Written by Avital Borisovsky
Since the founding in 1915 of Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox church in Toronto, the city’s first Russian Orthodox parish, Orthodox churches have had a central place in the life of many Russian Torontonians. Among them, Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, on the corner of Henry and Cecil Streets south-east of College Street and Spadina Avenue, has become a landmark.
With its domed roof and crosses typical of Orthodox churches, Holy Trinity stands out in downtown Toronto. Constructed as Beth Jacob Synagogue and completed in 1922, it was purchased by its current congregation in 1966. Like the earlier conversion of the former Holy Blossom Synagogue on Bond Street into St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Holy Trinity’s congregation adapted the building’s architecture and transformed it to suit its needs, adorning it with rich Orthodox iconography. A living centre of faith, language, and art, Holy Trinity is equally a community centre that hosts gatherings associated with weddings, baptisms and funerals. Like many other faith centres in Toronto, Holy Trinity is a striking visual representation of Toronto’s diversity and a vital heritage structure on the landscape.
The history of Holy Trinity goes back to the late 1940s, when Russian refugees from the Second World War, already living throughout Europe, began immigrating to Canada. A number settled in Toronto. These new immigrants chose to form their own congregation. Alexandra Furlani became one of the first members of the church as a teenager, and remains a leader of the congregation today. After moving from Germany to England and then to Canada in 1949, Ms Furlani was 16 when she settled in Toronto with her family. Shortly thereafter, the Furlani family, along with a Russian Orthodox priest, recently arrived as a fellow refugee, joined with others to begin a new Russian Orthodox Church. The small group met first in a home on Spadina Avenue at Queen Street, then soon after rented a space on Parliament Street at Gerrard Street. From here, the congregation moved in 1950 back to its former Queen and Spadina neighbourhood to rent space in the United Church of Canada’s Church of All Nations.
Regular services were offered on Saturday evenings, Sunday mornings and during the week. In a short period of time and through word of mouth, the number of worshippers grew, and the centre of a community, around which all facets of life would revolve, was born. During the same period, a second Russian Orthodox priest arrived in Toronto and began engaging youth and involving them with the church. His work attracted a group of young people who would remain committed to the church throughout their lives.
Ms Furlani remembers that the financial situation of the congregation was a serious challenge as most new Russian Orthodox immigrants to the city had very little money. Yet the community was determined and united, and worked together toward their goal of acquiring their own dedicated church building. In 1953, they opened a new church, built by their own hands, on Richmond Street at Berkeley Street. Continuing to grow, in 1966 the congregation acquired the former Beth Jacob Synagogue on Henry Street. It was renovated, and officially opened as The Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in 1969.
What started as off as a small group of about 10 members in 1949 has now grown into a parish of 240 families who attend services every week. Aside from traditional Orthodox rites, Holy Trinity also hosts many other activities. As soon as the church was bought in 1966, Ms Furlani and other women from the church, calling themselves “the sisterhood,” began preparing meals on Sundays for all worshippers. This tradition of communal meals came from a time when many Russians were coming home from working in the factories, and it was helpful for them to come to the church to have an evening meal. In addition to these meals, Holy Trinity holds a school for the children on Saturdays, and a bazaar in November, where members bring items to sell, and all proceeds go to needy convents and monasteries around the world.
Many members of Holy Trinity are also members of the Russian Canadian Cultural Aid Society (RCCAS), a Toronto cultural group that organizes events for the community and has a long history of providing settlement support for Russian immigrants. The RCCAS was started by a number of the same people who founded the church, and the organization gave church members the opportunity to hold dances and music concerts which were not allowed to take place in Holy Trinity. In 2011, the congregation purchased a house next door to be used by youth taking classes and priests delivering lectures.
Proud of its landmark heritage building, the congregation has recently invested in its restoration. Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church remains committed to its original purpose – to provide a space for members of the faith to stay in touch with their historical roots and to express their faith in the city they now call home.
Interview with Alexandra Furlani, August, 2012
Vladimir Handera, ‘The Russian Orthodox Church in Toronto’, Polyphony (Summer, 1984), Pg. 83-85.
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.