30 May 2010

Toronto's Cathedral

Now, before you read this post, there's a few things I want you to know. First of all, I am a much better amateur historian than I am photographer. I went on a walk through the downtown core the other day with my daughter and her camera, her camera being small, pink and with the words "hannah monatana", whatever that is, written on the side. Most of our pictures of the inside of the Cathedral did not turn out. As a result, I have borrowed heavily from websites here, here and here. They are much, much better photographers than I am. Secondly, I will be covering some history I have already mentioned elsewhere on this blog, but this time it is with photos. Lastly, some of you might think I am stealing Nobody's schitck, but I actually posted the original of this post over a year ago on a now defunct website, so, at the risk of sounding like Polyphemus, Nobody is schtealing my schtick.  With that said, on we go to St Michael's Cathedral.

Here is how the Cathedral appears in its location today, solidly in the centre of the downtown core.  It is hard to believe it was  built in farmland, outside the city.
A basic history of the Cathedral is noted on a blue plaque located just outside the front doors.

As with all such histories, it is true, but does not quite cover the whole story. St Michael's began a ways before the cornerstone was laid.

It began as an idea in the brain of Michael Power, our first Bishop. When Power arrived in his new, enormous diocese he placed his seat in the city of Toronto, which by our standards was more of the small town/village of Toronto. At the times there was only one permanent brick church in Toronto, St. Paul's over on Queen St. it was small and held about 500 people. Power decided it was necessary to build a Cathedral for the new diocese. He worked with the architect, William Thomas, to create a design for his Cathedral. As was common for the period, he chose a church in Europe as the basis for the design of his Seat. It was based upon York Minster in England. That Power chose an Anglican church as his model is not surprising. Among other things, Power was a firm Tory who believed the British Empire could be harnessed as a force for good in the world. 

Power's personal beliefs are displayed in another way in St Michael's, this time in the sheer size of the place. Though it does not seem overly large now, for its time a church of this size was totally out of proportion with the size of the Catholic population of Toronto. It probably could have easily held every single Catholic in Toronto in one shot. It was at the time the largest church of any denomination in the city- it was to be even larger than the Anglican cathedral, St James. Anglicans, I should point out, were the single largest and politically the most powerful denomination in Toronto at the time.  Power built St. Michael's so large because Power believed the Church was entering into a new age which would be marked by tribulations and mass conversions, and he had to make room for all those new converts. The converts never materialized, but the Cathedral would soon be filled by the refugees of one of the greater tribulations of the century, the Irish Famine.

Actual work on the cathedral began with the purchase of land for about two thousand pounds, a great sum at the time, especially considering where the cathedral was to be built. At the time, this was on the outskirts of Toronto, in farmland

Construction of the Cathedral began about a month before the cornerstone was laid. On April 7, 1845, a digging bee was held. An ox was killed and roasted nearby, and anyone who brought a shovel and began digging would be given a piece of ox for his trouble. The digging bee attracted many men from across Toronto, including quite a few men who were not Catholic, merely carnivorous. The local Methodist paper cried against those of the Methodist Church who took part in the digging of the foundation of a papist building, lamenting that sometimes the worst causes attract the best of men. In this way the foundations were dug. According to some who report to having been in the crypt of the church, the floor is still dirt, and it slopes upwards from east to west, like a swimming pool. Apparently the diggers got tired. This may just be a story.  Nobody knows.That aside, the Cathedral was begun at virtually no charge. It was possibly the last time it was ever entirely free from debt.

The building of the Cathedral took a great amount of money and soon the diocese was in debt from the expenses. The Catholics of the diocese did what they could, buying individual bricks until enough for the building had been amassed.  But more was needed.  Power took advantage of his liminal visit in early 1847 to approach various European societies for the propagation of the faith for money. While he was touring Ireland with the purpose of finding help he saw first hand the devastation of the Irish famine. He began writing letters home, warning his priest and flock that a disaster was heading their way when the upper St Lawrence thawed. Upon his return to Toronto he began railing at the city council to prepare themselves for the coming refugees, but they were more interested in installing sidewalks. Power turned to his own flock and began asking them for help. In some accounts, work on the cathedral slowed as funds were diverted to help the Irish. In October 1847 Power died of Typhus, contracted while trying to aid the famine refugees. He never saw his Cathedral completed.

