Fire guts art-filled Toronto church

Photo: Jonathan Careless

By Sue Careless

A SUNDAY MORNING FIRE has destroyed one of the most beautiful churches in Canada.

The four-alarm blaze early on June 9 gutted St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto. It was a national historic site that contained the priceless works of prominent Canadian artists including three members of the Group of Seven.

When he first heard of the fire, the parish priest ran to the site but it was too late. “Fire was already spewing out the dome at the top,” Rev. Don Beyers said, “and I knew there was nothing we could do.” St Anne’s Rector for the past three years was “crushed” and told reporters, “I just started to cry.”

There were no occupants inside the building and no injuries were sustained. While the cause of the blaze is still being investigated, arson is not suspected at this time.

St. Anne's is located at 270 Gladstone Ave. in the west end of Toronto in a neighbourhood known as Little Portugal.

It was the only Anglican church in Canada built in the Byzantine style. The church’s dome was destroyed although the exterior walls are still standing. Nothing could be saved inside and all the stained-glass windows were blown out.

The present church was built in 1907-1908 and was designated a national historic site in 1996. It contained a remarkable collection of 16 murals by famous Canadian artists, including three members of the Group of Seven. St. Anne’s contained the only known religious art by the Group who were noted for their landscapes. Their paintings were installed along the interior in the 1920s.

“The artwork was priceless. It was murals, beautiful murals,” he told reporters before hosting a Sunday afternoon prayer and counselling service at nearby St. Mary Magdalene Anglican church. “They were stunning.”

In 1905 the Rev. Canon Lawrence Skey, Rector of St Anne’s, had taken a sabbatical leave to study church architecture. His travels took him to Istanbul, where the magnificent sixth-century Early Byzantine church Hagia Sophia made a strong impression on him. Upon his return to Toronto, Skey held an architectural competition and awarded the contract for the construction of the new church (the congregation has outgrown their earlier neo-Gothic one) to a young Toronto architect, William Ford Howland. Howland's design was radically different from the conventional Gothic architecture preferred by the Anglican Church of Canada.

St. Anne's is constructed of concrete and yellow brick on a cruciform plan with a distinctive central dome, 21 metres in height (compared to the 55.6 metres of Hagia Sofia). Other architectural features include two domed bell towers, a half-domed chancel and arched transepts.

Once the church was built, Skey turned to decorating the spacious but drab concrete interior with art.

Through the Arts and Letters Club, Skey became friends with J.E.H. MacDonald and in 1923 MacDonald accepted a commission to decorate St. Anne's. He brought in nine more artists including two other members of the Group of Seven, Frederick Varley and Franklin Carmichael. MacDonald also enlisted his 18-year-old son Thoreau.

MacDonald had the artists paint large-scale versions of his sketches for the life of Christ and had them use a common palette to create a uniform effect. Each artist painted on canvas in his own studio, and the completed murals were then installed in the church. In 1995 art critic John Bentley Mays described the overall effect as "a symphony in colour and design."

The Transfiguration by MacDonald was set above the central window. The principal paintings were placed in the four pendentives, the triangular elements where the dome intersects with the column: The Nativity (Varley), The Crucifixion (MacDonald), The Resurrection (H.S. Palmer) and The Ascension (H.G. Stansfield).

Varley also painted the four massive heads of the prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.

Carmichael, the youngest member of the Group of Seven, painted the Adoration of the Magi and the Entry into Jerusalem.

The famous sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle created the magnificent medallions of the four Gospel writers.  

The cornice of the dome carried the scripture in gold leaf: "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."

In all, the various artists created an Arts & Crafts sensibility in a Byzantine Revival setting.

Later in the 1960s, Alex von Svoboda, a Toronto glass artist, created some Byzantine-themed mosaics for the sanctuary that featured early Christian symbols modeled on churches in Ravenna, Italy.

With its “priceless” paintings, Rev. Beyers called the church “a gem of Canadian culture.” It’s “an extraordinary loss,” he told reporters the morning of the fire.  

“While this is incredibly devastating for my congregation, it’s devastating for this community,” he said. “I cannot express enough how far-reaching this church fire is going to be.”

In a pastoral letter the next day, Beyers wrote: “Yesterday's fire was not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a new chapter. We will rise from the ashes stronger and even more committed to our mission to be a church for all people.”

It will be an uphill battle. The congregation has declined as the working-class neighbourhood became more Catholic and secular. By 2000 the congregation had fewer than 100 members.

St Anne’s has been rebuilding as a community hub. Every third Sunday of the month the church hosted community dinners. It also made space for farmers’ markets, films and concerts. The day before the fire, St Anne’s choir had offered their neighbours a free concert. 

Heritage restoration will require enormous funds. The church is accepting donations through its Canada Helps page, but Scott Weir, an architect who specializes in heritage site restoration said, “Often there needs to be a wealthy patron who gets behind a project like this.”  

The Bishop of Toronto, Andrew Asbil, wrote a pastoral letter to the grieving congregation dated June 10, in which he quoted the Sunday epistle: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1)” He said that “the reading was providential and poignant for all of us in the Diocese of Toronto, as we lost one of our most beloved buildings to fire. St. Anne’s, Gladstone Avenue in Toronto was a jewel of our Church, with its priceless artwork, and architecture that allowed for glorious acoustics.”

He continued, “All 200 congregations of the Diocese of Toronto are with you, praying for you, and will walk with you through this next chapter in our life together. Words of encouragement are coming from right across the Church, from coast to coast to coast and beyond.”

And he concluded: “And the Triune God who has sustained and blessed you for over 100 years of life and ministry is with you still. May you feel the comfort of the Holy Spirit as you grieve the loss of your beautiful earthly tent, as we lean confidently into Jesus Christ’s promise that ‘in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.’”


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