Ashley, a youngster at the time. “I have a picture of [Ashley] and [myself] touching [Rex’s] trunk.”
With Rex heading the parade, Kristine was kept busy obtaining the necessary permits required by the city when a pachyderm is included in the pageantry. Her duties didn’t stop there. On parade day, she painted clown faces on numerous participants. Bicycles and strollers were decorated, too. In recollection, Kristine recalls, “There may have been a [marching] band, too.’
Preparations complete, “We marched through Toronto from the old location to the new location. [sic] With Rex the elephant in the lead.”
Nothing heralds an entrance quite like the trumpeting of an elephant. If their new neighbours were unaware of St Chris’s arrival, after this day, that was sure to change.
It is unfortunate photographs documenting this unique incident have not surfaced. Considering it occurred twenty-seven years ago, those photos belonging to Kristine Outerbridge are now packed away and not easily accessible. Current St. Chris staff claim to have seen photographs of Rex and company, but none can recall where those photos are stored today.
As for Rex, he’s still around. Asian elephants reportedly can survive eighty years in captivity.
Rex recently relocated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. When he sauntered down Augusta Avenue back in 1985, he was a lumbering 17 year old. Born in the wild in the jungles of India, before calling African Lion Safari home, Rex had performed in various circuses around North America.
A few years ago, St. Chris put the neighbourhood house on Argyle Street up for sale. As for Rex, he is now a 44 year old father. His brood includes Opal, Logan, Emily, Jake and the baby of the family, Chuck, born in 2008.
At various times over the past century, St Christopher House has changed locations. None have been as memorable as the move from Augusta Avenue, when Rex, the Asian elephant led the charge.
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Susan Woods, Kristine Outerbridge, Bob Ellis and Paul Zarnke in the writing of this article. Source material includes The Story of St Christopher House by Patricia J. O’Connor.
An organizing committee consisting of volunteers, staff and board members is planning St Chris’s centenary events. The Century Committee meets regularly. Those interested in participating, passing along ideas or sharing a memory may contact Lidia Monaco at 416 532 4828 (Ext. 234) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
St. Christopher House thanks the author, Edward Brown, who is a Toronto-based writer and volunteer member of the St. Christopher House Century Committee. He is also the author of Playing Basra.