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Fire Guts Art-Rich Toronto Anglican Church

A Sunday-morning fire has destroyed one of the most beautiful churches in Canada. A four-alarm blaze early on June 9 gutted St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto.

When the Rev. Don Beyers heard about the fire he ran to the site, but it was too late. “Fire was already spewing out the dome at the top, and I knew there was nothing we could do,” said Beyers, rector of St. Anne’s since 2021. Beyers told reporters he was crushed, and he “just started to cry.”

Nobody was inside the building and nobody was injured. Investigators do not suspect arson.

St. Anne’s is located on Gladstone Avenue in the west end of Toronto, in a neighborhood 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 church was built in 1907-08 and was designated a national historic site in 1996. It contained a remarkable collection of 16 murals by renowned Canadian artists, including three members of the Group of Seven. St. Anne’s contained the only known religious art by these artists, who were known for their landscapes. Their paintings were installed along the interior in the 1920s.

This stained-glass window, illustrating the theme “Lost and Found,” was among the many losses at St. Anne’s Anglican Church. | Sue Careless

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

In 1905 the Rev. Canon Lawrence Skey, an earlier rector, had taken a sabbatical leave to study church architecture. His travels took him to Istanbul, where the magnificent Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century as an Early Byzantine church, made a lasting impression on him.

Upon his return to Toronto, Skey held an architectural competition and awarded the contract for designing the church 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 21-meter central dome (compared to the 55.6 meters of Hagia Sofia). Other architectural features included 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, using a common palette to create a uniform effect. Each artist painted on canvas in his 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 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.

Sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle created medallions of the four Gospel writers.

The cornice of the dome carried Matthew 11:28-29 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. A video tour of the mosaics is at the bottom of this article.

Beyers called the church “a gem of Canadian culture.” It’s “an extraordinary loss,” he told reporters on 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 neighborhood became more secular, but also more Catholic for remaining Christians. By 2000 the congregation had fewer than 100 members.

St Anne’s has been rebuilding as a community hub. On 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 the parish’s neighbors a free concert.

Heritage restoration will require an enormous investment. The church welcomes donations through its page on Canada Helps. “Often there needs to be a wealthy patron who gets behind a project like this,” said Scott Weir, an architect who specializes in restoring heritage sites.

In a pastoral letter on June 10, Bishop Andrew Asbil of Toronto quoted the day’s 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 Cor. 5:1). He said 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, Gladstone Avenue, in Toronto was a jewel of our Church, with its priceless artwork, and architecture that allowed for glorious acoustics.”

He added: “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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