T.O. History Revisited – Toronto’s St. James Cathedral

By Bruce Bell

Bruce Bell is the history columnist for the Bulletin, Canada’s largest community newspaper. He sits on the board of the Town of York Historical Society and is the author of two books ‘Amazing Tales of St. Lawrence Neighbourhood’ and ‘TORONTO: A Pictorial Celebration’. He is also the Official Tour Guide of St Lawrence Market. For more info visit brucebelltours.com

In the often secular yet multicultural multi-faith world that Toronto is today it might be hard to conceive just how powerful the Cathedral Church of St. James and the man who helmed it during most of the 19th century once were.

Still very much a force to be reckoned with, today St. James’ is a document carved in stone and etched in stained glass (including one inlaid with Tiffany glass) of the last 200 years of Toronto’s history.

This magnificent English Gothic-inspired cathedral is the fifth church to stand on the northeast corner of King and Church Streets. The first church building was a small, one-room, wooden structure begun in 1803 on land set aside in 1797 when soldiers from Fort York began to clear away some trees on what was then the outskirts of town. The first church didn’t open until 1807 at which time it was simply called the English church.

As the town grew, so did the church, and by 1818 the tiny building had expanded to almost twice its original size. In 1830, after the church had become the seat of the Anglican bishop and consecrated the Cathedral Church of St James’ it was rebuilt in stone.

After another rebuilding due to fire in 1839, the church could now accommodate 2,000 worshipers and boasted a tall wooden spire containing the city’s public clock that dominated the city skyline.


St. James Cathedral in the 1930s

On the morning of April 7, 1849, a great fire tore through the downtown core of Toronto, destroying the fourth St. James. In the aftermath of the great fire the city we know today was born with the construction of St Lawrence Hall, the new courthouse on Adelaide, the 7th Post Office on Toronto Street and the present Cathedral Church of St. James opening for service in 1853.

The yellow brick Cathedral was designed and built by the architectural firm of Cumberland and Storm, however it would be almost another quarter of a century before architect Henry Langley gave it the tallest spire in Canada in 1875.

For most of the nineteenth century, St. James’ remained under the influence of its first bishop, John Strachan, one of the most powerful and influential men who ever lived in Toronto.

Strachan arrived in York in 1812 to be the rector of the church and teacher to the son’s of the so-called Family Compact, that highly prominent, powerful and rich group of non-reformist families which Strachan was to become the undisputed leader. However it was what he did the following year that made him a hero and eventually a man do who could do no wrong in the eyes of his congregation.

If you were a Loyalist arriving from the States, you were here because you didn’t want to live in a Democracy; you liked the King of England and his way of governing. None of this ‘by the people for the people’ stuff for you.

Now that the War of 1812 was underway, the Americans were going to take that away and make you pledge allegiance to their flag and to President Madison who was elected by the people for pity’s sakes and not anointed by the Grace of God as George III had been back in England. Such was the feeling of many who lived in York; to remain British and never surrender to the Republic that wanted Britain out of the New World forever. This mighty ideal of God and King above all else held true to John Strachan and he would follow this belief his entire life.

On the morning of April 27, 1813 the tall ships of the American Fleet could be seen entering the harbour and within a few days the Yanks would be ransacking the little town of York. As the legend goes, American soldiers thought they would loot the little church but John Strachan said ‘Enough!’ Dressed head to toe in black, the Reverend of St. James astride his horse on the steps of his church demanded that the American forces get out of town and pay pound for pound the damage they had inflicted.

Amazingly the American General Dearborn, exhausted from vomiting all week due to seasickness, agreed helplessly in front of this imposing figure, the American army withdrew from York, and the legend of John Strachan was created. York was saved from the tyranny of American Democracy and the British way of life was spared!

Like many other Toronto Protestants of his day, Strachan held steadfast to the belief that God anointed a Monarch to reign over the people—not a Pope. The Anglican bishop was fiercely anti-Catholic and stood at the helm of the anti-Catholic Orange Order that dominated city politics well into the 1950s.

Probably no other symbol in Toronto today reiterates this point home more than the George V stained glass window in St. Georges Chapel, just to the right as you enter the Cathedral itself. This window, beautifully inlaid, was given to the church by the Cawthra family in 1935 on the 25 anniversary of George V accession to the throne.

At the very top of window just under the symbol of a dove and starburst representing God is George V (our present Queen’s grandfather) and below him are the various people of the then Empire. Canada, the country that not only paid for but also houses the window is symbolized by a lumberjack.

To many people today both here and abroad that lumberjack (with all due respect to hardworking lumberjacks) wearing his toque and plaid jacket is how we Canadians are still perceived. Mind you, the window also has Hong Kong represented by a ‘coolie’, Australia by what looks like Crocodile Dundee’s granddad and Ireland by a peasant woman.

This window dramatically states that the once mighty British Empire was where everybody knew his or her place and God forbid you saw yourself as anything but what you were born to be.

Within the church spire are the new bells placed there in 1997 on the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church. These change ringing bells officially known as the 12 bronze Bells of Old York (each bell is named after one of the parish churches in the Deanery of St. James’ which approximates the area of the old town of York) were dedicated in a weekend ceremony and christened at a service of evensong on Friday, June 27, 1997 with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attending that Sunday’s service. These unique bells suspended high above the tower are hand rung by members of the St. James’ Cathedral Guild of Change Ringers.

Also in the tower is the great 4 sided clock with its own ten automated carillon style chime bells that are used to both chime the clock every quarter of an hour and ring for services and such when the change ringing bells are not used. The clock which was illuminated for the first time on December 24, 1875 was a gift to the city of Toronto from its citizens.

The whirling gears to this marvelous Victorian contraption are encased under glass and have a brass plate stating JW BENSON WATCH AND CLOCK MAKER- BY APPOINTMENT TO HRH THE PRINCE OF WALES.

Next to the church is St. James’ Park a onetime cemetery of early York, but even though those bodies were moved in 1850 the park is still home to the great Cholera pits of 19th century Toronto where it’s estimated more than 5,000 bodies are still buried beneath the grassy slopes at its northern end.

At the centre of the park is a statue of Robert Fleming Gourlay, an early political reformer who came to York from Scotland in 1817 and believed in open protest and petitioning as legal constitutional means of achieving reform.

He was banished from York in 1819 after he stood up in Parliament and said (I paraphrase) “Gentlemen I ask you, before you pass this particular bill ask yourselves, is it good for the people?” to which Parliament replied “What the hell do the people have to do with it?” He was rescinded in 1839, returned to Toronto in 1856, but after failing to be elected to Parliament in 1858, he went back to Scotland.

His statue erected in the summer of 2004 stands purposefully facing St James’ the burial place of his non-reformist enemy, John Strachan who after his death in 1867 was interned underneath the cathedral.

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