Finding A Family Hero – An Obscure Canadian Database You Might Not Have Used But Should

Canada, like many countries, presents honours and awards to its citizens as a way of paying tribute to acts of bravery and achievements that benefit the country and humanity.

In Canada, national honours and awards are presented by the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General. The Governor-General’s website ( states “Each year, hundreds of Canadians earn our applause and gratitude: from community volunteers to astronauts, from actors to members of the military, from scholars to everyday citizens. Our Canadian Honours System gives them the opportunity to join an order or to be granted a decoration or a medal in recognition for their tremendous contributions to our society.”

Most importantly for genealogists, the Governor General’s website offers a searchable database and you might just be surprised to find a relative or ancestor who received a national honour or award.

For example, one of my maternal uncles, my mother’s younger brother, recounted for me a trip he made to Ottawa, Ontario to receive a medal many years ago. He was told that a car and a driver would be taking him to the medal ceremony. However, being stubbornly independent, perhaps a family trait that I share, he decided to drive himself in his car to the ceremony. He, of course, got lost, not having any real familiarity with the city of Ottawa. Eventually he made it, just in time, to the event venue, Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General of Canada.

When I searched the Governor General database, here is what I found:

O'NEILL William 'Bill' medal of bravery 1977

Uncle Bill was honoured in 1977 as a hero for stopping on a highway, north-west of Toronto, and saving a man from a burning truck. I was a newlywed at the time of the incident and so was possibly a bit distracted when my mother, as I vaguely recall, told me about the actions of her brother. My mother had a great fondness for her little brother and was extremely proud of his act of heroism. But I never heard about the national honour and recognition. Now, with the aid of the Governor General’s website, I know the story!


52 Ancestors: Gertrude Ellen (or Ellen Gertrude) O’Neill (nee Foley) 1898-1962

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

‘Gertie’ is my maternal grandmother. Gertie is the name my grandfather, her husband, J. Graham O’Neill called her. I just don’t really know if Gertie, short for Gertrude, was her first name or her middle name.

She was born on April 16, 1898 in Toronto, York County, Ontario, Canada. She was the third child and first daughter of John Foley, who listed his occupation as teamster on her birth registration and his wife Mary Jane Fitzgerald. 

Although he became a very successful businessman, John Foley could not read nor write but he did register the births of his children – and signed each birth registration (as he had been taught how to sign his name for business purposes). Because he couldn’t read, John Foley signed the registrations even when they had his children’s names recorded incorrectly. The family also had the habit of calling their children by their middle names. Eldest son Lewis Fitzgerald Foley was called Gerald, next son William Clarence was called Clarence but his birth was registered under the name William Dorsey!

So was my grandmother Gertrude Ellen or Ellen Gertrude? I don’t really know for certain and perhaps, it doesn’t really matter. Her birth registration states Gertrude Ellen and her baptismal record states Ellen Gertrude. Her death registration states Gertrude Ellen but my grandfather was the informant for the registration so he was likely stating what he commonly believed to be true. To add some confusion, the 1901 Census of Canada lists her as Ellen G. Foley. Most records including her marriage registration and newspaper announcements about the wedding say her name was Gertrude Ellen so I guess that is what I will go with.

Gertrude Ellen (Foley) O’Neill with her husband J. Graham O’Neill and their first grandchild, Ian Hadden

Gertrude was born at 25 Blong Avenue in an area of the city now referred to as Leslieville. Soon after her birth, she was baptized in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, the same church in which her parents had married four years earlier. One week before her first birthday however, the family was turned upside down when her mother Mary Foley died of “septic poisoning.” 

For the next four years, Gertrude and her older brothers were cared for by housekeepers that her father hired. For example, in 1901, it was Mrs. O’Sullivan, an Irish widow who, along with her two teenage children, came to live with the Foleys and kept house. The family circumstance changed in October 1903 when John Foley married Annie McElroy. Life seems to have not only stabilized a bit but also got more comfortable for Gertrude as her father’s business became more and more successful and the family’s wealth grew.

On June 23, 1926, wearing a peach coloured georgette gown with matching peach coloured hat, Gertrude Foley married John Graham O’Neill at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, both signing the church marriage register as a soloist sang Ave Maria. At the wedding reception, held at her parent’s home on Queensdale Avenue, Gertrude was presented with a white gold wristwatch by the groom. Her father gave the newlyweds a house at 189 Pickering Street as a wedding gift.

