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