Barton Street East and Sherman Avenue North
In 1900, Hamilton’s population was still predominantly British. Within years, however, many workers from southern and eastern European countries came to work in the city. Newcomers often did the hottest, heaviest and dirtiest work in the new East End mills. Many male migrant workers came to Hamilton every year to earn money for their families back home. As time went on, many decided to stay, often saving for years to bring over family members. These families formed close-knit communities. To be close to work, many immigrants lived in the neighbourhoods north of Barton Street on either side of Sherman Avenue.
The area around Barton Street East and Sherman Avenue North was the crossroads of many of Hamilton’s ethnic communities in the first half of the 20th century. A chorus of languages filled the air on Barton Street, where small businesses run by Italians, Jews and Poles stood alongside those of Armenians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Chinese. Shoppers patronized butchers, barbers, bakers, shoemakers, restauranteurs, launderers and green grocers. Their shops were not the only signs of ethnic mixing on this street. Many of the new communities erected buildings where they could keep the religious and cultural traditions of their homelands alive.
The church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, on the corner of Saint Ann Street and Barton Street East, was the most visible of these monuments. In May 1911, 300 Polish men met next door at Saint Ann’s Roman Catholic Church and agreed to contribute one day’s pay each month towards the construction of a new Polish Roman Catholic church. Father Tomasz Tarasuik from Chicago became the church’s first pastor. He ministered to Hamilton’s Polish community for the next 25 years.
Construction of St. Stan’s Church shaped Hamilton’s Polish community. By 1912, their settlement stretched north toward the new church from its origins around Sherman Avenue North and Burlington Street East. This growth sparked other Polish community organizations. Father Tarasuik helped found the Society of St. Stanislaus Kostka in 1912. It offered members insurance benefits and a meeting hall with its own library. The Polish Falcon’s Alliance, a physical fitness organization with a nationalist bent, formed in 1913. A branch of the Sons of Poland stimulated more cultural activity, starting in 1915. Polish choirs, brass bands and youth groups flourished through the 1920s and 1930s. Radical-left groups such as the Polish Alliance of Canada and the Hamilton Polish Workers’ Association added a political element.
Ukrainian immigrants put down roots in Hamilton around the same time. Radical-left organizations coloured this community’s early history as well. The Union of Russian Workmen was active in Hamilton, for example, until it was outlawed in September 1918. After World War I, such political activities took place under the guise of the Ridna Shkola (Ukrainian native school). By 1920, these organizations had a reading room in the office of a steamship agent named Rotenberg. That year, they staged a revolutionary play called Strike.
In late 1920, Ukrainian progressives formed a branch of the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association. The ULFTA was at the heart of ethnic-left activism in the city for many years. The temple was built in 1937 at 746 Barton Street East. It attracted many local Ukrainians who were isolated from mainstream Canada by language, customs and Anglo-chauvinism. This building served as a meeting place for community political activities. Parents also sent their children here after school for lessons in music, language and Ukrainian cultural heritage.
The Soviet Union’s alliance with Germany at the beginning of World War II created problems for local Ukrainians. The communist-affiliated ULFTA was banned, many of its leaders were interned and the government took over its hall. After the Soviet Union rejoined the Allies in 1941, ULFTA pledged support for the war and was able to resume its activities. The community won back the hall with the help of several prominent public figures in 1944. In 1946, it was a support centre for the steelworkers’ strike, and provided meals to hungry picketers.