Death of an historic Toronto Anglican church

Frances Brown —

It is especially sad and painful at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Carlton Street at Jarvis, to know that in a few months this church will be closed.

The reason: For over 20 years the congregation and the wardens have made several excellent attempts to finance and renovate their beautiful, historic church. None have succeeded.

The original church land was given to parishioners in 1853 by two farmers with the provision to use the land as needed to protect the continuation of the church. That was the original deed. That changed in the 1980s when the Toronto Diocese took co-ownership of all church lands.

In the late 1800s St. Peter’s was a refuge for the Underground Railroad. There is a rich history of Toronto soldiers and veterans from WWI and WWII. It was a meeting place of diversity of farmers, city dwellers, the needy and the wealthy, where coal and potatoes were given out during the depression. The beautiful wood furniture, electric lights and stained-glass windows were donated by families such as the Pellats, Gooderhams, Browns, Midgleys, Davis, Darby, Cosbie, Leacock, Allen and Boddy. It once had a working rectory and a sexton’s house.

Such a strong faith of brave, believing people sent out 11 missionaries beginning in 1892 to the Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia as well as Japan, China, Persia and India. An incredible history of outreach to the Christian community and the world. Recent outreach has included the Food Bank and successful refugee sponsorships.

St. Peter’s has an attached bell tower with a bell rung by hand every Sunday and recently one neighbour was heard to say that he felt safe whenever he heard that bell. A recent church flyer described “an amazing sense of warmth and comfort that envelops you, as the prayers of 153 years float overhead, as sunlight dances through the beautiful stained glass windows.” An invitation is offered to visit and if desired, stay and join the dialogue surrounding a sustainable role for St. Peter’s.

St. Peter’s sits on a vital piece of land on the corner of Bleecker Street and Carlton; a perfect L-shaped property for a specialty condo, $4.5 million having been offered. That sale might have been the opportunity for St. Peter’s to remain a neighbourhood hub with the ability to select a new energetic leader and rebuild.

So death takes over—the congregation worn down but not yet out. Neighbours and strangers come for weddings and baptisms, but few return. Perhaps they are put off by directives about time, talent and treasure, and perhaps other outmoded canonical rules and regulations. The love of God remains in the prayers and the hymns, the music and the fellowship of the 50 remaining parishioners, choir and organist.

Minor repairs were recently authorized and one piece of property was sold to pay for this loan, thus skewering the L-shape and a chance for a realistic land sale. The repairs were to appease Dixon Hall Services whose rental income has been paying for utilities and maintenance. They get to stay.

Nevertheless, the congregation has been asked to amalgamate or else close down. What happens to the historical, the beautiful—and most of all the faithful? No word comes down about other plans when the faithful are abandoned to another building. Some come in to offer condolences to grieving mourners.

Amalgamation probably will happen. Faith is portable and the love of God is present wherever the faithful are gathered together. The church space may be rented. Eventually the church property may be sold. The Holy Heritage Church building will become something else. The congregation will regroup with another small parish for a few years.

Death seems to be precipitated by peculiar management of century-old rules, disrespect and perhaps monetary consideration over needs of faithful followers; a beleaguered demise in the vital and prosperous city of Toronto.

Condolences to St. Peter’s Church congregation. May God Bless You, as brave and believing as your predecessors, on your journey in Faith.

Parishioner Frances Brown describes herself as “a despairing Anglican.”