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Altered: The Evolution of Toronto’s Church Landscape

With congregations declining, many of Canada's churches are on the verge of closing. But changes in ecclesiastical buildings are nothing new—they've been ongoing since pioneer days, according to a duo of Toronto-area researchers.

September 8, 2016
by Jasmine Frolick

An artist’s book documents the evolution of Toronto’s first churches and the land they resided on. Photo: ROBYNNE REDGRAVE

An artist’s book documents the evolution of Toronto’s first churches and the land they resided on. Photo: Robynne Redgrave

In the late 19th century, Toronto was hailed as the evangelical centre of the New World, with more churches per capita than any other city. Since then, the number of churchgoers has significantly declined, resulting in the widespread phenomenon of congregations without the capital to maintain their churches in a state of good repair. The National Trust for Canada, a charity dedicated to preserving historic places, estimates that over 27,000 places of worship throughout Canada will close within the next ten years.

In many cases, a congregation will choose to sell its entire property and amalgamate with another congregation. Or if it is lucky, it may be able to redevelop a portion of the property in order to continue funding its church—like St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, at 73 Simcoe Street, did in 1995 when it sold its manse (c. 1873) and associated lands for the residential high-rise now called Symphony Place.

The redevelopment of churches is a contentious issue in Toronto, often provoking an emotional response—even from those who are not churchgoers. On the municipal level, the City of Toronto aims to address the redevelopment of places of worship by developing a new process with the participation of religious stakeholders. This new process, however, has not yet been made public. At the provincial level, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture’s Heritage Places of Worship: A Guide to Conserving Heritage Places of Worship in Ontario Communities serves to guide decisions about the protection, alteration and disposal of places of worship. Above all, it seeks to help places of worship continue to be active sites in their communities, and discourages mothballing the buildings.

As the adaptive reuse of church buildings becomes commonplace, I teamed up with artist Robynne Redgrave earlier this year to investigate the early era of ecclesiastical development in the city. Our artist’s book Altered: The Evolution of Toronto’s Church Landscape (1797-1834) examines the evolution of religious built form (as well as pioneer religious culture), drawing from letters, sermons and other primary sources. It was presented at Grow Op, the Gladstone Hotel’s annual exhibition on the culture of landscape, along with a sculptural installation.

Before purpose-built church buildings existed in the Town of York (as the City of Toronto was known before it was incorporated in 1834), worship services were conducted in the Parliament Buildings or in private residences, when ministers on circuit came through the settlement. A purpose-built church was considered a luxury during the early years when, for example, it was common for the garrison to distribute food supplies to avoid mass starvation.

Designed by architectsAlliance, the St. James Cathedral Centre accommodates weddings and other events. Photo: TOM ARBAN

Designed by architectsAlliance, the St. James Cathedral Centre accommodates weddings and other events. Photo: Tom Arban

In 1807, a two-storey wood frame building known as the Episcopal Church at York was the first church to be constructed in York. Unsurprisingly, it was an Anglican church, as the government favoured the Church of England by providing it with land and financial grants. (In exchange, the church acted as an intermediary for the government by communicating government decrees and teaching loyalty to the British crown.) The Town of York’s original church reserve—land granted from the Crown to the Church of England—is bounded by Adelaide, Church, King and Jarvis Streets.

The building complex has continually evolved to meet the needs of its congregation. Designed by architect Thomas Rogers of Kingston, the original Episocal Church at York was replaced in 1833 in order to triple the capacity of the building. Today, the Anglican Church has retained ownership of approximately a third of the land, with some severed properties in the southeast corner of the block, and the bulk now serving as the City of Toronto-owned St. James Park. On the original reserve land is St. James Cathedral, the fourth or fifth church structure on the site (depending on your interpretation of what exactly entails a new building). Most recently, a 2012 addition by architectsAlliance to the historic Parish House (built in 1910 and expanded again in 1958) accommodates weddings and conferences—activities that fund the maintenance of the Cathedral.

In the early days of York, there was widespread support for the construction of churches of all denominations, because the government believed that there was a direct correlation between public worship and the creation of a socially cohesive, politically united population. In asking the Archbishop of Canterbury for a separate bishopric for his colony in 1826, John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, wrote: “Every establishment of Church and State that up-holds the distinction of rank, and lessens the undue weight of democratic influence ought to be introduced.” The importance of worshipping in a church cannot be understated—pioneers would even switch religious affiliations in order to have access to a dedicated church building.

But rather than upholding the social hierarchy, the multitude of church choices, along with freedom from the ethnic and familial constraints of the Old World, created an organizational nightmare for the clergy, who wrote that the pioneers were “spiritually ignorant” and “suffering a loss of faith.” The conditions of the New World effectively enabled the pioneers to forge a new social contract with the clergy in York. Clergy were careful to prevent alienation of church members (whose support was vital for church coffers in the generally impoverished society), lest they defect and join a rival congregation. This resulted in significant changes, such as the end of public shaming of deviant church members—a popular practice in Europe. Congregations even influenced logistical details, such as at what time church services would be conducted.

A view of Frolick and Red-grave’s installation at the Gladstone Hotel. Photo: ROBYNNE REDGRAVE

A view of Frolick and Redgrave’s installation at the Gladstone Hotel. Photo: Robynne Redgrave

Eight churches were constructed in York—including Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist places of worship—before the town was incorporated as the City of Toronto in 1834. They have all since been demolished. Of the original church sites, two are extant: St. James and St. Paul’s. The latter, St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church at Queen Street East and Power Streets, has, like St. James, maintained its religious use. The original church, designed by architect John Ewart, was constructed between 1822-1826 and was replaced in the 1880s when the congregation outgrew its capacity.

How might this history inform the difficult decisions around church alterations today? Even in pioneer days, the financial viability of churches dictated how they physically and culturally evolved—growing, shrinking, changing use and changing ownership. Contemporary Toronto may have the capacity to maintain heritage churches as intact relics, long after their congregations have left. Or it may need to turn to alternate possibilities for the future of these buildings, which allow them to continue their evolution, while maintaining them as active community sites.

By the way, the earliest example of the permanent adaptive reuse of a church building? It was the Baptist March Street Chapel, which became an orphanage known as Newsboys’ Home after it was sold in 1841. Earlier still, St. James Church had gone through a temporary repurposing—it was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the War of 1812.

Jasmine Frolick is a heritage planner working with ERA Architects. The installation Altered: The Evolution of Toronto’s Church Landscape (1797-1834) was presented at Grow Op at the Gladstone Hotel from April 21 to 24, 2016.