Neither has anyone else, for that matter. The Cathedral was to be a full cruciform, but the transepts were never completed. The great tower, which was to be the tallest in Toronto, went unfinished for some time. According to one source it was finished in 1867, according to the blue plaque above, that was the year it was begun.

William Thomas, the architect, had a disagreement over the design of the tower, and ended up leaving the Church over it. He is buried in an Anglican cemetery. I have no idea what his design for the tower was, but apparently this wasn't it.

Construction of the cathedral picked up again, this time fueled by the Irish refugees often working as volunteers- which possibly explains why the place is virtually falling apart today. The Cathedral was one of the few places that would employ the Irish in post-famine Toronto. There they learned the skills needed to work in the construction trade, ready for the next decades when more Catholic churches were to be built in the young city.

The Cathedral was sufficiently complete to be consecrated on September 29, 1848. Before it could be consecrated, however, it was required by canon law that the church be free from debt. To free the Cathedral from its massive debt, two rich converts, Samuel Goodenough Lynn and Sir John Elmsley assumed the fifty thousand pound debt. It was an enormous sum of money for the time.

St Michael's would have been the largest church in Toronto when it was consecrated in 1848, but it was not so for long. In 1849 a fire destroyed the downtown core of Toronto, including the Anglican Cathedral, St James. The Anglicans, who by then were becoming increasingly anti Catholic, could not allow the papists to have a distinction of having the largest Cathedral in town, and set about building one which was much bigger than St Michael's. So the Catholic Cathedral of Toronto, influenced by an Anglican church, had a direct influence on the Anglican Cathedral of Toronto.

Below is the main door leading into the church.

The two faces on either side of the doors are a reference to Yorkminster, after which St Michael's is patterned.  According to the Cathedral website, on the right is Paulinus, first bishop of York, and on the left is King Edwin of Northumbria, put there to illustrate the ties and lineage of this church and Yorkminster.

The little white sign on the door says "Please use other doors."

The two side entrances have interesting symbols on the handles.  Here are three of them, minus one where the photo turned out very badly.

The three images shown here are of a winged boy (angel), winged bull and eagle.  With them is a fourth: a winged lion. These images were carefully and deliberately chosen, for these are the symbols of the four evangelists. The symbols come to us through an ancient medieval tradition. Learned people of that era used a fascinating memory trick to increase their memories. It is still recognized today as the best mnemonic device. They would construct in their minds a building, and fill it with odd symbols which serve as reminders of the things they wish to remember. The buildings they most often erected in their minds were churches and cathedrals, filled with stories and other memories in the form of statues, stained glass windows, and, yes, odd door handles. In this case the symbols were drawn from the openings of the four gospels. Matthew, whose symbol is a boy or an angel, begins with the lineage of Joseph, a long list of fathers and sons. Sons means boys, and a boy means Matthew. Luke begins with the Zaccariah going to make a sacrifice. The animal of sacrifice is a bull. Bull=Luke. Mark begins with a voice crying out in a wilderness. What kind of voice cries in the wilderness, asks a medievalist looking for a symbol. Why, a lion is a voice that cries out in the wilderness. Lion= Mark. John begins his gospel far removed from the affairs of the earth. What kind of animal soars above the affairs of the earth? Nothing less than the eagle, the bird of heaven. Eagle=John.

The positioning of these symbols on the doors of the church is itself symbolic. It tells us that the gospels are the doorways to Christ. The building itself is giving a lesson to those who seek entrance.

Upon entering the south side door one immediately finds this pieta.

Sadly time and Catholics have not been kind to this statue. You can places where the plaster is showing through. Several of Christ's fingers have broken off. This is from people touching the statue as they enter into the church.

One of the more noticeable aspects of the Cathedral is the dimness of light inside. That light, however, better sets off some of the more beautiful decorations of the church, namely the stained glass.

The most noticeable of the glass windows is the great chancel window over the main altar. It was the gift of our second bishop, Charbonnel.

Charbonnel picked up this great window and the two beside it on his own trip to France in the 1850's. Like Power he, too, turned to Europe for some help for his fledgling diocese. In his case, being French he turned to France rather than Ireland. It was in France that he bought this window. He also purchased the Stations of the Cross for the Cathedral. If any of you who have passed through the Cathedral have wondered why the names of the stations are written in French, now you know.

Here's a better look at the great window. Clearly the artist, Etienne Thevenot, was influenced by the windows of Chartres.


