By Dan Rankin
Back on Oct. 28 when the St. Marys Community Players were cutting the ribbon on their newly-renovated Town Hall Theatre, secretary for the group, Charlene Van Veen, described how the Stratford Perth Community Foundation has contributed to improvements the group has made to the theatre in recent years.
“In 2012, we benefitted from the Hachborn-Courtnage Fund for the Arts that supported the installation of stairway lighting for the balcony,” she said. “That project brought the balcony up to current building codes, thus increasing seating capacity. In 2014, SMCP benefitted from the Annie and Isabelle Chesterfield Fund, which allowed us to refinish the auditorium hardwood floors and construct the extended stage skirting which includes under-stage storage.”
But that’s not all. “We feel greatly honoured that in 2016, the Smart and Caring Communities Fund held within the SPCF has chosen to support the Community Players for the purchase of 140 padded auditorium chairs,” she said. “We are excited to provide our guests with comfortable seating and an enhanced theatrical experience.”
The fund that provided grant money to the Community Players this year provides money to community projects across Perth County. Very soon, there will be a brand new fund managed by the SPCF that will focus exclusively on supporting community projects in St. Marys. A launch event for the St. Marys Smart and Caring Community Fund will be held at the Town Hall on Sunday, Nov. 13, from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm.
“Since 2004, our community foundation has already issued grants here in St. Marys of some $66,000,” SPCF chair John Wilkinson said at the ribbon-cutting event. The new St. Marys-centric fund will mean that the money “comes from the people of St. Marys, and all of the grants will go right back here to the community of St. Marys,” he said.
This year’s St. Marys fund roll out follows the Perth South-focused fund earlier this year and last year’s Stratford and North Perth funds. Next year, the municipalities of Perth East and West Perth will follow suit with Smart and Caring Community funds of their own.
“They’re going really, really well because I think they’re meeting a need,” Wilkinson told the Independent. “There are always people in communities who think, ‘I’d like to leave a legacy but I want it to be for my hometown. [The SPCF] has over 40 funds for various different reasons, including the fund that donated to this project, the Chesterfield Fund, a legacy that was left here to the Town of St. Marys that we manage.”
The Annie and Isabelle Chesterfield Fund is a “Field of Interest” Fund that was set up in memory of the late Isabelle Kennedy (née Chesterfield), who grew up in St. Marys, and her mother Annie. It is managed by the SPCF and advisor Michael Kennedy, Isabelle’s son, who lives in Hamburg, New York.
As well as supporting the St. Marys Community Players, the Chesterfield fund has also provided grants to the St. Marys Public Library for its e-readers, St. Marys Museum, Little Falls Public School’s Forest School Program in St. Marys, as well as Stratford’s Emily Murphy Centre and Optimism Place, among other projects.
“That was a favourite issue of my mother’s, help for abused women,” Kennedy said. “The Forest School probably wouldn’t have been one of my mother’s main ideas, but that was my issue. Most kids lose touch with the natural world. It doesn’t register and they couldn’t care less about it. They’re more concerned with a lot of other things. So, I thought the Forest School would be a good thing when I heard about it a couple of years ago.”
Kennedy first became involved with the fund six or seven years ago. “My mother accumulated a bunch of properties in the Erie and Niagara County area over here north of Buffalo,” he said. “She decided I would get one of these properties, my brother would get the other one, and the other 13 would be sold and the money would be put into a fund to benefit the Town of St. Marys. The interest that the principal spun off was to go to benefit various public entities within the Town of St. Marys. That was her vision.”
The only problem was that the $250,000 principal from the sale of the properties wouldn’t have been enough to set up a trust with a big bank, he said. “The New York State Attorney General stepped in and found the Stratford Perth Community Foundation. We wound up selling all the properties, and we donated all the money five or six years ago. The money is still sitting there. The principal is not to be invaded, and whatever money is spun off yearly goes to benefit St. Marys,” said Kennedy. “This fund should continue spinning money off for the foreseeable future. It was actually a pretty good idea that my mom had.”
Kennedy, who tries to visit St. Marys regularly, says his cousin Paul Chesterfield still lives in the home where his mother grew up, and where his aunt raised her family, on Ontario Street. “Everybody in St. Marys probably knew one of the Chesterfields,” he said. “There were a lot of them. I talked to Steve Grose, your former mayor, and I asked him if he knew any of the Chesterfields. He kind of looked up to the sky and said, ‘oh yeah, I remember them, for one reason or another’.”
Some other St. Marys connections he recalls from his family’s past include his mother attending school with Milt Dunnell before he moved to Toronto to become a celebrated sports writer, and an old photo dating back to the 1920s or so that he remembers seeing of his grandmother Annie “in a fine opera gown singing on stage at the opera house.”
Kennedy said he is considering other ways he could leave a legacy to the memory of his mother in St. Marys, and would listen to ideas from St. Marys residents interested in calling him at 1-716-471-9030.