Bruce Bell —
If the word “Multicultural” best portrays Toronto today, then 100 years ago the word to best describe our city was “Methodist.”
Methodists did appear to be austere; a sober Protestant religious congregation best summed up as without much fanfare and a methodic practice of visiting the poor, infirmed and jailed. Yet they soon became one of the most powerful forces to shape the history of Toronto.
The Metropolitan United Church on the northwest corner of Queen and Church streets—originally built by visionary architect Henry Langley—was dubbed the Cathedral of Methodism when it opened in 1872 as the Metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist Church, named for John Wesley (1703–1791) who founded the Methodist Church in England in 1726.
The history of Methodism in Toronto begins back in 1796 when Methodist preachers on horseback first visited York to sermonize the Word of God.
In 1818 local Methodists wanting an enclosed church building rather than an open field (the practice of building Methodist churches was not seen as the true ideal of Christianity) hired architect Robert Petch to build their first church on the southwest corner of Jordan and King streets where today there is a plaque on the eastside of the CIBC bank commemorating that first structure.
In 1832 the congregation moved out and Petch built a second church this time on the southeast corner of Toronto and Adelaide.
That second and much larger Methodist church survived until 1870 when it was demolished and replaced with the present-day 25 Toronto St., which was originally home to the Trust and Loan Co.
Around this time the live theatre just beginning to flourish in our small town was banned because actors and their wild ways (i.e., afterhours partying) were a bad influence on society.
To circumnavigate this ban in 1834 two enterprising brothers, the Waughs, bought the former Methodist Church at King and Jordan and transformed it into the Theatre Royal where they started to present “Panoramas.”
First invented by Robert Barker in 1787 who wanted to capture a panoramic view of central Edinburgh, these so-called “Panoramas” soon became a huge rage all across Europe.
The Waugh’s first exhibit, The Burning of Moscow, had spectators encircled by a large painted panoramic image giving them the impression that they were standing in the centre of a burning Moscow before the advance of Napoleon. It was an enormous success.
The ban on live theatre was soon lifted but Panoramas stayed on until the invention of the motion picture at the turn of the 20th century.
Religion played a big part in the banning of theatre and the battle between the stage and pulpit would go on well up to the 1960s.
The 1870s saw the rise of Methodists as a political and social power enforced with the construction of their masterpiece of High Victorian Gothic architecture: the Metropolitan Methodist Church. The site chosen at Queen and Church streets was once known as McGill Square, the former estate of Captain John McGill, one of Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers and founding fathers of York who was given a huge tract of land along with other members of the so-called Family Compact as a big thank-you for good deeds done in the King’s name.
In 1888 as evidence of their new-found political power the Methodists and Presbyterians churches founded the Lord’s Day Alliance of Canada as a way to protect Sunday as a day of rest and prayer. They set out to ban on Sundays all shopping, going to ice-cream parlours, sporting events, bathing beauty contests, even window shopping and the running of streetcars.
Irate citizens began to call the church the Methodist Bicycle Company because the streetcar ban was seen as way to sell more bicycles by leading manufacturing and retail Methodist families like the Masseys and the Eatons. Together with the publication in 1898 of Toronto the Good, a sobering social studies book with a Methodist and temperance slant, Methodism and Toronto were then linked for decades to come.
In 1925 the union of the Methodist and two-thirds of the Presbyterian churches formed the United Church of Canada.
The Metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist Church on Queen Street became Metropolitan United Church and was chosen as the site of the first General Council of the United Church.
In 1929, a few hours after the minister preached his sermon titled “the God that answereth by fire, let him be God,” an earthly fire destroyed the original church which was immediately rebuilt by architect J. Gibb Morton (and is the one that stands there today). As the church was still smoldering, parishioners were gathering the broken bits of stained glass that today are incorporated into the stunning chandeliers that hang in the church.
In 1930 they installed the largest organ in Canada with 8,233 pipes (the tallest being 32 feet high and the shortest the size of a pencil) built by Casavant Frères in Québec. Fortunately Langley’s tower-like spire was saved and incorporated into the new and present church. Cathedrals of St. James and St. Michael also have spires built by Henry Langley but unlike the other two slender and tapered steeples Langley’s Metropolitan is bold, square-shaped and topped off with four pinnacles.
Today the Metropolitan Church is known for its progressiveness especially with the LGBT community while offering a wide range of services for the poor and homeless. It is still set back off Queen at the end of a tree-lined walkway creating a desirable panorama that must make condo developers mouths water with envy.