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Doors Open Toronto May 26 & 27, 2012 | The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr, 100 Howland Avenue

In Coming events, Heritage & History on May 23, 2012 at 10:05 PM

The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr, 100 Howland Avenue in Toronto’s West Annex will be open for Doors Open Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27, from 10:00AM to 4:30PM

By Jane Beecroft and Louise Morin | Walking north from Bloor Street up Howland Avenue in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, one soon comes across a surprising sight: looming above the rooftops of  this house-lined street is one quarter of a 19th century cathedral. Built out of rose-purple Credit Valley sandstone, the magnificent building is abruptly truncated on its west end. There a hodge-podge of modern structures have been awkwardly tacked on to the Norman-inspired Neo-Gothic architecture of the cathedral.

How did this partial cathedral come to be?

The story begins in the early 1880s, when the Howland Land Syndicate acquired a four and a half acre parcel of land just north of the Toronto city limits at Bloor Street, between Bathurst Street and Brunswick Avenue, in order to develop a residential subdivision.

To attract buyers to build outside the city, the Syndicate struck a deal with the Anglican Synod to build a cathedral for Toronto’s Anglicans. The congregation of St. James had consistently refused to serve as the cathedral for Toronto diocese as they had fully paid for their own church and did not want their parish facility taken over by the diocese.

After passage of a special act of the Ontario legislature to qualify the site as the cathedral for Toronto, the Synod agreed to buy one of the six city blocks in the subdivision–bounded by Barton, Wells, Howland and Albany Avenue . The Syndicate in turn gave funds to the Synod to start building the cathedral named for St. Alban the Martyr. The Syndicate named the residential subdivision in the cathedral’s honour: St. Alban’s Park.

The ambitious plans for the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr at 100 Howland Avenue, including a    135 foot tower. How much is left for future generations to enjoy?

Architect Richard Cunnigham Windeyer drew ambitious plans, inspired by the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr in Hertfordshire, England. Construction of the cathedral–the first building in the subdivision–began in 1884. In November 1889,  one quarter of the cathedral–the choir and crypt–was finished and regular services began. See House, where three Anglican bishops of Toronto would live, was completed next door at 120 Howland.

See House, 120 Howland Avenue, where three Anglican bishops of Toronto once lived.

In The Annex, The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood Jack Batten continues the story:

That may have been St. Alban’s most triumphant moment. Its history was not all downhill from there, but neither did it come close to the hopes and plans that Archbishop Sweatman and the congregation imagine to be the cathedral’s due. The building as it stood in 1889 was in the form it retains in essence to this day: one quarter done, lacking the 135 foot tower that was fundamental to Windeyer’s design.

Windeyer died in 1900 and this blow, along with world-wide depression, the Boer War, and other factors slowed down fundraising.

In 1911, parishoner Sir Henry Pellatt took charge of seeing the cathedral to completion. In  1913, he hired architect Ralph Adams Cram to complete the construction of the cathedral. Cram got as far as laying the foundations for the balance of the building when funds ran out yet again. By now the diocese of Toronto was having financial trouble: it was expanding rapidly and needed funds for new churches elsewhere.

The cathedral suffered a further setback when a sudden fire damaged the interior in 1929.

On April 8, 1929 the interior of the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr was damaged in a sudden fire | Photo by J. Karl Lee 

Firefighters battle the 1929 fire at the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr | Photo by J. Karl Lee

In 1936, Bishop Derwyn Owen cancelled cathedral status for the unfinished building, demoting it to a local parish church. The Synod turned ownership of the church property to its congregation. It sold off the gardens and playing fields to the north of the cathedral as residential lots. It transferred the parkland to the south, St. Alban’s Square,  to the city.

Despite these setbacks, the congregation thrived. Among other good works, it established St. Alban’s Boys Club (now St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club) headquartered today in Seaton Village.

In 1964, the congregation rented out buildings to St. George’s College, a private boys’ school said to be looking for  temporary premises only, while the school sought “a satisfactory (out-of-town) site for a permanent residential college.”

