I was told by one source, who seemed to know what he was talking about, that St Basil's was actually designed to be a miniature copy of the Cathedral. There may be something to this, as may be seen in the photo below of the old ceiling and sanctuary of the church.
The picture below shows the church in its original setting. As is the case for all of the downtown churches, it is sometimes easy to forget that these churches were originally outside the city when they were made. There are no Catholic churches whatsoever in the original city of Toronto,
The land for St Basil's was donated for the purposes of building a church by Toronto's greatest Catholic philanthropist, Sir John Elmsley, pictured below with his sate of the art mutton chops.
I have mentioned Elmsley before in this little history, as he was a major figure in the history of the catholic church in Toronto for its formative years. I will now turn this little history away from the church of St Basil's now for a little while, to speak some more of this interesting man.
To recap, Elmsley was a wealthy Anglican who converted to Catholicism, and then began to try and convince his old Anglican friends, including the bishop, to convert as well. He became a very important man in Catholic circles, using his wealth to aid the Church, even assuming the debt of the Cathedral so it could be consecrated. He was a close personal friend of the first three bishops of Toronto.
Elmsley was critical in the early formation of the Toronto diocese. A list of a few of the works he did was to work with Power in establishing a few separate schools where possible; he organized the Catholic volunteers to help supply and build the new Cathedral; helped pay from his own funds for the new orders Power brought into the diocese. Together with S.G. Lynn, he assumed the debt of the cathedral so it could be consecrated in 1848. He was close to the bishop, to the point that he was the third person in Power’s funeral procession, and the one closest to the casket.
The second event was the Irish famine. Elmsley went with Power and the few priests Power summoned to his side into the fever sheds to care for the sick and the dying. Such was his pity for the poor that he shunned no duty. Later writers noted
Amidst the ridicule of his former friends, some of whom abandoned him, he went about doing good. His care for the poor, the widows and orphans of those who were swept away by fever, was incessant. With the tenderness and devotion of a Sister of Charity, he visited the fever sheds, regardless of contagion. He nursed and tended the sick; he consoled the dying; he buried the victims of the terrible scourge; he washed with his own hands the poor bereaved orphans whose condition would have excited disgust in the minds of those who lay claim to no ordinary share of humanity and benevolenceFor the resst of his life Elmsley would be in the forefront of the catholic church in Toronto.
-Setting up the house of industry to help teach and train the Irish Poor.
-With his wife, he helped to start The Catholic Ladies of Toronto to help with the orphans from the typhus epidemic.
-He stocked libraries for the Irish
-Became a proponent of catholic education, and worked hard on the school board to ensure Catholics would get a fair education. When that ultimately failed, he worked with Charbonnel and later Lynch to create a separate school board. When necessary he paid teacher’s salaries from his own funds. He also paid for pencils, paper and the like for the students.
-Together with S.G. Lynn he pushed Charbonnel and later Lynch to help bring an end to the haphazard manner in which Mass was celebrated at the time and to solve problems such as priestly tardiness, choir members coming and going as they pleased, and such. Not long afterwards, historians see a shift in the manner of devotional behaviour in Toronto. Elmsley was at the heart of that.
-he was one of the initial members of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Toronto, and served it diligently.
-he donated land for the construction of St Michael’s College and St Basil’s church.
-he gave the Sisters of St Joseph land to build a school for Catholic children.
-he personally taught a Sunday school class to Irish children at Hogg’s Hollow, six miles from his home.
Keep in mind, that while he was doing this, he was also a member of parliament and an active businessman.
He lived his last days near St Basil’s, which he attended every day. He expressed his wish that his heart be placed inside the church he loved so much, so after his death in 1863 his heart was removed, sealed in a container and placed under the altar of Our Lady. The Basilians in gratitude placed the plaque nearby. The rest of his body was placed in a family crypt under St Michael’s Cathedral. He was survived by his wife and two of their ten children.
One of his and his wife’s last plans was to build a Catholic hospital. Nothing came of the plan. In 1871, Bishop Lynch approached Charlotte Elmsley to see to the purchase of a site for a Catholic Hospital- the future St Michael’s- but by that time the family fortune had been so spent on charity that she could only offer to furnish a room of the hospital.
John Elmsley and his wife Charlotte were a stunning example to all fellow Catholics. They show what devotion and care of the Church can mean, and what the dedication of time and treasure can achieve, and how no task can be too great or too small if it serves the Glory of God, and of how by emptying oneself one may find the fullness of God.
They say that home is where the heart is. If that is the case, then Elmsley's home will forever be St Basil's, literally, as it turns out. Elmsley left instructions that upon his death, his heart was to be removed and buried near the Marian altar at St Basil's. A plaque was placed over it. This one, to be exact.
HON. JOANNI ELMSLEY
CUJUS COR HIC DEPOSITUM EST
SOCIETAS S. BASILII GRATA R.I.P.
Which in English can be translated “To the Honourable John Elmsley, whose heart is here deposited, the Society of St. Basil is grateful. Rest in peace.” To anyone who sees the building and the plaque it is clear that this man Elmsley must have been a figure of some importance, but the extent of his importance goes far beyond there two buildings. In that little place in St Basil’s lies the heart of Toronto’s greatest Catholic philanthropist.
I will make one last note about Elmsley’s attitude as regards his service. Around the time that bishop Charbonnel arrived in Toronto, Elmsley began to consider undertaking a lay vocation for both himself and his wife. In the end he decided he could effect the most good by remaining a businessman. In doing so he continued living as he said he would when he wrote to Bishop Macdonnel in 1835, and I will leave those words of Elmsley himself to speak the final words to my readers: “In whatever manner I can be shown that the exercise of my abilities or the devotion of my time can be of service to the Church, I shall not be niggard in respect to either; and as respect to my purse, I hope that I shall ever deem that I hold all that I possess simply as a trust for the honour and glory of God."
For more full accounts of John Elmsley's life and works, see Brother Alfred Dooner and Murray W. Nicholson. All quotations came from these two articles.