They would not live in that house however until sometime in 1937 when they returned to Toronto following the death of Graham’s mother. It had been a tough economic time, the Depression era had set in and they had moved with their eldest child to Detroit in 1929 where Graham had been offered a job. Over the eight years they lived in Detroit, Gertrude had given birth to two additional children, a daughter (my mother) and then a second son.

Back in Toronto, Gertrude and Graham settled into life raising their children, seeing each of them marry, and then welcoming grandchildren.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother Gertrude O’Neill or ‘Nanna’ as I called her because we lived just two houses away from her. I was her first grandchild and I admit that she put a lot of effort into spoiling me. I can still feel the devastation of July 13th, 1962 when I heard my mother calling across the street to a neighbour and telling the neighbour about my grandmother’s death that afternoon. My mother didn’t know at the time that I was in that neighbour’s kitchen, building model airplanes with the neighbour’s son.

Following a funeral at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, Gertrude Ellen Foley O’Neill was interred in the O’Neill family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery where she would be joined years later, to forever rest in peace, by her husband Graham.

52 Ancestors: Margaret O’Neill (nee Graham) (1854-1937)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Margaret Graham was born on 8 September 1854, according to the records that I have been able to locate about her. Just over 100 years later, I would make her a great grandmother. I know that Margaret was born in the province of Ontario but I have been unable so far to find a record that provides a more precise location, although it is likely that Margaret’s family was living south of Barrie, Ontario at the time of her birth.

By 1861, Margaret can be found in the census records living in Holland Landing with her parents. Her father was Patrick Graham, a tailor from Ireland and her mother Catherine McRae, the Canadian born daughter of Scottish immigrants who were part of the Glengarry settlement. By the time Margaret was a teenager, her father had decided to take up farming and so the family moved to Sunnidale, Ontario, just west of the town of Barrie.

There is no record that I have found nor no family story that I have heard about how my great grandparents met, but on 4 June 1894, a 39-year old Margaret Graham married 45-year old William Emmett O’Neill in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Bathurst Street in Toronto. In spite of their ages at the time, it appears that this was the first marriage for both of them and they set about quickly to have three children in the next four years: first a son, John Graham O’Neill (my grandfather) in 1895, then a daughter Kathleen Marie O’Neill (who became a nun) in 1896, and finally another daughter Avila O’Neill (who never married) in 1898.

Margaret and her husband settled into what was from all appearances a quiet life in Toronto. While her husband William worked in the insurance business, Margaret tended to raising their three children and keeping house. When their son Graham, as he was called, was engaged to marry Gertrude Foley, Gertrude’s father John Foley informed the engaged couple that he was going to give them a house on Pickering Street in Toronto’s east end as a wedding gift. Graham and Gertrude convinced John Foley to instead sell the house to Graham’s parents. Margaret and William were residing in that house in 1924 when William died according to his death registration.

The O’Neill Family gravestone, Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Ontario (photo by Ian Hadden)

Margaret continued to live in the house for a short time until she moved into a house with her daughter Avila at 1739 Dundas Street West in Toronto. She then lived with Avila until her own death at St. Joseph’s Hospital from chronic myocarditis on 2 March 1937. On 5 March 1937, Margaret was laid to rest to rest beside her husband William in Mount Hope Cemetery following a 9:00 a.m. requiem mass at St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church.

52 Ancestors: William Emmett O’Neill (1849-1924)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

William Emmett O’Neill, one of my great grandfathers, entered this world on 26 February 1849 in Barrie, Ontario, Canada – or as it was known at the time of his birth, Canada West. He was the son of Irish immigrants, John O’Neill and his wife, Mary Murphy. They were a Roman Catholic family who lived in a one-storey log house on land that John farmed.

When William was a young man of twenty-two, he found work as a labourer in Tay Township, close to Georgian Bay. By the time he was thirty years of age, he was caring for his widowed mother in Barrie, Ontario while working as a store clerk. William continued working for others in the Barrie, Ontario store into the early 1890’s and then decided, through an unknown inspiration, perhaps the death of his mother, that it was time to strike out on his own.

