The Almonte college campus that never was

by Brent Eades

At the corner of Queen and Union Streets, on what is now a somewhat forlorn corner, there once stood the majestic Reilly’s Hotel, a first-class hostelry opened not long after the railway arrived in Almonte in 1859.

As John Dunn said in a story we reprinted last year:

Its front entrance faced out on Queen Street, and a balcony directly over the entrance offered the first patrons of the hotel a first-hand look at the stonework being laid for the new St. Paul’s church for the Anglican congregation of Almonte …

The third floor, with smaller rooms, and ceilings reduced to a mere nine-foot height, had one remarkable attraction — a long staircase that led through a forest of 30-foot long jack rafters to the apex of the roof. There a glassed-in lookout encouraged patrons to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation of the majestic view out over the village to the very heart of the falls of the Mississippi. One could measure for himself the potential of this veritable “Little Niagara”, a falls that measured sixty-two and a half feet overall.

Reilly’s Hotel

Around 1913 the Catholic church acquired the hotel for use as Saint Joseph’s Convent. On its ground floor was a school and chapel and on the second a residence for the Sisters.

In 1918 it became the “China Mission College”, training priests for missionary work in China. This is where the story gets interesting.

Here’s the cover of the second issue of the college’s magazine:

Magazine cover

This is a little hard to digest in 2019. The history of Christian ‘missions’ over the centuries has been chequered and doesn’t always sit well with modern-day readers.

But this was a hundred years ago, so let’s assume that the founders of this mission were well-meaning people with good intentions — however misguided they may seem today.

So here were their students in Almonte, learning about the languages and culture of China in preparation for their missionary work. They liked the town a lot, as noted in this story from their magazine in 1920:

Almonte, the home of China Mission College, is situated in the Province of Ontario, an hour’s ride from Canada’s Capital. It is a town of industry and progress and centre of a farming country. Its handsome houses, its shaded streets and its neat sidewalks have a special attraction which invite the visitor to take up permanent residence.

Description of Almonte

They liked the town so much, in fact, that they apparently bought a forty-acre parcel of land running from the river across from the Fairgrounds all the way to what is now (I think) Paterson Street.

The Mission said in the August 1920 issue of their magazine, “The site, on which we hope some day to have a spacious College, is admirably suited to the purpose, and at present will afford ample space and facilities for recreation by our students.”

College site plan

That college was never built, of course. Here’s my best take on the chunk of Almonte it would have occupied had it been:

Did the Mission every actually own that land and were their plans for such a massive college campus serious? It’s hard to know.

It’s never mentioned again in their magazine and two years later, in 1922, the Mission relocated to Scarboro where it remains today as a very different sort of concern.

That parcel of land would have been largely vacant a century ago and so it’s entirely possible they owned it then, before deciding to make the move to the Toronto area.

As for the original College building on Queen Street–the once Reilly’s Hotel–well, it came to a sad end. After the Mission moved out it became the Co-op for many years, but over time it fell into disrepair. Despite efforts to save it, the building was finally demolished in 1985.

Another interesting chapter in the life of our little town.