Priest finds lost churches

The Rev. David Harrison stands in front of the former St. Margaret, Spadina, in Toronto. The church closed in 1909 and an art deco facade was added later. It is now a fabric store. Photo: Michael Hudson/The Anglican
The Rev. David Harrison stands in front of the former St. Margaret, Spadina, in Toronto. The church closed in 1909 and an art deco facade was added later. It is now a fabric store. Photo: Michael Hudson/The Anglican
Published September 13, 2013

[This story first appeared in the September issue of The Anglican, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Toronto.]

Since the founding of the Diocese of Toronto in 1839, some 50 Anglican churches in the City of Toronto have disappeared-either torn down for new development or used for different purposes.

The Rev. David Harrison, the incumbent of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, writes a blog, Lost Anglican Churches, that brings these churches back to life with photographs and anecdotes.

Since 2012, Mr. Harrison has uncovered the histories of 25 of the missing churches and intends to explore the remaining 25 churches in the next year or so.

He says that while his blog is about local history, it is also about death and resurrection. Congregations develop, churches are built, then local demographics change and the church is no longer required. But churches often serve new purposes-as worship centres for other Christian denominations, or else their names (and sometimes their furnishings) find new life in the suburbs.

In fact, Mr. Harrison experienced this himself in his previous parish, St. Thomas, Brooklin. A fast-growing area, Brooklin needed a new Anglican church and one was built. The new building incorporated some of the furnishings from St. Clement, Riverdale, which closed in 2006.

“So there is a sense of continuity with the past,” Mr. Harrison says. “And we are about death and resurrection in our Christian journey, so that plays out in this story of lost Anglican churches.”

A historian by training, Mr. Harrison started investigating lost Anglican churches through his interest in St. Jude, Roncesvalles, where his grandfather was the rector and he was baptized.

Closed in the 1970s and later torn down, it had an interesting post-Anglican history: the church was used by other denominations, and the parish hall became a farmer’s market and then a dance rehearsal hall for the Mirvish theatrical productions. A new St. Jude’s arose in Bramalea, and it inherited some of the older church’s memorials and the font.

Mr. Harrison started the blog because was looking for a new hobby. Working on his own time, he tracks down former Anglican churches through the diocesan archives, visits and photographs them, obtains archival images and posts the story on his blog. To date, the blog has received more than 7,000 visits.

Sometimes he finds the church still exists but is no longer used for worship. After it was closed in 1909, St. Margaret’s at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue was given an art deco façade and is now a store crammed with fabrics.

“You can see some of the architectural details are still there inside and along the exterior side of the building, but I walked by Queen and Spadina almost my entire life and had no idea that that was an Anglican church,” he says.

Sometimes Mr Harrison has to do some sleuthing to find a church because it has disappeared. St. Barnabas, Halton, torn down in the 1970s, was described only as being on a corner at an intersection. However, Mr. Harrison found the site when he visited the locale and saw a building on one corner that was newer than the structures on the other corners.

In one case, even the land has disappeared. In 1911, St. Nicholas was built on Fisherman’s Island, a sandbar that ran south from Cherry Beach. Church and island disappeared when the harbor area was filled in 1915.

Mr. Harrison is particularly interested in churches that have gone to other denominations. He talks of Eastern and Russian Orthodox churches that fill the plain interior of an Anglican church with icons and colour. “The shell is still there but all this richness has been added and they’re really quite spectacular,” he says.

As well as Toronto’s lost churches, there are another 126 lost churches outside the city. “That’s a long-term project, if I ever decide to tackle it,” he says. “It’s a retirement project.”

Lost Anglican Churches can be found here.


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