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The former Central Prison Chapel, Strachan Avenue, May 1953. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.


Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in London's Newgate Prison, circa 1860s. Illustration by Jerry Barrett. Courtesy of the John Johnson Collection


Inside the Roman Catholic Chapel, Mercer Reformatory, 1903. Image from the Ontario Sessional Papers, 1903, No. 36-42. Courtesy of the Ontario Legislative Assembly and the University of Toronto.


Central Prison Chapel, East Liberty Street, October 2, 2022. Image by Autumn Beals.


  • Toronto Central Prison Chapel

    The “Angel of Prisons”


    Moral and social anxieties centered around religious beliefs were present in both the Central Prison and creation of the Mercer Reformatory. J.W. Langmuir, the prisons inspector, found inspiration in reformatories in the United States, many of which were heavily influenced by Elizabeth Fry.

    Fry was a Quaker English Prison reformer and sometimes called the “Angel of Prisons.” She dedicated her life to trying to improve the conditions of female inmates and to protect them from abuse. Eventually, the maternal feminist politics of Elizabeth Fry also influenced social reformers in Toronto, who incorporated the ideal of reform through moral salvation and protection into Toronto’s Women’s Court. 


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  • Toronto Central Prison Chapel

    Sunday School


    The religious morality associated with women’s reform is also evident when looking at inmate activities. Mercer guidelines from 1916 state that all inmates were expected to attend daily religious services. Only Christian services were provided.

    Several Toronto prisons, such as the Central Prison, the Toronto (Don) Jail, and the Mercer Reformatory, also organized Christian Sunday schools as part of inmate activities. These classes were to help teach inmates to be upstanding, Christian, citizens. Reports from the prison Sunday schools often documented the organizers’ successes in reforming inmates.

    In a 1892 report, Anna Cull, Assistant Superintendent of the Toronto Jail’s Sunday School for women, stated “We are able to report several cases of professed conversion among the women, followed by decided reformation of life.” A report from Mercer that same year had a similar sentiment, with the Sunday school organizer reporting on how the program was “…effecting a real reduction in the number of female offenders against law and morality.”


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  • Toronto Central Prison Chapel

    The Belmont Home


    The prominence of religion could also be found behind the creation of many other Ontario institutions. In 1852, a a group of women founded the Belmont Home on Richmond Street. The women intended to use Christian teachings to combat what they considered to be the “moral plight of women in cities.” However, life at the Belmont Home often mirrored the harsh discipline of the Mercer Reformatory. Girls as young as 14 could be sent to the Home, often beginning a lifetime of imprisonment at various Toronto institutions.

    Women could be sent to the Home for various “moral” transgressions. In 1939, Velma Demerson was charged with incorrigibility for being pregnant out of wedlock and in a relationship with an Asian man, Harry Yip. Demerson was initially sentenced to the Belmont Home but was transferred to Mercer when Belmont closed that year. Demerson faced ten months of imprisonment at Mercer, during which time she gave birth to a baby son. Her son was removed from Demerson’s care until her release from Mercer.

    In 2002, Demerson sued the Canadian government for the treatment she endured while at Mercer Reformatory. She received an apology from the Attorney-General of Ontario and an undisclosed sum from the provincial government, one of the few former Mercer inmates to receive either. 


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