Historicist: Toronto's Catholic Beer Baron
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Historicist: Toronto’s Catholic Beer Baron

Eugene O'Keefe gets rich from the brewing industry and funds several Catholic institutions.

The O’Keefe Brewery at Gould and Victoria. The Globe, June 8, 1895.

Eugene O’Keefe took a somewhat unconventional route to the brewing business, not having a background in farming like other early Canadian brewers such as John Kinder Labatt or Thomas Carling. O’Keefe’s upbringing was an urban one. Born in Ireland in 1827, he immigrated with his family to Canada a few years later, settling in Toronto in 1834, the year of the city’s incorporation. By the time of his death in 1913, he had become one of Canada’s most successful brewers and one of Toronto’s most prosperous citizens—no mean feat in an era when Toronto was still predominantly Protestant.

Most sources agree that O’Keefe entered professional life as a junior accountant at the age of 19 in the Toronto Savings Bank, a predecessor of the Home Bank of Canada, a popular bank with Toronto’s Catholic community. Through his work at the Toronto Savings Bank, as well as some experience in the hotel and grocery business, O’Keefe developed a knowledge of business practices that enabled him to embark upon a new enterprise in his mid-30s.


In 1861, O’Keefe formed a partnership with George Hawke and brewmaster Patrick Cosgrave and purchased the Victoria Brewery. The Victoria Brewery had begun production of ale on Richmond Street around 1840, and a few years later relocated to a site at the southwest corner of Gould and Victoria.

(Right: Eugene O’Keefe. J.H. Beers & Co., Commemorative biographical record of the county of York, Ontario, 1907: Toronto.)

According to Ontario beer historian Ian Bowering, O’Keefe had been a regular visitor to the Victoria Brewery when it was still owned by Charles Hannath, and cultivated a friendship that enabled Hannath to pass on some tips to the brewing novice. This advice may have proved quite valuable, as O’Keefe’s obituary in the Toronto Star notes that “Mr. Hawke knew nothing about the business and Mr. O’Keefe’s knowledge was only superficial.” The one partner with apparent experience, Patrick Cosgrave, left the enterprise in 1863 to buy the West Toronto Brewery near Niagara and Queen, leaving O’Keefe and Hawke on their own.

Despite Cosgrave’s departure, the Victoria Brewery had a popular product and the company soon benefited greatly from O’Keefe’s business acumen. In addition to actively marketing their beer, O’Keefe also monitored changes in the consumer market and, in the 1870s, was among the first brewers in Toronto to produce lager. Although a staple of the beer market today, lager was a novel concept for Torontonians at this time who were more used to ale and stout. Some local brewers were apprehensive about the unfamiliar new product, but spurred by its popularity amongst German immigrants, lager soon became popular within the city. O’Keefe continued to introduce new products over the next few decades, including O’Keefe’s Invalid Stout, and the appetizingly named O’Keefe’s Liquid Extract of Malt, which was sold through a wholesale druggist and promised results for those who were “run down or have no appetite, and cannot sleep.”

Advertisement for O’Keefe’s Pilsener Lager. The Evening Telegram, April 29, 1908.

O’Keefe expanded the operation several times over the first few decades; reports suggest this was often accomplished by simply demolishing his entire factory and erecting a new one. By 1878, the name of the brewery first appears in Toronto city directories as “O’Keefe & Co, brewers and maltsters.”

Up until the 1880s, the company had mostly marketed the beer within Toronto, but soon began facing competition from outside breweries. In response, O’Keefe made inroads in markets out of town by advertising in skilled trade journals and Irish publications, as well as the Catholic Register.

An 1895 Globe article highlights a recent expansion at the O’Keefe Brewery, describing it as a “palatial establishment,” touting its state-of-the-art techniques, and noting that “lovers of good ale and lager have for some months past been noticing a marked improvement in the quality of these beverages.” The article gives considerable attention to the new “De La Vergne refrigeration process,” which may have made it the first brewery with a mechanically refrigerated warehouse in all of Canada. Credit for the brewery’s fine facilities is given directly to Eugene O’Keefe, whom the Globe describes as having “shown himself a man of nerve and brain, of energy and courage in securing the foremost architect of the continent in his special line to superintend the interior arrangements of his brewery.”

The Fermenting Room. The Globe, June 8, 1895.

In addition to running a brewery, Eugene O’Keefe remained active in the banking world. After the Toronto Savings Bank became the Home Savings and Loan in 1879, O’Keefe became vice-president of the new institution, ascending to the presidency following the incumbent’s death in 1901. O’Keefe continued as president when it became the Home Bank of Canada in 1903, remaining in the position until poor health forced his resignation 10 years later.

O’Keefe also enjoyed an active social life. His obituaries reveal contributions to a variety of charitable causes, and also note his prowess in a variety of sports. He was a member of the Ontario Jockey Club, a lacrosse club, and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club; the Star described him as “for a long time the champion ten-pin bowler and [a] splendid oarsman and generally proficient in all water sports.”

