St. Anne’s Anglican Church, national historic site in Toronto, destroyed by 4-alarm fire

An early morning fire destroys a historic church in Toronto. Afua Baah has the details about the blaze that has reduced a national historic site to rubble.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church, a national historic site in the Little Portugal neighbourhood of Toronto, has been destroyed after a four-alarm fire Sunday morning.

Father Don Beyers, who has served as the parish priest for the past three years, told reporters it was just before 9 a.m. as he was getting ready to come to the church when he got a text message from a parishioner about smoke. He then got a flurry of calls and messages about the fire.

“While this is incredibly devastating for my congregation, it’s devastating for this community,” Beyers said.

“At this time, I ask for everyone’s support.”

Emergency crews were called to the church, located on Gladstone Avenue near Dundas Street West, just before 8 a.m.

Crews and nearby residents reported seeing heavy smoke at the property along with broken windows. In videos shared on social media, flames could be seen shooting out from the top of the church. CityNews received reports the smoke could be seen several blocks away.

Toronto firefighters can be seen responding to a blaze at St. Anne's Anglican Church.
Toronto firefighters can be seen responding to a blaze at St. Anne’s Anglican Church. HANDOUT / B Diaz

Toronto Fire Services deputy chief Jim Jessop said firefighters worked to stop the blaze from spreading. Adjoining properties were evacuated as a precaution and a safety zone was established around the building in case it collapsed. Firefighters set up water towers to deal with flames on the property’s exterior.

“The fire was deep-seated at the beginning … but as you can see the building is completely destroyed right now and as [are] all the artifacts inside,” he told reporters, noting the roof caved in.

Jessop said that given the heat of the flames, the building’s age and the amount of water used to extinguish the fire, it’s “probable” there will be further collapses of the structure.

Officials said there were no reports of any injuries. Beyers said the church was closed and locked at the time the fire broke out.

Jessop said Toronto Fire Services investigators will remain at the site for the next several days while the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Toronto police investigators are expected to conduct a joint probe into the blaze. There weren’t any immediate indications of what caused the fire.

According to the church’s website, a Sunday service was scheduled for 10:30 a.m.

The church, built in 1907 and 1908, was designated a national historic site in 1996 and in 1980 it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto.

“Built in the Byzantine style, St. Anne’s was designed by the noted Toronto architect Ford Howland to serve a large and vigorous parish,” the Ontario Heritage Trust noted.

“Renowned for its role in the development of Anglican congregations in western Toronto and for its social mission in the Parkdale district, St. Anne’s remains active in community life.”

Firefighters work to put out a blaze at St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end on Sunday, June 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

‘Priceless’ artwork, cherished Toronto community space lost in fire

Early paintings by three Group of Seven members and other prominent Canadian artists were installed along the interior in the 1920s. The murals decorated the chancel and the dome, which was destroyed in the blaze.

In 1923, the church commissioned founding Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ on the building’s interior, according to the St. Anne’s website. MacDonald then signed on nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley.

The three men formed part of the school of landscape painters known as the Group of Seven, renowned for their vibrant depictions of windswept forests and boreal ruggedness that helped forge a romanticized sense of Canadian vitality and independence.

“The artwork was priceless. It was murals, beautiful murals,” Beyers told reporters. “They were stunning.”

“This was the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven and I’m sorry to say that has been lost based on what I see,” he said, adding there were also images of St. Anne and St. George.

“It’s something we cannot replace in Canada and the world,” Davenport Coun. Alejandra Bravo noted.

The now gutted space hosted choral performances, meals, musical theatre, film productions, weddings and other special events, as well as providing a place of worship and prayer. Bravo said the church was a valued community hub for many.

“I don’t think it’s possible to describe the tremendous loss that you see behind us,” she said.

“Davenport has lost something that can never be replaced. The grief that people are expressing to our office is tremendous. It’s something that we share. We are here to support the congregation, to support the work that is going to follow.”

Beyers said he and the Anglican Diocese of Toronto are committed to rebuilding.

“We will rise from this, we will come back stronger and we will have every intention to serve this great community,” he said.

Marit Stiles, who represents the riding provincially and also leads the Ontario NDP, echoed his comments of hope.

“This is going to be a tremendous loss for the community, but it’s not over, because we will rebuild.”

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow highlighted the perseverance of the church’s parishioners if not its physical form.

“The spirit of the place, however – how they are so compassionate to everyone around them – will still be there,” she said.

Fire can be seen coming out of the top of St. Anne’s Anglican Church in multiple images. SUBMISSION TO CITYNEWS

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