He moved to Toronto, found work again as a store clerk, but also found love. He met and married Margaret Graham on 4 June 1894 in St. Mary’s Church. Neither William nor Margaret were ‘spring chickens.’ William was 45 years old when he married, although he claimed to be only 42 perhaps in an effort to be closer in age to his bride Margaret who was 39 when she married. William and Margaret didn’t let age deny them the opportunity to have a family and so in 1895, just more than a year after their wedding, they welcomed their first child, and my grandfather, John Graham O’Neill into the world.

Two daughters would subsequently join the family. First, Kathleen Marie O’Neill, who would later join the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph and be known by her religious name as Sister St. Edwin, in 1896, and then Avila in 1898.

Early in his married and family life, William would change careers. No longer content working as a store clerk, he became an insurance agent, the source of employment for the remainder of his life. He moved his family into a house on Claremont Street in Toronto from where my grandfather told me, they would push their children in a baby carriage through muddy roads to attend the annual Canadian National Exhibition, a little over a mile away. Later, William and Margaret moved to a house further west in the city on Golden Avenue.

On 24 July 1924, at the age of 75, William Emmett O’Neill died in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. His cause of death was listed as “uremia” or kidney failure. At the time of his death, William and Margaret were living at 189 Pickering Street in Toronto, a home they had purchased from their son’s father-in-law John Foley. This was the same house that I would live in for the first nine plus years of my life. On 26 July 1924, William Emmett O’Neill was laid to rest in Toronto’s Mount Hope Cemetery where he would eventually be joined in the family plot by his wife, youngest daughter, son and daughter-in-law, and their infant son.

As a tribute to his father, my grandfather named his youngest son, one of my uncles, William Emmett O’Neill. Uncle ‘Bill’ as he is known to me, has told me often how creepy it is to visit the cemetery and see the headstone at the family plot bearing his name.

52 Ancestors: Anne Margaret (O’Neill) Hadden (1930-1994)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

It is Mother’s Day! A day on which for years we have paid tribute to the women who have worked, sweated and sacrificed to make certain our lives were better than their own. Our mothers. I could see no better way to celebrate today than to honour my own mother by re-posting the following the tribute I wrote that marked the 20th anniversary of her leaving us earlier this year. 

I can offer an update to the post however, as I was recently startled while researching through archived pages of the Toronto Star newspaper, to find a small wedding announcement for my parents that appeared in the 16 September 1953 edition. The ‘article’ was essentially two or three rows of small photos of Fall brides and there among the lot was my mother wearing her nurse’s cap. It is likely that her nursing school graduation photo was used.

Anne Margaret Hadden (nee O’Neill), ‘Mom’ to me, left us 20 years ago today, on January 8, 1994, a victim of cancer. She left behind a husband, her children, and perhaps most important to her, her beloved grandchildren.

Anne (also known as ‘Anna’, ‘Mom’, and ‘Granny’) was born in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Her parents had moved to Detroit from their home in Toronto, Ontario because work was available for my grandfather – and finding work in the Depression era of the 1930’s was important. My mother’s older brother, Edwin (‘Ed’) had been born in Toronto a couple of years prior to the family move and a couple of years after my mother’s birth, the family expanded again in Detroit with the birth of William (‘Bill’) O’Neill.

Following the 1937 death of my mother’s paternal grandmother in Toronto, the family moved back to the Toronto east end house my grandfather had inherited. The same house became my parent’s home after they married in 1953 and was the house that I was raised in through my early childhood years.

My mother graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1948 and entered nursing school as it was referred to then at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto. She graduated as a Registered Nurse in 1952. My mother loved nursing but took a hiatus from her work from the mid-1950’s through the early 1960’s during which time she gave birth to five children in six years, only three of whom survived to adulthood. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I could even fathom the anguish my parents must have experienced at the deaths of my brothers Brian (1956-1957) and Stephen (1957-1959).

My mother often displayed an off-beat, quirky sense of humour. While in high school, she and a friend would pass a local funeral parlour while walking home from school. They started making it a habit to stop in and visit the funeral parlour each day – just to see who was there! The anecdotes from her professional life working in a hospital ranged from technical medical procedures to the bizarre. Her favourite however was always ‘The Chocolate Cake’ story.

