13 January 2012

Renovations and history at two Toronto churches

Whilst on my perambulations about town, taking the photographs of the nativity scenes below, I had a chance to have another look at some of the ongoing renovations and restoration efforts at two of Toronto's more beautiful churches, St Michael's Cathedral and St Mary's.  Naturally, since I already had my camera in hand, I snapped a few photographs.

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.


Vox Cantoris said...

Interesting as usual.

The loft is to be rebuilt and to extend to the next pillar. Indeed, it was unsafe structurally and under the Building Code. The organ had not worked for almost 20 years.

A friend was there the other day and took pictures to find that there were little paintings of crosses on the pillar under where the loft joined, another little hidden part.

I wonder if those "windows" were simply paintings?

You know, sometimes restorations to the original is not the way to go. We add to things. For example, the original ceiling was traditional for gothic catehdrals, blue with gold stars but would we want the current murals covered over to restore the original. I have mixed views on this.

On the other hand, it will be good to see the Vaclav Vaca fantasy removed to reveal the rose window in the north chapel to the Blessed Mother, of course that means the gothic reredos in the south chapel to the Sacred Heart will also be removed to unveil the original rose window.

Renovations are always tricky but I'm more concerned about the sanctuary.

The current "masonic" design gives me the willies. I don't mean that to be flppant but if you google masonic lodge furniture you'll see what I mean.

We need the Tabernacle returned to the centre or at least the Altar raise up three steps with the Cathedra behind it but lower.

And a communion rail...

I could go on.

Still waiting for that book.

Bear-i-tone said...

I know what you mean about renovations. The very word makes my insides clench, for I have seen so many very, very bad ones. Yet there is the odd good one.

We should add a little bit of ourselves, and that does mean sometimes removing something of the old. Just because something is old or new does not automatically make it good or bad.

Speaking of original paint schemes, did you know that Notre Dame de Chartres was originally painted on the interior, and quite garishly at that? Possibly had something to do with the days before electris light, and the dimness of the interior of the church. St Michael's also had some painting on the interior. In the old photograph we have of the interior, the columns in the sanctuary have designs on them- probably in the red and gold you see highlighting the older woodwork in the Cathedral. I wonder what that would be like if they restored that- beautiful, or perhaps it would be gaudy to our eyes?

I don't have the time these days to do the research that would be necessary for the book. However, if, as is appearing more likely, my place of business goes belly up in the next few years, I may find myself with more time on my hands than I can handle.