+VG Architects celebrates completed renovation of historic St. Michael’s Cathedral

Photo by David Lasker
Photo by Concrete Pictures

+VG Architects has welcomed the public to see the fruits of its 14-year renovation of historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, the principal church of Canada’s largest English-speaking Catholic archdiocese, located in the heart of Toronto at 65 Bond St.

The project is part of a series of extensive renovations by +VG Architects instigated by the Archdiocese of Toronto and further encouraged by Cardinal Thomas Collins, who arrived in 2007 and had a vision to develop the cathedral as a centre of evangelization. To that end, “The cathedral should be a thing of beauty,” says architect Terrance White, Partner-in-Charge of the +VG Architects team at the cathedral, who was assisted by David Ecclestone, +VG Architects Partner and project architect. As the lead consultant, they worked with the archdiocese to create the renovation strategy and hire subcontractors.

Perhaps the biggest renovation story of the 168-year-old cathedral, and the aspect that seems most to capture the public’s imagination, lies below ground. “We excavated the crypt, where the first Bishop of Toronto, Michael Power, and other important figures in Toronto’s history are buried, and turned it into a formal crypt chapel,” White says.

For instance, on the north side is interred John Elmsley, a convert from the Anglican church, a director of the Bank of Upper Canada and a member of the Family Compact, whose father had been Chief Justice of Upper Canada.

Photo by David Lasker
Photo by Concrete Pictures

“We expect the crypt chapel to become a tourist destination when it officially opens in early 2018,” White says. “The cathedral will link with the Royal Ontario Museum and Ontario Tourism so that tourists will know that they can come to see that what’s buried here is part of the social and cultural history of Canada.”

Indeed, the district was witness to history. Across Bond Street stands a City of Toronto Historic Site, Mackenzie House, the 19th-century row-house museum dedicated to William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and a leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.

They are doing a lot of interior conservation, decorating and embellishing. All the stained-glass windows have been restored, including commissioning of new stained-glass windows and sculptures. The rose windows in the south and north transepts have been boarded up for about 100 years. Today they display the new stained-glass windows designed and fabricated by John Wilcox and his firm, Vitreous Glassworks.

The original windows were made of quarry-glass, an expedient way to create glass using the yellow pigment that gives the characteristic brown colour to beer bottles. The first fenestration scheme for the church used this material. Leaded-glass windows, which are vastly more expensive, come later, as embellishments by the parishioners. If you go through the church, there are names on the bottoms of all the windows, commemorating the donor families. Most of the glass on the tower was quarry glass, except the main window.

Photo by David Lasker
Photo by Concrete Pictures

New York-based Ecclesiastical Art created the designs for the painted decorations on the interior walls and ceiling of the cathedral. They transformed the ceiling into a canvas depicting the celestial sky with more than 18,000 heavenly stars, some of them gilded, some painted red or blue.

The team replaced the existing, unsafe balcony, which had been closed to the public since the 1990s. It had been compromised years ago when the organ power was changed from a water-pump system to pneumatic action. They cut through the beams to get the air ducts through. The new balcony, seating 230, doubles the original seat count.

The existing organ, installed in 1880, blocked the entire opening of the great west window, which, like the big window at the chancel in the east end, has some of the most beautiful stained glass in North America. They removed the organ to open up the view. Opus 3907, the new, $2-million pipe organ built by Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., and designed in consultation with us, splits the pipe chests so that they flank the walls in front of the window, preserving the view and the daylight. The new instrument will attract international organists who will want to play in the cathedral. Especially notable are the Trompette en Chamade or Festive Trumpet pipes, mounted horizontally and protruding dramatically from the centre of the balcony front.

The team also built a brand-new altar. Every cathedral altar has holy relics. Previously they were kept in an inconspicuous corridor space, soon they will be installed prominently within the altar. New sculpture niches beneath the balconies will have glass-fronted reliquary niches installed in the base of the new carved wood ecclesiastical sculptures made at the Demetz Art Studio workshop in Bozen, Italy.

A Toronto area sculptor who has a special role in the renovations taking place at the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral has been invited to bring his talents to the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) campus. For the first time on record, USMCwill be home to an artist-in-residence, Farhad Nargol-O’Neill.

The newest member of the USMC community has worked as a sculptor for the past 30 years on projects around the world, including government, community and royal commissions. “During my time as artist-in-residence, I hope to engage the St. Mike’s community on topics related to the intersection of art and religion and am pleased to do so on a campus that serves as a centre for Catholic education in Canada,”Nargol-O’Neill said.

Principal among the work at the cathedral will be a special project by Nargol-O’Neill, which will be brought to life in his workshop in Brennan Hall. As he completes his work, commissioned by Fr. Michael Busch, Rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, the community will be able to see Nargol-O’Neill’s progress every step of the way.

“The University of St. Michael’s College offers students many opportunities to see how faith can figure profoundly in the creative arts and in our public life,” said Randy Boyagoda, USMC Principal and Vice President. “Farhad’s work on campus very much embodies this. His energetic and thoughtful presence on campus, coupled with his great interest in meeting with students and faculty from St. Mike’s and from across the University of Toronto, is distinctive and cosmopolitan. By drawing on his God-given talents, his artistic expression demonstrates the impact that faith can have in transforming the world around us.”

Throughout the year, the University of St. Michael’s College will be organizing cultural programming that draws on the work, ideas, and person of Nargol-O’Neill. For more details, please visit: http://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/event/material-and-devotional-arts

You can view several videos of the restoration phases on the St. Michael’s Cathedral website: http://www.stmichaelscathedral.com/restoration-videos/