In 1862, O’Keefe married Helen Charlotte Bailey and had a son, Eugene Bailey O’Keefe, and a daughter, Helena Charlotte French. There may have been plans for the younger O’Keefe to take over his father’s business, but his son died relatively young, leaving no apparent heir to inherit the company. Shortly thereafter Eugene Sr. began disposing of some of his wealth, taking particular interest in the Catholic community. O’Keefe attended mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral several times a week and donated considerable sums of money for its upkeep. Following the death of his wife, O’Keefe financed the construction of a new church in North Toronto, requesting that it be named after Monica of Hippo, the mother of St. Augustine and his wife’s favourite saint.

After observing groups of poor Polish Catholics making the trip to St. Michael’s, O’Keefe resolved to establish a more convenient church for them. He purchased an old Presbyterian church on Denison Avenue for a reported $30,000, and through his contacts helped arrange for a Polish priest for the parish. St. Stanislaus Church became an important part of the city’s Polish community; it later helped raise funds for the Polish cause during the Second World War, and received a visit from Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, in 1969.

Employees of the O’Keefe Brewery at Victoria and Gould, ca. 1890s. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

But O’Keefe’s best-known legacy to Toronto’s Catholic community may be the St. Augustine Seminary, located in Scarborough near Kingston Road and Midland Avenue. Archbishop Fergus McEvay had long wanted a seminary in Ontario, as English Canada otherwise lacked a major institution for the training of new priests. Recognizing in O’Keefe a potential source of funding, McEvay called upon the priest at St. Michael’s to reach out to O’Keefe, which he did to great success—O’Keefe agreed to fund the entire construction at a cost of $450,000, which the Catholic Register estimates at over $10,000,000 in today’s money.

In January of 1909, O’Keefe received a singular honour when the Vatican named him a Private Chamberlain of the Pope, reportedly the first Canadian to receive this honour. The Mail and Empire described this honour as “one of the most coveted in the gift of his Holiness.” The Telegram wrote that “the private chamberlain’s function is to render personal service to the Supreme Pontiff by attending in the ante-chamber and accompanying him in solemn ceremonies.” Given his geographical distance from the Vatican and his advanced age, the title was likely understood by O’Keefe to be symbolic.

By the time of O’Keefe’s death in 1913, the brewing company’s primary shareholder was Widmer Hawke, the son of O’Keefe’s initial partner, George Hawke. The younger Hawke died soon after O’Keefe, and ownership of the brewery was soon in the hands of some of Toronto’s most prominent businessmen, including Henry Pellatt, William Mulock, and Charles Vance Millar. Millar may be best known to history as the man whose mischievous will caused all sorts of mayhem following his own death in 1926; while the most famous clause of this will bequeathed the balance of his estate to whichever Toronto woman could give birth to the most children in nine years, another clause attempted to award stock in the Catholic-associated O’Keefe Brewery to Protestant ministers. Not only did this invoke the Catholic-Protestant rivalry, but Protestant ministers were a demographic likely to favour temperance. Although the clause concerning mothers was upheld, it appears that the O’Keefe clause was invalidated on the grounds that Millar did not own sufficient stock in the company for the number of shares he wished to distribute.

Display of some products under the O’Keefe label in 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2248.

In 1934, O’Keefe Limited was acquired by horseracing tycoon E.P. Taylor, and was absorbed into Canadian Breweries Limited. Several other transactions have happened since, and the company is now part of Molson Coors.

In addition to the various Catholic churches Eugene O’Keefe helped fund, there are other traces of his legacy remaining in Toronto today. Just east of Yonge Street between Gerrard and Gould is O’Keefe Lane, named for the factory which used to stand to the immediate east. To the east of the old factory site at 137 Bond Street is O’Keefe House that, since the 1960s, now serves as a residence for nearby Ryerson University.

Additional material from: J.H. Beers & Co., Commemorative biographical record of the county of York, Ontario: containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens and many of the early settled families, J.H. Beers & co., 1907: Toronto; Jack S. Blocker, et al., Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2003: Santa Barbara; Ian Bowering, The Art and Mystery of Brewing in Ontario, General Store, 1988: Burnstown (Ont.); Catholic Register (January 2, October 22, October 29, 1908); The Globe (June 26, 1852; June 8, 1895); Michael Kluckner, Toronto: The Way It Was, Whitecap, 1988: Toronto; The Leader (January 24, 1862); The Mail and Empire (October 2, 1913); Mark G. McGowan, The Waning of the Green: Catholics, the Irish and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999: Montreal; Toronto News (October 1, 1913); Allen Winn Sneath, Brewed in Canada: The Untold Story of Canada’s 350-Year-Old Brewing Industry, Dundurn, 2001: Toronto; Toronto Star (Oct 1, 1913; April 3, 1976; October 4, 1986; September 3, 1988); The Evening Telegram (April 29, 1908; October 1, 1913); Toronto World (October 2, 1913).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.