Charbonnel's gift adds immensely to the beauty of St Michael's. Charbonnel also contributed to the Cathedral in another way, when he donated much of his own personal fortune to paying off the debt of the Cathedral. He also set up the dime throughout the diocese to pay for the upkeep of St Michael's. His contribution to the appearance of St Michael's is second only to that of Power himself

Added note, if you look closely at the two above photographs you can just dimly make out the cardinal's hat of Cardinal McGuigan, the first cardinal in Toronto. His hat hangs over the main altar.

Here is a photo of the great window which also shows the painted ceiling over the altar. This was a later addition. Originally the ceiling was blue with gold stars. You find that kind of ceiling still in some of Toronto's older churches.

Compare the above, present day view of the Cathedral from the main aisle with the one below, taken during the 1830's.

Click to enlarge.  It's worth it.  Unfortunately that altar was broken up, the pulpit removed and the bishop's chair is gone.  PIeces of the altar are used here and there throughout the Cathedral, but much of the other work, completely irreplaceable today, is lost.

Here's a better picture of the ceiling.

Here's another one of the windows. The windows are quite large and very beautiful. They are also old and desperately in need of re-leading. The cost per window: $100,000.

Here are the two unfinished transepts, the first conatining the Sacred Heart altar, which has a statue of Jesus surrounded by smaller statues of the twelve apostles, and the second the altar dedicated to Our Lady, which also contains the baptismal font. I don't know when the painting was made, but worked very faintly into the painting is JPII's coat of arms.

The woodwork surrounding Our Lady is a chunk of the broken up High Altar.
Just in front of the transept containing the statue of Christ and the Apostles is another statue of one of the Apostles, St Jude.

There used to be a relic of St Jude contained at the base of the, but all relics in the body of the Cathedral were removed after one of the relics was stolen. It is a terrible loss.

Here is the tabernacle. The spire over the tabernacle is actually the Cappa Magna of the original high altar, as can be seen in the 1930’s picture. There are currently problems with the hinge on the door of the Tabernacle, and there is talk of replacing the whole thing. If I may be permitted to have an opinion, I'd say I'd rather they replace the hinge only.

On the back west wall of the Cathedral hangs one of the more unique paintings of St Michael that I know. He is shown in flowing robes, rather than the usual roman armour. He is also pictured with peacock feathers, which is actually another medieval tradition. As a Prince of Heaven he had the feathers of the royal bird. It doesn't show well here, but his hair is made of flame.

At the bottom of the painting is the Latin phrase "Quis ut Deus?" This is actually the Latin version of Michael's name, which means "Who is like God?" This was Michael's war cry and his response to Satan's assertion "We shall be as God!"

Here is the organ, silent for many years. There is a fair interest in the organ community for restoring the organ. It is the only organ made by the Warren Organ Company of this size that has survived. Other churches, notably St James Anglican, bought Warren organs which were later aldded to and altered. The St Michael's organ was never touched. It was The Organ was a gift from our third bishop and first archbishop, John Joseph Lynch.

It hasn't been used for some time for a variety of reasons, high on the list of which is that fact that the loft has been deemed unsafe until re-inforced. There is talk of restoring the organ in time. The main barrier is the sheer cost of the repairs, which is estimated at $1.7 million.

Here is a shot of the back of the Cathedral, put in for no other reason than because it seemed appropriate for closing out a post on Toronto's Cathedral.

Yes, I am a rotten photographer.

When it came time to speak of restoring or renovating the old Cathedral, some saw the huge price tag and argued that it would be better to simply demolish the old Cathedral and build a new one. I, for one, am glad the effort to renew the old building was made, and I make an effort to drop some money into the restoration fund every time I am there. It was built through the contributions of those who came before us, many of whom lived in a crushing penury, and who gave their pennies that they may have a fit place for worship. It would be a great shame and a terrible blot against us if we, in our wealth, cannot keep the fruits of their sacrifices still standing.

Update, jan 2012:

Here's some photos of the renovations.  Here's the back of the Cathedral as it appears now, with the choir loft and organ removed.

Here's the narthex, near where the pieta stood,

Here's a spot where there were once windows, or statues, or paintings, or maybe a fancy bulletin board near the main entrance. It was covered over until the plaster was removed.

1 comment:

Vox Cantoris said...

I can tell you that the organ is going to be removed and rebuilt for use elsewhere. There will be a historic organ from a Montreal church where the loft was of similar design with a rose window. The "new" organ will have pipes on either side allowing this never visible window to be seen.