Hairdresser Chester Bernasiewicz served the Little Poland community

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Widely known for his welcoming smile and jovial greeting to passers-by at his hair salon on Roncesvalles Avenue, Chester Bernasiewicz was a staple of Toronto’s Little Poland for more than half a century.

The owner of Kaye’s Barber Shop, who has regularly served three generations of the same family and offered free services to new immigrants, “was a pillar of the community,” says his son Michael Bernasiewicz. “His biggest title and identity was“ Chester the Barber. ”He cut hair for over 60 years and took great pride in his work, caring deeply for his loyal customers.

Born Czesław Bernasiewicz in Poland during World War II to farmers Jan Bernasiewicz and former Maria Danielak, the younger brother of Franek, Staszek, Józek and Marysia had a difficult youth, says his son Richard Bernasiewicz. Józek had been taken prisoner by the Nazis and sent to a labor camp, and after the war the family was moved from eastern Poland to Wojcieszyn, a small village in the western part of the country.

Eager to sponsor her younger brother to join her in Canada, Marysia encouraged the teenager to learn a trade to increase his chances of being approved. After training as a hairstylist and barber in Legnica, Poland, Chester, 21, moved in with Marysia and her husband to Prescott, Ont., In 1963.

“Chester quickly realized he wanted to be in a bigger city to start his future,” says Richard, so he went to live with Józek and his wife in Montreal, where he worked in a lumber yard for weekdays and at a barber shop on weekends. .

The French language requirement to become a licensed barber in Quebec was a challenge for Chester, who had just learned English so he moved to Toronto. There he got his license to practice in Ontario to become a master hairstylist / barber and met hairstylist Elizabeth Mika at a Polish community dance. It was fate: Ela was by chance the sister of a client who had intended to introduce them. This client, Reverend Rufin Mika, was ordained a priest in 1965, and the first marriage he presided over was that of Ela and Chester, at St. Casimir’s Church on Roncesvalles Ave. “The family joke is that Reverend Rufin Mika had to practice family first,” says Richard.

Chester worked as a barber on Dupont Street – an industrial-made hallway that became a fashionable Queen West district – before going into business in 1969, buying the already established Kaye’s Barber Shop on Roncevaux Avenue. The couple, along with toddler Richard, moved into the neighboring property. As the growing family moved to a home in central Etobicoke a decade later, they ran their business in the Polish Quarter for over 50 years.

Many repeat customers started out as young boys sitting on a plank of wood that Chester used as a booster for the barber’s chair, Richard explains. His work was appreciated by young and old alike. On the lookout for the latest trends, Chester shaved lightning bolts and other designs off the sides of children’s hair in the ’90s. “The other boys in school would see the designs and ask where he got the cool style.” , explains Richard. “‘Go see Chester at Kaye’s and he will’ was the common response. “

Chester considered the barber to be his calling. “Being with clients gave him a deep sense of joy because it brought him closer to his community,” says Richard. Because of this, Chester put in long hours, but found the time for a rich life outside of work.

Never losing his connection to his homeland, Chester was determined that his sons Richard (born 1966), Michael (1971) and Matthew (1982) learn Polish and participate in cultural activities, including folk dances and songs. at St. Michael’s Choir School, where their father was a cathedral usher. The family went first, and Saturdays – usually the busiest days for a barber – the devoted father would walk away from his store to attend his children’s concerts, games and workouts.

Many years later, he would do the same for his grandchildren Diana, Emily, Lukas, Catherine, Alison and his step-grandchildren Kristina and Luca. “Dziadzia (grandfather) was the first to pretend to remove the nose from the face of his grandchildren or rock them to put them to sleep,” explains Richard. “He loved to take his grandchildren for walks and teach them Polish children’s songs while he danced around the house with them or played cuckoo.”

Chester’s childhood on a farm made a lasting impression, and in the 1970s he bought a small farm outside of Grimsby, where he grew fruits and vegetables. He hiked along Mimico Creek near his home and, in his 60s and 60s, spent time at his cabin on Three Mile Lake in Muskoka.

Before the pandemic, people would drop by Kaye’s to chat, which Chester missed out on during the lockdowns, but he continued to do what he did best. “He just couldn’t retire,” says Richard. “He felt such affection for clients that he would often say, ‘How can I leave them?’

“He never wanted to put his scissors down.”

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