St Michael's is undergoing very extensive and very expensive restorations, in part to repair the ravages of time and restore the Cathedral, but also in part to bring it up to the current fire and safety codes. That necessity is behind one of the more noticeable, at least at this point, changes: the removal of the organ and the choir loft.
Both are going to be rebuilt and replaced at some point. The problem with the loft, as I understand it, (and any reader who knows better than I may chime in and correct me on this point, with my gratitude) is that it was condemned as unfit for the size of the choir- as provided by St Michael's Choir School- and that it had only one small exit, deadly dangerous in the case of a fire. The organ, the only Warren organ of its size still in existence (Warren was once an important local organ maker. Both St Michael's and St James, the Anglican Cathedral, originally had Warren organs) has been removed and will be restored and installed elsewhere. Where, I don't know. Part of its problem was that it's pipes obscured the stained glass window at the back. Another organ, a Casavant, from a church in Quebec that has closed, and with an arrangement of pipes that will not cover over the window, has been purchased and will one day be installed.
The Narthex is also been undergoing its own restoration work. All the plaster has been stripped, revealing the brickwork that has been hidden for almost a century and a half.
These bricks were possibly laid by Irish famine refugees, many of the them volunteers, as they made this strange land their new home. Or perhaps not. A curious fact about the bricks is their colour- red. The exterior of the Cathedral is made of yellow brick, as is the majority of the older buildings and homes in the city. That's because yellow is the colour of the clay that was found and used at the Don Valley Brick works, which provided much of the bricks that built the city. That gives rise to the question: where did these come from, and when?
The stripping of the plaster from the area around the main doors has revealed this:
There were once windows there, possibly stained glass, covered over for years. Or perhaps niches for statues, as the outside shows no sign of these windows. Why covered over, I can't say. There would have been another on the other side of the door. What will be done with them now? Covered over again, and left for another generation in some future restoration to rediscover, I imagine.
I also visited St Mary's and took a few photographs of that church. It's spire, It's most noticeable and prominent feature, is still hidden behind scaffolding. What I found that was most interesting in the church was a pile of calendars, made to be handed out to the congregation, at the back of the church. Most of it was filled with pictures of processions and parish groups from the past, but it also had one very interesting photo which answered an old question I had.
The question regarded this altar.
I had found an old picture of the interior, and there seemed to be a different high altar. I wondered if the current high altar was original, or if the main altar out front was new, or a portion of the old altar. The calendar answered the questions.
The high altar is new, and the sanctuary has been redone and laid with a new floor. I still can't say for certain that the current altar is part of the old high altar, but it looks old, older than the current high altar, and, were I a betting man, I would gladly lay a dollar that it came from the old one. Also, notice the stenciling under the arches, now painted over.
This puts St Mary's in a rather unique category for the churches in Toronto, for it is the only church I know of that ripped out a beautiful high altar and replaced it with... a beautiful high altar. (I am assuming the current high altar is in fact an altar and could be used as such.) Most other older churches in Toronto lost their high altars years ago, to be replaced by more plain structures. I know of one church which still has two side altars flanking the main one, complete with rood screens. The side altars are identical and Gothic in style, and should flank a larger similar altar. Instead, there is not much in the center. The new altar and sanctuary isn't hideous, just out of place for the setting, disappointing, rather like an orchestra performing a dramatic buildup for the solo, only to have the tenor merely clear his throat. St Mary's, on the other hand, has moved from beauty to beauty. I am not interested in arguing which is better. I will say that this is how it should be.
Seeing restorations like this remind me that a church is and always will be a work in progress. One generation builds it, another decorates it, another keeps it standing, and adds its own little touches. It is never finished, and never will be.
Sometimes, the previous generation, by which I mean the one before ours, is regarded as a generation of iconoclasts. I don't know if that was universal. In Toronto, much destruction was visited upon church interiors that was not visited upon the churches I have seen in Quebec, for example. There seems to be a difference betwee what that generation did, and all others, but at times I don't know if it was a difference in kind or quality. In man ways, they were stuck in a bad situation: church attendance declining, church activities which used to raise money for the church falling away as other secular institutions start doing the same thing as the church, only bigger- bingo comes to mind- and they had an old building that needed fixing. In some cases, they had to decide between hiring a very expensive professional to fix the old stenciling, or get a big bucket of cheap paint and a roller. In others, the changes were more extensive, and they were different in kind, I believe, for they tried not merely to add their own touch to the church, and hand it on to the next generation, but to destroy any evidence that there was ever a generation other than theirs, and then make it so no succeeding generation could change what they had done. They had their say, and now all others must be silent.
But nothing lasts forever. We fix and repair, add a touch of ourselves, and hand what is the best of us on to those who come after with a smile, and tell them it is now their turn to do their best, create their beauty, and, when the time comes, hand it on again.
Update: Reader and good friend Vox Cantoris sent along a picture of where the choir loft met up with one of the pillars. With the removal of the choir loft, some decorations are revealed. This would have been some of the very earliest of the decorations, from the late 1840's, early 1850's. Also interesting, it appears from this photo that the pillar was made from wood, (The rest of the pillars appear to be of stone) but I would have to get a closer look to say for certain.