‘This is a resurrection moment’: Community rallies behind St. Anne’s as parish vows to rebuild after fire

About 100 people gathered outside St. Anne's Anglican Church June 11 for an evening vigil after a fire caused the destruction of the historic church, which also contained priceless artwork including by members of the Group of Seven. Photo: Matthew Puddister
Published June 18, 2024

The Rev. Don Beyers, rector of St. Anne’s Anglican Church in west Toronto, had a simple message on behalf of his parish to community members who gathered June 11 for a vigil after a fire destroyed the historic church.

“We are here,” Beyers said. “We will remain here. We will serve this community for generations to come. This is a resurrection moment and I commit myself to that.”

The parish priest expressed thanks to “our beautiful mother, this church, for her service to us for over 100 years. She’s been a beauty and she’s been a gem to us. But like every good mother, she will give birth to new life.”

Approximately 100 people gathered for the evening vigil in front of St. Anne’s, the façade of which remained standing and concealed some of the damage inside. The church’s Byzantine Revival-style dome was now a burnt mess of twisted scaffolding. Broken windows and scorch marks were visible across the exterior. Aerial photos show the inside reduced to a mess of rubble.

L-R: Bishop Kevin Robertson, suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto; the Rev. Hannah Johnston, assistant curate of St. Anne’s; the Rev. Don Beyers, rector; Coun. Alejandra Bravo; Davenport MPP and Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles at the vigil. Photo: Matthew Puddister

The June 9 immolation of St. Anne’s, designated as a national historical heritage site and containing priceless artwork including works by members of the Group of Seven, sent shockwaves through the community well beyond Anglican circles. Along with Bishop Kevin Robertson, suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto, speakers at the vigil included Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow; city councillor Alejandra Bravo and Davenport MPP and Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles.

Fundraising campaign launched

At the vigil, parishioners with buckets collected money and distributed cards with QR codes to collect donations for a fundraising campaign, with the goal of helping St. Anne’s rebuild and create a church that reflects its faith through contemporary Canadian art. The Rev. Hannah Johnston, assistant curate, said the parish hopes to include works by “Indigenous artists, queer artists, Black artists, women artists—all the artists who were excluded in the 1920s.”

Insurance might help pay some of the expense of building new facilities, but the church says fundraising will have to cover much of the cost. Isabella Favaro, a member of the choir, has launched a fundraising campaign, to which donations can be made at gofundme.com/f/stannesfire.

A closer look at the damage to St. Anne’s. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Just 16 days before the vigil, St. Anne’s had hosted Johnston’s ordination to the priesthood. The church, Johnston said, was the first place that welcomed her and her spouse to the neighbourhood and to the country after she moved to Canada in 2019.

Since the fire, she said, “I have been welcomed again by the incredible outpouring of love from this community… I could write a book about the random acts of kindness from strangers that we have benefited from in the last three days. This place to me is a place of welcome and it will continue to be a place of welcome, and we welcome all of you to worship with us.”

Among those who had attended Johnston’s ordination earlier was Robertson, who extended welcome to those who attended the vigil on behalf of the diocese of Toronto.

“To come back here tonight to look through those beautiful windows and see trees and daylight on the other side—it just grieves my heart to see the devastation that is behind me,” the bishop said. “But we are people of hope.” Robertson pointed out that clergy at the vigil were wearing white stoles.

“White is the colour we wear at Easter,” he said. “It’s also the colour we wear at baptisms and at funerals as a reminder of our new life in Christ, and that new life comes out of death. That is the message that we need to hold to so dearly tonight and in the days ahead—that in the tragedy and travesty of this terrible fire, there is new life which will come out of death, that we are a resilient people and that this is a resilient neighbourhood.”

Bishop Kevin Robertson speaks to the vigil at St. Anne’s. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Generosity of spirit, prayer and financial giving shown by members of the wider community, Robertson said, had already begun to uplift and sustain St. Anne’s and to serve as encouragement.

Robertson led a prayer that expressed thanks to God for leading the parish over the years in its faithfulness, in gathering diverse people and lifting up and feeding the poor and marginalized. “Give us a new sense of hopefulness that we may rise out of the ashes, oh God in your name, and continue to serve your people with love.”

‘An entire city is behind you’

Mayor Chow in her remarks recalled visiting the site of St. Anne’s on the day of the fire. Meeting with the congregation and other neighbours in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene—a nearby Anglican parish that welcomed the St. Anne’s community to gather there in the afternoon June 9—Chow said they had experienced sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness, love and hope.

Chow noted that one of the three paintings by Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald at St. Anne’s destroyed in the fire depicted the transfiguration of Christ. For Christians, the transfiguration is a key moment in which Jesus serves as a bridge between the human and divine, heaven and earth.

Transfiguration, Chow said, “means that in death, there’s resurrection … When things are in ashes, it can be rebuilt. I thought of that message at the core of the beautiful church behind us. The painting is not there anymore, but that spirit that moved the artist to do the painting is still very much alive. It’s the centre of what a Christian church is to be.

“That beautiful art, the beautiful spiritual centre, the community hub, the emotional centre of the entire community seems to have been lost,” the mayor said. “But arising out of it could be something beautiful, something that’s relevant to all our lives and all the lives of our neighbours, of people in Toronto, people in Canada. It can inspire. This is our opportunity of coming together. Mourn what we lost, but work to rebuild.”

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow addresses the vigil as Robertson, Johnston and Beyers look on. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Stiles expressed her sorrow for the loss of St. Anne’s. “I want to bring some thoughts from the community because there are many people here who have maybe never been parishioners in this church, but friends who have benefited in so many ways—whether you are feeding the body or feeding the soul,” Stiles said.

“Many, many people who have relied on the kindness, on the advocacy, on the caring of this parish—from all of those people in our community, I want to thank you the parishioners for what you have given and will continue to give.”

Coun. Bravo, representing Ward 9 Davenport on the Toronto city council, said amid the grief of St. Anne’s destruction, the congregation had displayed “tremendous fortitude and love,” as people around the world and in the community offered support.

“People are rallying [and] will continue to rally behind the St. Anne’s Anglican Church community to demonstrate their faith in you, our faith in each other—that we can support each other in times of need,” Bravo said.

Parishioners wrote on a whiteboard at the vigil to share their memories of St. Anne’s. Photo: Matthew Puddister

“Davenport is so profoundly behind you,” she added. While the building and art cannot be replaced, Bravo said, “This site is you. It’s all of you. It’s what you believed in all this time. It’s how you’ve lifted each other up. It’s how you’ve held each other, how you celebrated the rites of passage of your lives.

“As you rise, we will be there with you every single step of the way. Please know that an entire city is behind you and that we are lifted up by your tremendous example.”

Deb Whalen-Blaize, congregational development consultant for the diocese of Toronto, played guitar and sang hymns at the vigil including “Amazing Grace” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”. Many parishioners at the gathering wrote on a whiteboard to share their memories of St. Anne’s.

The following Sunday, June 16, parishioners gathered in the parking lot at St. Anne’s to hold their first worship service since the church burned down. Toronto police have said the fire is not being investigated as suspicious, while officials have yet to release an estimate for the cost of the damage.


Correction: The online fundraising campaign was launched by Isabella Favaro, a member of the choir at St. Anne’s Anglican Church. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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