Toronto reels from ‘heartbreaking’ loss after fire destroys historic church and rare paintings

Artefacts included murals painted by three members of Group of Seven, a renowned Canadian art collective

Maroosha Muzaffar
Tuesday 11 June 2024 11:29
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Fire destroys historic Toronto church

A massive fire at a historic church in Toronto destroyed rare artefacts but the police have not deemed the blaze suspicious at this time.

The St Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto, reported the fire just before 8am on Sunday. The church and all artefacts inside were “completely destroyed”, according to the local deputy fire chief.

Those artefacts included murals painted by three members of the Group of Seven, a Canadian art collective. It was too early to determine the “cause, origin, and circumstance” of the fire, Sean Driscoll, a spokesperson for the Office of the Fire Marshal, said in an email to CBC News.

Since the cause remains unknown, the fire “is not considered suspicious at this time”, Shannon Eames, a spokesperson for Toronto police, told CBC News.

Community members and art experts in Canada are mourning the “heartbreaking” loss of the church and the unique artwork by members of the Group of Seven and other prominent Canadian artists.

The lost works in the fire depicted Old Testament prophets, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion and were created by JEH MacDonald, Fred Varley, and Franklin Carmichael.

St Anne’s Anglican Church is located in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood and was built between 1907 and 1908. The church was designated a national historic site in 1996 and was also designated by the City of Toronto under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1980.

“To be honest, it’s heart-wrenching to come up here to see the church like this,” the Global News quoted St Anne’s rector Father Don Beyers as saying when he visited the destroyed church on Monday.

“I almost felt sick to my stomach to see it,” he said, adding that church members are “incredibly hurt and sad.” He called the loss both “devastating” and “heartbreaking”.

Beyers said the community has not only lost a place of worship, rites and holiday celebrations – it has also lost “Canadian artwork at its very best”.

“It’s almost hard to describe how beautiful the works were and how rare. It was the only religious artwork to my knowledge that the Group of Seven ever did,” Beyers said.

CP24 quoted the city councillor of Davenport, Alejandra Bravo as saying: “It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada, and in the world, but this is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, home, love, brought people from the community together, served needs of people who needed it and provided the spiritual support that people so desperately needed in times where they’ve also fallen on hard times.”

“Davenport has lost something that can never be replaced, and the grief that people are expressing to our office is tremendous.”

Ms Bravo called this loss “too great to comprehend”.

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

Parks Canada, Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, stated that the “cycle of paintings” at St Anne’s Anglican Church combined “narrative scenes, written texts, as well as decorative plasterwork and detailing accentuating the architectural lines of the building” and were a “manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to ally architecture with the sister arts of painting and sculpture”.

The national agency noted that the works drew “upon the motifs, colours and the artistic conventions of Byzantine art, and (were) integral to the church’s architectural style”.

According to CBC News, over the past two and a half years, 33 churches nationwide have been destroyed by fire, with many cases confirmed as arson.

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