17 October 2010

Part Two of the Brief History of the Toronto Archdiocese: Charbonnel's Parishes, St Mary's.

Today, after a lengthy hiatus, I return to the old series I am writing which I have given the increasingly inappropriate title: "The Brief History of the Diocese of Toronto." In my last installment, I discussed briefly the career of Toronto's second bishop, Bishop Charbonnel, and his efforts, as a member of the French nobility, to lead the overwhelmingly poor, famine refugee, Irish flock with which he had been unwillingly entrusted. His efforts to lead the flock centred around his attempts to create a strong, Catholic identity within the overwhelmingly Protestant and increasingly hostile city. Chief among his efforts to establish this new identity was the creation of new parishes and the building of new churches. The first of them, St Mary's on Bathurst at Adelaide, is the subject of today's post.

Unfortunately for my purposes, information on the parish is thin and often erroneous. I often rely on church websites for information when writing these pieces, but this church has none. The church's Wikipedia article, for example, tells us this about the parish: "St. Mary's Church is a Roman Catholic church in downtown Toronto. It was built by Irish immigrants in 1852 and is the second oldest church in Toronto." That is the sum total of the article. It is accurate in that the church was built by Irish immigrants in what is now downtown Toronto, but it was established in 1851 and the current church is not the second oldest church in Toronto. Still, they had a nice photo of the church, so there is that.

There was a church built and dedicated to St Mary on that spot in 1851, but it was not this one. This is not even the second St Mary's built on the site. It is the third, built in the 1880's by one of Toronto's most prominent architects. A travel brochure for Toronto, written in 1858, tells us

This church was erected, in 1851, by Messrs Bowden and Ardagh. In 1854, an addition was made to it my Mr. Hay, architect. The edifice which is large, but not elegant, is partly taken down and is in the course of further enlargement.
The rebuild in the late 1850's may have been in order to meet the demands of a growing congregation, or perhaps not. In a conversation with one of the priests of this church some years ago, I was told that the rebuild was due to the original edifice sinking into the mud on account of poorly laid foundations. This scenario is possible, as the church's location puts it just north of Fort York, (indeed, a significant portion of the original congregation would have come from the garrison) and, though it does not seem so today, the Fort was originally built on the shore of the lake. The land upon which St Mary's stands was originally marsh, and thus quite capable of sinking a building. One way or the other, the church was rebuilt just seven years after it was originally built. Less than thirty years later, it was rebuilt a second time. Building proceeded rapidly, until the priest and congregation ran out of money, as was rather common when building churches back then.

The imposing spire, today its most notable feature, was not completed until 1904, by architect A.W. Holmes, when a wealthy donor came forward and donated the money for the completion of the bell tower.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it was at the same time the St Mary's began to rebuild that the oldest parish in Toronto, St Paul's, built their new church, arguably the most beautiful one in Toronto. (The last link will take you to a really good set of photos of the interior of St Paul's, now a minor basilica. But beware: some of the photos are mislabelled. For instance, a stained glass window of a bishop robed in green is labelled "St Vincent de Paul") Also coincidentally, St Paul's bell tower, or campanile, was also left unfinished when that congregation ran out of money and remained so until 1905 or so, when a wealthy donor stepped forward and provided them with money for the project. Both churches were designed by the same architect, Joseph Connelly, designer of many of Ontario's most beautiful churches, including The Church of Our Lady in Guelph. It is tempting to believe that perhaps there was some kind of competition between the priests, (more accurately, priest and bishop, as the St Paul's project was headed up by a bishop) each trying to outdo the other in their efforts to build beautiful churches. However, tempting as it is, the truth is probably simple. Both new churches were larger than their predecessors, so it is likely the congregations simply needed new buildings to house the growing congregation. Fulfilling the demands of building both a larger and more beautiful church would easily have caused both projects to run out of money, as the churches of that period were literally built on the pennies donated by the congregations, despite the fact that often much of the construction was done by the parishioners themselves. New churches were generally built as funds allowed, and what could not be bought now was left unfinished until enough pennies could be gathered to build a little more.

