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.
Here is a closer look at the high altar.
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.