Sunday, August 11, 2013

# 39 ~ York's First Church, Then and Now


THEN : A painting of York's harbour in 1793.  As soldiers prepared to carve a new colonial capital out of the forest, they gathered for the first religious service to ever be held here, on August 11, 1793.
Exactly 220 years ago today, on August 11, 1793, the first religious service of any kind was held in the Town of York. David William Smith, who was the Acting Deputy Surveyor General of Upper Canada, as well as a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of Foot, presided over the service. He read out prayers to the soldiers of the Queen's Rangers, who had gathered together in a lot cleared out of the forest on the site of what would become Fort York.
The early religious life of the Town of York was dominated by the Church of England, and “anybody who was anyone” prayed, socialized, congregated and otherwise hobnobbed at the Anglican Church of St. James. However, it would be four years until a plot of land was laid aside for the English church in the Town of York, and it wasn't until 1807 when the first St. James' Church was actually constructed, on the northeast corner of King and Church streets. Even the street names of that particular intersection gave clues to the nature of its use. King Street was after King George III, the Sovereign, and Defender of the great, British, Protestant Faith, and Church Street was of course after the religious flavour that the thoroughfare would adopt.

THEN : King George III, after whom King Street was named.  At a time when Yonge Street was a muddy military highway, King Street was really the first real street laid out for the citizens of the Town of York.
THEN : Looking east along King Street towards Church Street in 1835.  St. James' Church obviously held prominence over the landscape.  On the left are the prison (far left) and the courthouse (between the prison and the church).  Salvation and incarceration sat side by side.

In those years between that first prayer service in August of 1793, and the construction of the first actual church building in 1807, the Church of England congregation at York met in various buildings associated with the local government, like the Parliament buildings at the east end of town. The church that was finally opened in 1807 was little more than a wooden shed. It was this wooden church that was used as a hospital following the American invasion of York in 1813, and which was looted by those same Americans in the few days that they spent looting the old town.
THEN : The first St. James' Church, little more than a wooden shed, built in 1807.
In 1818, this earliest of York's churches was enlarged, and a bell tower was added. The physical church building has gone through numerous incarnations over the years. In 1833 it was taken down and replaced with a more permanent building. A devastating fire in 1839, and then, an even greater one in 1849, resulted in reconstruction. Construction of the current Gothic Revival building that we know today began in 1850 and was completed in the summer of 1853, with the exception of the great spire, which was finally completed in 1874.
THEN : The present Cathedral Church of St. James' in 1867.

THEN : The present day Cathedral Church of St. James, circa 1890.
Toronto finally became its own Diocese in 1839, and that meant that the city's infamous Anglican rector, John Strachan, was elevated to the position of Bishop. There are many references to John Strachan throughout the modern day Cathedral, and his laid to rest underneath the altar of the contemporary Church.

THEN : The redoubtable John Strachan.  It's near impossible to reference religion or education in early Toronto without a mention of Toronto's first Bishop for the Church of England.
THEN : Strachan died on November 1st, 1867.  Such was the calibre of his influence that his funeral procession, shown here, became one of the most highly attended public events in Toronto to that date.
NOW : This bust of Strachan resides above a tablet at the Cathedral Church of St. James, which tells of his contributions towards the work of the church and education throughout the province.
NOW : Other references to Strachan can be found throughout the church's windows.
The parcel of land that was given for the church – bounded by King Street, Adelaide Street, Church Street and Jarvis Street – represented a significant piece of real estate in 1797. The town's main commercial strip only stretched two blocks from south to north, from Front Street, north to Adelaide Street. All the town's central services, retailers, townhouses and government agencies were located between Church and Parliament streets. But of course, the church required such a large piece of land in order to bury the dead. Two centuries ago, there were no public cemeteries in town. There was a military burial ground at what is now Victoria Memorial Square. The majority of all other burials took place on the grounds of the established churches, with a few wealthy families having their own clan crypts in the gardens of their own private estates.

NOW : The present day interior of the Cathedral Church of St. James.

The original Church of England cemetery, next to St. James' Church, was moved to its present location, the modern day St. James' Cemetery, which runs east from Parliament Street and south of Bloor Street. The majority of the bodies in what is now St. James' Park were moved, but many still remain. The most well known amongst these are the bodies of those poor souls who perished during the cholera epidemics that swept through the populace in the 1830s. Flung into a mass grave at the northwest corner of the church's property, they have remained there for 180 years, and it's a tragic piece of our municipal history that there is no marker to them, today.

THEN : Death was at the pump, and cholera leapt from the water pump to stalk the streets of York.  The many who perished were buried in lots around town, one of which was located next to St. James' Church.

NOW : The cholera pits and burial ground for St. James is now a public park, with nothing to commemorate the final resting place of the lost.
At a time when Toronto was known as a grand Victorian City of Spires, St. James' Cathedral was at the top of the list of our greatest ecclesiastical landmarks. It continues as such today. There are weddings at the Cathedral nearly every weekend in the summer. St. James' Park carries on as a popular old town playground, where pedestrians stroll through the gardens or sit in the grass, perhaps unaware of the untold history that lays beneath their feet, where some of the earliest church goers to occupy Toronto were laid to rest. The Anglican community, like Toronto's religious diversity in general, has come along way since those first soldiers huddled together in a clearing near Fort York 220 years ago, to lift their voices toward the Heavens.

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