St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral Toronto

Sunday, December 5, 2021

This is the story of a cathedral that was almost built, but not quite. Up until less than a hundred years ago, the spire on St. James Church was the tallest structure in early Toronto. It represented the Church of England in the early city. When John Strachan was made the First Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto in 1839 he was allowed to use the St. James Church but there was a problem. The parishioners had financed the church and were unwilling to turn it over to the Bishop for his use. The home church of the Bishop is known as a cathedral and is the most powerful church in the diocese. From the middle-ages, cathedrals have been grandly designed and were intended to reflect the majesty of God. In 1843 Strachan opened the cathedral establishment fund with the intention of giving Toronto one of these grand buildings.

Neither Strachan nor his successor would see the building started, it would have to wait until 1883. Arthur Sweatman was the third Bishop of Toronto and he oversaw the purchase of 4.5 acres of land in the newly developing Seaton Village area just west of the expanding city. The plot was made available by a syndicate that was developing a prestigious housing development in the area. They put up $5,244, half of the purchase price, and promised another $2,000 if the choir and chancel were completed by 1886. The archive picture below shows the construction of the east end of the cathedral during 1886.

The diagram below is from Wikipedia and shows the most common parts of Christian Cathedrals. The basic layout has been in place since Roman times and the intention is to create the most spectacular building in the region. When St Alban the Martyr Cathedral was planned it was intended that Toronto should have such a building.

Sod was turned on August 20, 1885, but the cornerstone wouldn’t be laid until the following year. Funding for the building wouldn’t be consistent and work was slow to progress. When Canada went into a depression in the 1890s money was diverted to building local parishes which were badly needed by the expanding city. The portion of the cathedral in the picture below, taken on July 14, 2021, was completed by 1891 and that was about as far as they got.

The archival sketch below shows the cathedral as it stood in 1898. By this time they had consecrated the choir and the crypt below it. They moved their worship services into the crypt while they waited a few years, or so they thought, for the rest of the cathedral to be completed. This turned out to be the end of the original design.

The synod of the diocese renewed its commitment to completing the cathedral in 1910. The new plans called for the elimination of the two western towers which were to be replaced with a single central tower. This would have been placed on the south side in the corner where the transept met the aisle. Twenty-five years after the cornerstone was laid the same trowel was used to initiate the new construction. Problems arose immediately when the tenders came back $200,000 over budget. World War 1 broke out before there was a resolution and the project was once again put on hold. Construction wouldn’t begin again until 1956 when the western end of the building was closed in with a short brick structure. The idea of a cathedral at St. Alban the Martyr had already been over since 1935.

The aerial photo below from Toronto Archives shows the choir end of the cathedral with the foundations of the transepts and the nave forming the outline of a cross. The Bishop’s house can be seen circled just above the cathedral and three of Toronto’s bishops would live here before 1935.

The original plans for the cathedral included a 135 foot (41 meters) tower on the southwest corner while a shorter one adorned the northwest corner. This image below was taken from The West Annex News and gives you a good idea of what the other three-quarters of the building would have looked like if completed as designed.

Starting in 1918 St. James Church downtown began to lobby to be the cathedral for the Toronto Diocese although it wouldn’t happen until the middle of the Great Depression. In 1935 St. James Church was confirmed as the cathedral and St. Alban was downgraded to a local parish. The bishop moved downtown and the church carried on until 1964. That’s when St. George College rented the property and they continue to occupy it today. They built their school buildings on the old foundations for the proposed cathedral.

Their rather typical educational building sits on top of some pretty impressive stone footings that were intended to support a much grander building.

The footings at the western end of the building haven’t been built on but it doesn’t look like there are any grand towers in their near future.

A lot has changed since the original conception with its two grand towers. These were downgraded to a single tower in 1910 and finally, in 1956 they settled for one of the most unimaginative spires in Christendom.

Between 1885 and 1886 the church also built a home for the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. The diocese went by the short name of “See” and this was the home of the bishop from 1885 until 1935.

We close with a view of the west end of the proposed cathedral. This is where the parishioners would have entered for the services.

Some of the grand cathedrals in Europe took centuries to be complete but in Toronto, we lost the will to finish our cathedral almost as soon as it was planned.

Google Maps Link: St. Alban the Martyr

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