But St. George’s settled in, and began a series of expansions. The 89 students enrolled in 1964 grew to 253 by 1970, to 361 in 1991. The student body spread to the other church buildings. A brutalist-style cement gym was built at the back of the cathedral, on top of the nave foundations.

A hodgepodge of additions made by Royal St. George’s College on the unfinished foundations of the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr

Soon the ever-expanding St. George’s College coveted more of the property for themselves. In January 4, 1994, the school headmaster John Latimer assured neighbours about a proposed severance of Church lands to permit the sale of properties by the Diocese to the college:

“The Church will retain ownership of the church building itself and the lands on which it is located. The building will continue to be the home of the congregation of St. Alban the Martyr, your local parish.

The purpose of this letter is simply to assure you that the effect of the severance and transfer of the facility to the School itself will not result in any change in use, will not result in any increased traffic and so far as we are aware, will have no impact on the neighbourhood.”

But the local parish opposed the plans of St. George’s, and launched a court proceeding to prevent the sale by the Diocese.  While the legal maneuvers dragged on, the size of the college’s student body swelled again, to 417 in 1996, and to 440 in 1998.

Although the Cathedral and See House had been designated as being of architectural and historical value and interest under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1992, this did not stop them from falling into private hands. In 2000, the parish’s legal avenues exhausted, the church brass dis-established the congregation and sold the entire property to St. George’s College.  The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr became the private chapel of the college.

Constant construction has been the hallmark of Royal St. George’s College’s stewardship of the    Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr and its related lands and buildings.

Slowly but steadily, St. George’s College built upon the foundations of the unfinished portion of the cathedral, for more classrooms, a library, a music room, an exercise studio, and a theatre, obscuring the original unfinished foundations of the cathedral. Today, only one small fragment of the unfinished foundations remains, on the west end of the property, opposite 104 Albany Avenue.

Foundations for the never-completed nave of St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral, opposite 104 Albany Avenue.

On September 18, 2010, careless workman working for the College left oily rags in the cathedral. They ignited, causing another devastating fire.

Damage from the September 18, 2010 fire. | Photo credits Royal St. George’s College.

While insurance monies provided the funds to restore the blackened woodwork, plaster and stained glass, original carved English oak furnishings from the 18oos were destroyed, as was a large portion of the original floor.

The restored cathedral re-opened in the spring of 2011 for the private use of students, faculty, parents, and alumni of the college, and their invited guests.

The famous double-hammer beam ceiling of St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral, restored after the 2010 fire.

Doors Open 2012 is the first time the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr–described in the Doors Open program as “truly a national treasure”–has opened its doors to the general public since the College acquired it in 2000. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit this embattled but enduring building.


See the Doors Open website for more information about visiting the Cathedral of St. Alban’s the Martyr the weekend of May 26 & 27, 2012.


Offline sources:

Jack Batten, The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, 2004, Erin, Boston Mills Press.

The Community History Project brochure, St. Alban’s Park Subdivision

Other related articles:

St. Alban’s Square | A historic primer

What is the West Annex


Ask the Bike Maven | How to get your bike ready for the season

In Ask the Bike Maven, The Maven on May 21, 2012 at 10:24 PM

Everything you need to keep you–and your bike–happy: a pump, chain cleaner, degreaser fluid, chain lube, helmet, u-lock.

By The Maven | I was in Portugal 18 months ago for a cycle trip from Lisbon to the Algarve. We rented bikes from Portugal Bikes, a locally owned small cycle touring company–great people and good prices if you ever go.

Riding to Lisbon’s Belém Tower, built in 1515.

The shop owner asked our nationality before prepping us on basic bike maintenance. He was relieved to hear we were Canadian, mechanically competent people.  The Dutch, he said, were completely incapable of doing any maintenance work on their bikes. Since a cycle shop can be found on every corner in Holland, they can’t even fix a flat tire he told us.

So as Canadians we have an international standard to maintain, to wit, some advice.

