When others were feeling the squeeze of the Great Depression, Foster had the means and opportunity to see a dream come to life.
On a concession road just outside Uxbridge, Ontario, the Thomas Foster Memorial has risen over farmers’ fields and relative obscurity for over eight decades to become a source of unexpected wonder for anyone who ventures out of the snug nucleus of the GTA.
In fact, this astounding edifice is responsible for thousands of slack-jawed pit stops every year. I’ve seen at least that many myself; cars pulled over on the sloping dirt shoulder, the occupants staring up at the imposing Byzantine-inspired mausoleum, their iPhones and thoughts of Instagrammable moments temporarily forgotten.
I had a similar reaction the first time I saw Foster’s creation. I’ve lived within a 15-minute drive of the memorial for most of my life, but I didn’t actually visit the building until I was 19 years old and attended the site’s famous Fridays at the Fosters concert series. The memorial is in what at first must seem to be an odd, obscure location. It’s easy to overlook, even for a local–especially for a late-teen local whose world didn’t expand much beyond her own social circle. However, once seen, the Foster Memorial is not easily forgotten.
Constructed in 1936 by the former mayor of Toronto, Thomas “Honest Tom” Foster, the memorial is a tribute to his daughter, Ruby who died of pneumonia just before her tenth birthday and his wife, Elizabeth, who died a few years later of an undocumented cause.
While his choice of location may seem strange for a city-dweller, Foster was born in the neighbouring vicinity of Leaskdale in 1852—a year after his family emigrated from Yorkshire, England.
It makes sense that this is where he would return to honour his dead.
In addition to being known for his honesty, he was also known for being frugal. When many others were feeling the squeeze of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Foster–who had left politics and retired in 1928 with his money securely in real estate, including the land that the Foster Memorial now stands on–had the means and opportunity to see a dream come to life. In 1929, he’d decided to see the world.
In Jewel on the Hill: The Story of Ontario’s Thomas Foster Memorial, historian Conrad Boyce writes of Foster’s post-politics ambitions.
“He was now in his mid-70s, and the thought of starting over in business or in some minor political office held no interest, particularly since he had no money worries whatsoever. But the thought of rattling around his large Toronto home, reading or writing or pursuing some trivial hobby, also had no appeal, particularly since Elizabeth was no longer there. He was still a vigorous, healthy, mentally alert individual. So the idea of traveling the world became an obsession, an opportunity to see all the places he’d dreamed of, but never had time to visit.”
Boyce adds that at the memorial’s dedication, Foster spoke of how the Taj Mahal in India had a profound effect on him–a monument built by emperor Shah Janah in memory of his beloved wife.
The earliest forms of Christian architecture, those of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium […] were the inspiration for a new and entirely original design.James Craig, Thomas Foster Memorial architect
This is perhaps from where a certain misconception stems. While the Foster Memorial, in sentiment, may take inspiration from India’s famous mausoleum, the architecture of Foster’s creation very much reflected his Christian beliefs.
In the words of one of the memorial’s architects James Craig, “the earliest forms of Christian architecture, those of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium […] were the inspiration for a new and entirely original design.”
You don’t have to step foot in Foster’s mausoleum to appreciate the mastery that’s gone into constructing the tomb. The intricate carvings in the Indiana Limestone are mute testimony to this end, as are the imposing dome roof made of solid copper and the doors of solid bronze. No expense was spared. Foster spent roughly $250,000 on the completion of his memorial–roughly $15 million by today’s standards.
Once inside, visitors are bathed in kaleidoscope light from 23 spectacular stained glass windows. There are also many different kinds of marble and mosaics adorning the interior, including a 22-karat gold mosaic lining the inner top dome and a beautiful water-lily laden river Styx, which greets guests underfoot as they enter.
And, of course, there’s the crypt, where Ruby and Elizabeth were interned upon the mausoleum’s completion. Foster lived to be 93, and when he passed in 1945, he joined them.
Today, Foster’s creation is in the care of the Township of Uxbridge and not-for-profit organization, the Friends of the Foster Memorial (FOTFM). Working together, the township and FOTFM continue to honour Foster’s legacy with money he left for that purpose in his will. Foster also left substantial sums to scholarships funds, the Toronto Humane Society, the Salvation Army, and toward the conservation of caribou herds in the north.
Without a doubt, the Foster Memorial emits a manicured majesty, but there is also a whimsy about Foster’s creation that, when combined with the sprawling pastoral scene that surrounds Foster’s tribute, creates resonant harmony that continues to captivate visitors 75 years after his death.
I believe it’s Foster’s duality that makes his memorial more than just another familial tribute. Foster was frugal, but he also showed incredible generosity. And while funerals are held at the memorial, so are weddings, educational tours and many special events–events like that concert series I went to years ago. You will sense it, as soon as you step foot into Foster’s memorial: death is there, but in equal force, so is life. So is love. It’s everywhere.
To learn more about the Foster Memorial, including up-to-date information on when the site will reopen due to COVID-19 closures, visit www.fostermemorial.com.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter.
Cover photo credit: Scan from the book “Jewel on the Hill: The Story of Ontario’s Thomas Foster Memorial” by Conrad Boyce.
Photo 1 courtesy: Thomas Foster Memorial Facebook.
Photo 2-4 credit: Scan from the book “Jewel on the Hill: The Story of Ontario’s Thomas Foster Memorial” by Conrad Boyce.