As we move into a new decade, we think readers of our newsletter would be interested in knowing about the early years of Wellspring, and how we got to 2020. This article, the first in a series, tells the story of how we began in Toronto. The Wellspring Cultural Foundation was set up on April 21, 1981. Its purpose is to provide the facilities and financial support for apostolic and spiritual activities inspired by the message of the Opus Dei Prelature across Ontario. Wellspring’s first initiative was to set up Oakvale, a centre with doctrinal and spiritual activities entrusted to Opus Dei on Oakwood Avenue in Toronto. In the summer of 1981, Oakvale became home for several young professional men and university students as they organized spiritual and formational activities in Toronto. Evenings of recollection for married men began, preached by Father Greg Haddock.
Ryerson engineering student Evan Francis and a group of fathers headed by Rudy Ocol organized a weekly boys club in Brampton during the school year, as well as summer trips to Algonquin Park where the boys had an opportunity to build strength of character in the Canadian outdoors. Paul Kilbertus, who arrived in Toronto at the end of the 1980s, recalls leading one such trip to Algonquin at Thanksgiving. Unexpectedly, it snowed, testing the mettle of participants in dealing with the whims of Ontario weather.
Of the house on Oakwood Avenue, a small semi-detached building, Fr. Greg wrote, “One could see that it would not serve for many years as a centre”. Among its limitations was a cellar unsuited either for bedrooms or as a study area. As Fr. Greg quipped, the basement “had no possibilities other than storing a bag of new potatoes.”
So the search began for a more spacious location, which Wellspring eventually found in late 1983 at the corner of Palmerston Avenue and Ulster Street, in the ‘Little Italy’ neighborhood of Toronto. Peter Rebello recalls taking his young family for panzerotti on nearby College Street on their way to or from activities at Ullerston, the name bestowed on the new centre. During the early months of 1984, the professional men and university students found themselves living amidst plaster dust and construction equipment. One of the residents, Fernando Mignone, who was working nights as a TV story editor, returned to sleep to the sound of hammers, drills and saws as carpenters carried on the work needed to transform the newly acquired building into a livable home.
1984, Ullerston’s first year, saw Pope John Paul II’s unforgettable stay in Toronto on September 14th and 15th, during his coast-to-coast tour of Canada. Ullerston become the focus of intense activity as residents and their friends made banners and organized talks and get-togethers in parishes and homes to get ready for the Pope’s visit. During his stay, His Holiness drew crowds at Toronto City Hall, St. Michael’s Cathedral, and Exhibition Place, and celebrated mass at Downsview airport attended by 500,000 people. Andrew MacDougall recalls the Pontiff’s startled grin on hearing Andrew’s robust greeting of “Viva il Papa” as the Holy Father emerged from the gathering at St. Michael’s Cathedral.
In 1985, Fr. Greg moved to Montreal to become regional vicar of Opus Dei In Canada, and Fr. Joseph Soria arrived to continue the formative activities at Ullerston. Final touches on renovations were completed in the spring of 1985 in time to welcome Cardinal Emmett Carter to celebrate Mass and bless the new centre. Ullerston continued to serve its residents and many others well through the 1980s.
In the mid- 1980s, a number of the men attending formational activities at Ullerston were fathers of young children. Their keen interest in strengthening their family lives spurred Family Development (now Family Enrichment) to offer a ten-week course conducted by Rudy Ocol, using the Harvard Case study method. A similar impulse prompted parents to organize family catechism sessions in their homes to complement the formation for young people offered by university students at Ullerston.
Inspired by the formation at Ullerston, a group of parents explored opening schools which would support the goal of educating their children in virtue. Their efforts led to the founding of Hawthorn School, for girls, in 1989 and Northmount School, for boys, in 1990. Fr. Joseph Soria served as the first chaplain at Hawthorn. Paul Dumol, who arrived to pursue a doctorate from the University of Toronto, had been involved in similar schools in the Philippines. His experience proved a valuable resource to parents as the schools were launched.
The expansion of formational activities made possible by Wellspring included the start of evenings of recollection in Brampton, in addition to those at Ullerston. As well, Fr. Soria and Andrew MacDougall began monthly visits to Vancouver to meet the need for formational activities on the west coast. The growth spurt in formation of all kinds was sustained with the arrival of Fr. Fausto Bailo in Toronto in September of 1987.
In March 1988, the Prelate of Opus Dei, Don Alvaro del Portillo (now Blessed Alvaro) made a memorable pastoral visit to Toronto. In addition to meeting high school and university students at Ullerston, the Prelate met a large number of men, women and families during an extended get-together at the Old Mill. While in Toronto, he also blessed a vacant lot on St. George St which was being considered as a possible site for a men’s residence on the University of Toronto campus.
When told that there were some challenges with the project, the future Blessed Alvaro replied not to worry, and that there would be a residence there or “somewhere better”. The “somewhere better” turned out to be Ernescliff College in the 1990s. But that is a story for the next part of Wellspring’s history.