The congregation of St Mary's was, as is most often the case, determined by the people who lived in the parish. While it is true that the parish is now firmly within the downtown area of Toronto, when it was first built it was not. The church was built outside the central area in the city, and although it was only a short walk of about fifteen or twenty minutes to the city. The area around the church was beginning to undergo a change and become an industrial area. At that time, workers lived in housing and apartments around and near the factories where they worked. It was these working class factory workers, mainly Irish, along with Catholic members of the military at Fort York, who would constitute the majority of parishioners for St Mary's.

Throughout the history of the city, the people who did the factory jobs, back when Toronto had factory jobs, tended to be immigrants. St Mary's history is intimately tied in with the waves of immigrants who have landed on our shores. It was begun by a French bishop watching over an Irish flock, and then passed on to other immigrants, Italians, who lived and worked in the area and worshipped at St Mary's, adding little bits and pieces to the church and paying for its upkeep before moving on and making way for the next generation. Today it is the home and cultural center of a Portuguese congregation. They are overseeing it's current restoration, a restoration which extends to the top of the bell tower.

During that conversation with one of the priests a few years back, he also told me that the bell tower has only one or two bells, so it can only be used for funerals, but they hope to get some more, so bells may also be used for weddings.

Here is a photo of a section of the front of the church.

In the photo below, one can make out, dimly, that the church is part of a complex of several buildings. It is clearly a place that was once of some importance, but, as I said, information is hard to come by. My mother told me that back in the thirties and forties, she used to cut stamps off envelopes and send them to the "brothers" at St Mary's. What brothers, and for what they were raising money one stamp at a time, she did not remember. I can find little references to it now.

Upon entering the church, one is greeted with one of the most beautiful interiors of any Catholic church in Toronto.

Here is a closer look at the high altar.

If you are wondering why these photos are of such a better quality than the previous photos, it's because I didn't take them. (among other things, that photographer figured out how to get rid of the auto date stamp on his camera.) I had thought the high altar in the above photos was original, but then I found this photo in the book Toronto: No Mean City by Eric Arthur and Stephen Otto.

This photo shows St Mary's at perhaps the height of its beauty. It's high altar and ornately stencilled walls are plainly evident. The high altar is the first thing of note for the moment, for it does not appear to be the one in the colour photographs. But, at the same time, the forward altar in the colour photographs is clearly not new, and the pattern in the floor is laid out to accentuate that altar. It would appear the current main altar may be part of the original high altar, with the superstructure removed. From whence came the new high altar, then? According to a comment left to me by someone who claimed to be an old time parishioner of the parish, it is one of the old side altars. If so, there must have been two of them once, and they probably stood in the transepts. The alcoves still have their altars, and are too small for an altar of this size.
Here's one dedicated to the sacred heart. It may be original to the church.

Here's the other side altar. It appears to have undergone some alterations, as the cross is a resurrection cross, and the effigy of Christ in his tomb below is probably a contribution of the current Portuguese congregation.

At the left in the above picture one can see an opening into an interesting little chapel attached to the main church. It's original purpose is not known to me. It now serves as a small shrine. I would have taken photos of the interior, but every time I have gone in there, there are people praying, and I did not wish to disturb anyone.

The changes and alterations to the church were probably made in the 1970's or early 80's. Many of Toronto's churches were gutted in the era, and the work and gifts of the congregations of yesteryear torn out and thrown aside like so much trash. Despite the removal of the high altar, St Mary's has largely escaped that fate, but, as can be seen from the photograph from No Mean City, there were other decorations to St Mary's now gone. The stencilling on the walls (possibly done by some long ago parishioner- it was common back in that era for parishioners to decorate the churches themselves, rather than today's usual practice of hiring professionals) was painted over. The organ in the choir loft (sadly, my pictures of it did not turn out at all) is now a fake organ. Only the show pipes remain. All the interior pipes and bellows were removed, and replaced with a loudspeaker to pipe out the music from the church's keyboard.