St. Michael’s Hospital, or St. Mike’s as it is locally known, operated in an older part of the city not known for glitz and glamour. As such my mother’s patients were often those that suffered from alcoholism and mental illnesses. My mother worked on “1D”, a first floor unit that was close to the street and all that the rundown neighbourhood had to offer. She worked with a close-knit team of nurses and they used any occasion to brighten otherwise tough days.

One such occasion was the birthday of a colleague unit nurse. Mom’s best fiend, Marie (known in our house as ‘the tall blonde’) baked the birthday cake and spread far more chocolate icing on it than was required. As Marie was carrying the cake into work for the birthday celebration, the cake fell out of it’s box, landing on the floor of the hospital’s first floor lobby. My mother and Marie quickly assessed that with the excess icing, the cake could easily be salvaged by re-spreading the icing that remained.

A short time later as my mother was walking through the lobby, she encountered two nuns dressed in their full black habits (the hospital was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order). The nuns, thinking that someone had defecated on the floor, called to my mother and pointed out the brown lump. Without missing a beat, my mother told the nuns not to worry and promptly put her finger into the ‘lump’ then put her finger bearing the brown goo into her mouth, proclaiming “Ummmm, it’s wonderful!” The shocked nuns hastily left to report that a nurse was having some kind of breakdown.

In her retirement years, my mother shopped, a lot. She explained to me that she was simply exercising her “God given right to spoil” her grandchildren.

My mother died at home, just as she wished. My father arranged for a hospital bed to be installed in her room, affectionately referred to as ‘The Nest.’ As an experienced and knowledgeable nurse, she knew that her body was failing. So, a few weeks before her death, she asked me, as I was a church musician, if I would sing at her funeral. When I agreed to her request, she asked if I thought I would be able to given the emotion of the time. I told her that I didn’t know how I would do as I had never sang at her funeral before. She smiled and asked me what song I would sing. I quickly replied that the first thing to come to mind was Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead from the Wizard of Oz. Our laughter at that moment is still a precious memory and I won’t repeat the name she called me.

Her death came quietly, as it is said, ‘like a thief in the night.’ Our whole family had been gathered around Mom throughout the day on January 7th. We all left the house late at night to put our own children to bed in their respective homes. Within two hours of leaving, my father called to summon us back to our parental home. I drove my sister to our parents’ home that night through a raging blizzard and when we entered the house, our father looked at me and with the slightest shake of his head, I knew we were too late. Hours later, my father and I stood in the doorway to the house as Mom left her house for the final time, now in the care of the funeral directors.

                                         Anne (O’Neill) Hadden with 5-month old Ian Hadden

Our rather large church was filled to capacity for her funeral on January 11, 1994. A fitting tribute to a wonderful woman who gave so much of herself to those she loved and cared for. And, I sang!

Paying Respects to Brian and Stephen Hadden

I’m really not sure why I do it but for over thirty years, I have made a point of regularly visiting the grave of my brothers, Brian Joseph Hadden and Stephen Gerard Hadden. Maybe it’s because I want to ensure they are not forgotten, or because I wonder what life might have been like had they lived, or because it’s what a big brother is supposed to do. Maybe I visit their grave because I fantasize about the real torment we could have caused had they been around to join my brother Bob and I in terrorizing our sister! I like to think that I visit their grave simply because it’s the right thing to do, at least for me.

Gravestone for Brian Joseph Hadden and Stephen Gerard Hadden, 
Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 
(photo by Ian Hadden)

Brian was born 25 Nov 1956 and passed away at the age of two months and twelve days on 6 Feb 1957. Stephen was born 2 Dec 1957 and died at the age of one year, two months and twelve days on 14 Feb 1959. Both died as the result of congenital hydrocephalus.

I have no recollection of Brian likely because he did not come home from the hospital but I do remember Stephen. I specifically remember sharing a small bedroom with him in our parent’s home. My mother always explained to me that Stephen stayed with my parents in their bedroom, sleeping in a bassinet until our sister was born a few months before Stephen died. My mother moved Stephen to the larger crib but he was not happy out of the bassinet so, he kept the bassinet and our sister got the crib. I also remember the day Stephen died and my mother’s explanation to me that he had gone to “play with the angels.”