1. Cleaning: Clean your bike. If it’s been in use in the salt and slush of winter, hose it down. If it sat outside or in the basement for the winter it still needs to be cleaned and lubricated.

Cleaning the chain is the most important for a smooth and happy ride. You can just hose it down, let it dry and then oil it.

Take the top off the bike chain cleaner, add de-greasing fluid, fit your chain in the cogs, snap on the top, and rotate your pedals backward about 100 revolutions.

But best to clean it properly. MEC sells a nice chain cleaner for only $5.50 and a bottle of citrus-based biodegradable degreaser for the same amount. Why degreaser? Because the oil on the chain picks up dirt and abrasive particles and this grit acts like sandpaper to wear down and destroy your chain, cogs, and chain rings. Shifting becomes  rougher and requires more force, you skip gears, ugliness–in the form of a repair bill to replace your drive chain–soon ensues.

With a chain cleaner you simple fill up the chamber with a degreaser, click it on to the chain and run the chain through it for a couple of minutes. The chamber will become black and disgusting while the chain will become shiny and silver again.

I also pour some degreaser directly on the derailleur and cogs and let it sit a while. You can then wipe all these parts down with a rag or rinse them with water. After everything has thoroughly dried (I like to do cleaning on a sunny day and let my bike sit in the sun for an hour to dry) you need to re-grease the chain. Do NOT use 3-in-1 or household oil. By oil specifically for a bike.

Or make a homebrew like I do. I mix one part light grade synthetic motor oil to three parts mineral spirits (pain thinner). I apply it liberally to my chain and all moving parts of my bike. The idea is that the mineral oil thins the oil and helps it penetrate and carry into metal parts. The mineral spirits then evaporates leaving behind the lubricating oil. About $10 worth of ingredients has lasted several years for me, and I maintain four bikes of my own and three of my son’s. I oil my road bike chain after every one or two rides. I will wipe down the chain and re-lube. I do a full clean ever few weeks.

Information about optimum inflation pressure is printed or embossed on the sideall of your tire.

2. Tire pressure:  Information about optimum inflation pressure is printed or embossed on the sidewall of your tire.

Tire pressure is crucial. The maximum inflation is on the tire side wall. If you are heavier go toward the higher end. Up to a point a higher pressure will aid efficiency but your ride may be a bit bumpier. Too little air can cause ‘pinch’ flats by pinching the sidewall of the tire between the road and the rim. And the bike won’t ride very nicely on half flat tires.

Tires lose air daily. The rubber tubes are not entirely air proof. There is some leakage. The higher the tire pressure (eg: road bikes) the faster the leakage. Pump your tires twice weekly at least. A good quality pump is worth the extra few bucks as it makes pumping so much easier.

I even use my bicycle pump to pump up my car tires (ok, I’m a little obsessive about these things).

3. Inspect your bike

Check your bike now and again to make sure the brakes aren’t rubbing, and that nothing is loose.

It’s a good idea to just walk around your bike and do an inspection now and again.

Check the brakes are not rubbing and that they stop a spinning wheel promptly. Check that the crank and headset have no play in them. If you are riding a single speed–particularly a fixie–the crank is your bread and butter. Keep it tight!

Use an

An Allen key set or hex wrench is all that is needed to adjust and tighten most parts on your bike.

You may not realize it but metal not only fatigues and breaks but also stretches. For instance, not only do your brake and gear cables needs tightening but your chain stretches. Not checking and replacing the chain when it needs it can wear the rear cogs and front chain rings, and then they too will need premature replacement…something that is much more expensive than a new chain.

If you aren’t confident enough or knowledgeable enough to do this stuff on your own, spend a few bucks at your local bike shop. Rob Bateman of Bateman’s Bicycle Company at 913 Bathurst just north or Barton is a great local guy and cycle enthusiast. He and his guys will look after your bike for a reasonable price.

A well tuned bike is a pleasure to ride.


The Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex. Visit his blog at

For other cycling articles by the The Maven on the West Annex News, visit the Bike Maven archive.