Updated: Oct 12
John W. Costello Brown (1842-1918)
b. Trienearagh, Co. Kerry, c.1842 d. Calgary, 1918.
Occupation: Entrepreneur, Teacher, School Trustee, Government Inspector, Real Estate Developer
While John W. Costello gave his name to an early Calgary building (the Costello Block), the Calgary Catholic elementary school named for him better reflects his lasting legacy. While fellow Irish settlers John Glenn and Samuel Livingston are considered the first official Calgary settlers, John Costello and his brother William were parents to the first settler children born in the area. In November 1883, William’s son, named John Calgary, became the first non-Indigenous boy born in the area, followed shortly by baby Elizabeth Lillian, who added to John and Elizabeth Costello’s growing family. As a later descendant noted, the Costello immigrants determinedly “went forth and multiplied,” contributing to both economic and population growth. John’s children became doctors, city councillors, builders, investors, and skilled tradespeople. One son, Michael Copps Costello, became Mayor of Calgary. Further descendants followed in John’s footsteps as teachers in the Calgary Separate school system that he helped guide after its establishment in 1885. But before government-funded schools systems arrived in the North West territories, he became the first Calgary teacher in the newly-opened Boyton Hall, whose grand name belied its humble clapboard construction.
John and William Costello emigrated from their family farm in Kerry in the 1860s, following an uncle to Ontario, where John obtained a provincial teaching certificate. The brothers started several retail and business ventures in eastern Canada, with varying degrees of success. They also married and began families before deciding to move west. Like other Irish-Alberta immigrants, John Costello was involved with the CPR, travelling on a “work train” before establishing himself in Calgary. In 1883, John’s wife Elizabeth, their children, and his brother’s family came out on the first passenger train to Calgary, arriving at a settlement that was “little more than a collection of shacks and tents clustered near the mounted police fort,” as described by historian Jack Peach. The remote and rustic location would have been daunting for Elizabeth Costello and her sister-in-law, who each gave birth in Calgary just as winter arrived.
As parents, the Costellos would have deplored the lack of educational opportunities for their children, a concern shared by early Calgary citizens who argued in the Calgary Herald, “It is a well-agreed fact that nothing has given the Dominion of Canada a place among the nations as the education of the masses of the people.” With no established school district, Calgary citizens raised funds for a school building, donated furniture, and engaged John Costello as the first schoolteacher, paying him fifty dollars per month. It was difficult to fund a school on charitable contributions alone, however, and Costello soon found more stable employment as a government inspector of weights and measures. In 1910, he built the Costello Block to house his office, along with stores, residences, and later, his son’s medical practice.
Even after he left teaching, John Costello remained committed to education. Moreover, as a devout Catholic, he supported a separate school system where religious education would be a regular part of the curriculum. After the Lacombe Catholic Separate School District #1 was established in 1885, Costello became a school trustee, a position he held for many years. His descendants also inherited his love of education: some of his sons studied at Queen’s University in Kingston, and one briefly pursued medical studies in Dublin. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren continued to be students and teachers in Calgary schools into the twenty-first century. His dedication to education in Calgary is fittingly commemorated in the John W. Costello Catholic elementary school.
Blanchfield, Kay, “Biography of John W. Costello,” School History, John W. Costello Catholic School, https://johncostello.cssd.ab.ca/school-history
Peach, Jack. “Irish Had Big Role in Early Calgary,” Calgary Herald, 24 October 1981, F6.
Walters, Judy. “Costello Family Marks Centenary.” Calgary Herald, 8 August 1983. B2.
Zurowski, Monica. “Getting Schooled in Calgary,” Calgary Herald, 25 March 2021. https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/from-the-archives-getting-schooled-in-calgary