Ian Hadden with his mother Anne (nee O’Neill) Hadden and brother, Stephen Hadden, 1958

When my mother passed away in 1994, my father gave me the only photo of Stephen that exists. He told me that my mother wanted me to have it.  The photo (since scanned) remains one of my most prized family records.  

52 Ancestors: John Graham O’Neill (1895 – 1979)

Amy Johnson Crow of the Nor Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

This week I am profiling John Graham O’Neill, my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t wasn’t until he had died that I knew his first name was John as he always went by his middle name of Graham. ‘Granddad’ as I knew him always had personalized Christmas cards printed each year and below the holiday text was his name “J. Graham O’Neill.” When I was younger I wondered what his first name might be and imagined that it must have been something quite terrible in order for him to think using Graham was better.

My grandfather was the first child of William Emmett O’Neill, an insurance salesman, and Margaret Graham. He was born on 26 June 1895 in a house on Claremont Avenue (now Claremont Street) in the Trinity Bellwoods district of Toronto, Ontario. He would be joined in 1896 and 1898 respectively by his sisters Kathleen (who in later years became Sister St. Edwin in the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph) and Avila.

According to my mother, sometime in his younger days, my Grandfather lost his left eye when a dart inadvertently was misthrown. I never asked Granddad about his eye, purely out of politeness. As a result, when other young men and likely many of his friends were enlisting to fight in World War 1, Granddad was left on the sidelines.

My grandfather married my grandmother, Gertrude Ellen Foley, on 23 June 1926. According to a newspaper article from 25 June 1926, their wedding reception was held at the home of my grandmother’s parents. and my grandfather gave his bride a gift of a white gold wristwatch. Following the reception, my grandparents headed off on a honeymoon trip to Rochester, New York, then to Cleveland, Ohio and finally to Detroit Michigan. When they returned home after the trip, they lived in the home they received as a gift from my grandmother’s father (John Foley) at 189 Pickering Street.

J. Graham O’Neill was a sports fan and a raconteur. I loved listening to his stories, hearing about the city of Toronto as my grandfather experienced it at the turn of the 20th century and listening to his anecdotes about the many people he had come to meet and know well. I think to my mother, her father’s stories were too fantastic to be taken seriously but as I researched my grandfather over the years I have only been able uncover evidence that his stories were all based in truth.

Some of my most cherished memories involve my grandfather and sports. He regularly took me to ‘old’ Maple Leaf Stadium to watch the International League Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team games featuring a team that baseball Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson played for and managed. Maple Leaf Stadium, with it’s multi-billboard outfield fence, was located on the shore of Lake Ontario. From the stands, I would watch the game and if we were there over the Labour Day weekend, it was a great venue for watching the annual Canadian National Exhibition air show. I soon learned that if I went to the top row of the stadium, I could look out onto Fort York, the historic site from which soldiers defended Canada so many years earlier.

I also owe some of my love for hockey to my grandfather. You see, my parents really were not hockey fans, so on Saturday night, “Hockey Night in Canada,” I would walk the two houses over to my grandfather’s house and watch the games of my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of multiple Stanley Cups in those days. Granddad always sat in his deep green armchair while I occupied the matching green sofa under the front window. My placement on the sofa was somewhat strategic on my grandfather’s part as he knew that I usually would not be to stay awake until the end of the game, so the sofa became my bed.

I really wish I had taken the time to talk to my grandfather more about the changes he witnessed in his lifetime throughout the 20th century. Most regrettably though I wish I had told him that he was going to be a great-grandfather. My late wife, Karen and I found out in early December 1979 that we were expecting our first child. We decided to wait until Christmas to tell our immediate families. My grandfather passed away a week later on December 10, 1979 before I could tell him the news. I still wish that I had made that telephone call to him to share the news and swear him to secrecy. His first great grandchild that I never got to tell him about was named John Graham, partly in tribute to him.

Even in death, J. Graham O’Neill was making stories to endure when the hearse carrying his remains got separated from the funeral procession and was lost for several long minutes in the streets of Toronto while on the way to Mount Hope Cemetery and my grandfather’s final resting place. He would have loved that and told the story to all who would listen, repeatedly.