I do not put these changes down to malice on anyone's part: I rather think it was the result of a priest being forced to decide between two lousy choices. I believe they were faced with a church in need of some freshening up and some maintenance, but with a dwindling congregation and revenues. Should they pay a very expensive professional to touch up the stencilling and freshen the paint around them, or should they get a big bucket of paint (usually battleship grey) and a roller and paint over them? Should the organ at the back be expensively restored, or cheaply replaced? The options involving large sums of money were virtually impossible, and therefore understandable, but unfortunate, decisions were made. The organ gutted, the stencils covered over. What was purchased with pennies was lost for want of dollars.

Still, much remains that is quite lovely in the church. Connelly's design remains untouched. The polished granite columns, of both red stone and grey, still stand. The timber roof, sixty five feet above the floor, remains untouched from the day the builders completed it. And there are other decorations which remain, in particular, the statues. Foremost among these must the stations of the cross, in my opinion the finest in Toronto.

One of the things I like about these statues is the portrayal of Christ himself. Often in these kind of works Christ is a rather spare individual, half starved. In these, Christ is bluff and hardy with muscles worthy of a carpenter of that era. Though perhaps the six pack abs may be taking it a trifle too far.

Unfortunately, the final two stations are missing and have been replaced by paintings. I can only speculate what happened. I suspect, on absolutely no evidence, that they may have fallen off the wall and broke. These statues would be virtually irreplaceable. Or perhaps the were buying the stations a few at a time, and ran out of money before the set was complete.

Other, more recent, congregations have donated statues of their own. From the Portuguese congregation comes this lovely statue of Our Lady Of Fatima.

Other statues include one of Joseph

Which culture brought the St Joseph statue to the parish is not known to me, but a Portuguese woman, who appointed herself my guide on one of my visits to this church, made a special effort to point this one out to me. It is one of the finer statues of St. Joseph I have seen.

Also stunning, but not seen here, is the silver processional crucifix. I believe it may also be a recent addition, and a very fine one at that.

However, in case there is any doubt as to whom the first parishioners were, there is a statue of St Patrick...

...a painting of St Patrick...

...a stained glass window of St. Patrick...

...and in the little chapel I mentioned earlier, there is another stained glass window, because, as is well known, there can never be too many St Patrick's.

The last photo of this post I want to show is one of an outside corner of the church.

What I want to point out about this corner is not something that is there, but something that is not: the windows. There are no stained glass windows in where there should be. If you return to the first picture, and look closely at the bell tower, you will notice that there are several niches for statues, but they are empty. There are several more empty niches across the front of the building, now hidden behind the scaffolding. All this emptiness may have occurred in one of two ways: either there was once something there, and it was removed or destroyed; or there was never anything there in the first place. I could not get a definite answer on which, but my suspicions tend to the latter. St Mary's started out as a grand plan that ran out of money, but which was added to bit by bit whenever the money was found. It has a history of changing to suit the needs of its congregation and also the needs of its budget. In other words, it was a work in progress.

It seems to me that this is something that is often forgotten by modern Catholics: that the churches, the buildings themselves, are forever works in progress. We find our churches fully equipped and furnished by those who came before, or, if we build a new one, we tend to think nothing of going into debt, perhaps, so that when the church opens it is complete and fully stocked in ways that took the older churches a generation or more of toil, and sacrifice, and the hoarding of precious pennies to gather together. St Mary's has changed with time and with the changes to the area around it, with its fat years and lean years, with the various communities that came to call it home. It is changing again now, with the restoration work being done on the tower and many other projects within. I wish them well, and pray and give such blessings as I am able that their work may prosper, and this beautiful church may be a home to Catholics for generations yet to come.

Update, Jan 13 2012:

Here is a better photograph of their original high altar, taken from their 2012 calendar.

Update:  Wikipedia has updated and explanded its article, and it is a vast improvement.

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