Written by Karl Lee
The Alpha Korean United Church (AKUC), formerly known as the Toronto Korean United Church, was founded on April 23, 1967. It is the oldest Korean church in Toronto and the third oldest in Canada, after those established in Montreal (1965) and Vancouver (1966). Within a decade of its founding, AKUC was joined by four other Korean congregations in Toronto at Knox Presbyterian Church, the Toronto Korean Catholic Church, the Toronto Korean Church and the Toronto Central Korean United Church. Each of those congregations, with many others that have followed, has played a pivotal role in the transition of Korean immigrants into their new city, providing networks of support and spaces of comfort. They have been both centres of faith, and community centres.
In the mid-1960s, the Home Missions Board of the United Church of Canada encouraged efforts to begin a Korean church in Toronto. Some of the key participants in early meetings included Ch’ung-lim Chon, Rev. W. A. Burbidge, a former missionary in Korea, and Rev. Chae-pong Pak, at the time a student at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College. Ch’ung-lim Chon had worked in close association with Canadian missionaries in Korea and immigrated to Canada in 1962 with his family. He was among the first non-student Korean immigrants and received a warm welcome by former missionaries when he arrived in Toronto. Chon then encouraged his friends to immigrate to Canada, and later went so far as to set up a company that helped bring more Koreans to the city.By 1967, there were over 200 Koreans settled in the city. The new immigrants sought a sense of community, and resources to assist with the critical challenges of the language barrier, employment, and the education of their children. Since many were Christians and students of theology, with connections to former Canadian missionaries to Korea now living in Toronto, plans quickly emerged to organize a church and a community centre.
Rev. W.A. Burbidge had been a missionary in Korea before independence, a period when foreign missions were strictly regulated and when Canadian missionaries worked only in the Hamgyong Province and the region of Northern Gando. Rev. Burbidge had a deep interest in seeing more Koreans come to Canada, and encouraged them to join the United Church. Along with his wife, they supported the growth of the Korean community throughout the rest their lives. For example, Mrs. Burbidge would regularly invite Korean Christian women to her house to acquaint them with the English language, Western cuisine, as well as Canadian etiquette.
On April 23, 1967 at 11AM, 60 people gathered for the inaugural service of what was originally named the Toronto Korean United Church, at St. Luke’s United Church on Sherbourne Street. Rev. Chae-pong Pak, and Rev. W.A. Burbidge, both intimately involved in its formation, would become its ministers. The church’s members actively worked to spread its influence, welcoming new Korean immigrants, preparing informational pamphlets, and providing Korean newspapers to immigrants who visited the church. In the meantime, Rev. Burbidge was appointed Minister of St. Enoch’s United Church, located at the corner of Metcalfe and Winchester Streets in Cabbagetown. The TKUC followed Burbidge to St. Enoch’s, but that church’s distance from the Korean community forced relocation again. In 1969, the TKUC moved to Bloor Street United Church, just east of Spadina Avenue, where it has remained to this day.
Prior to hosting the Korean community, and eventually becoming the Alpha Korean United Church, Bloor Street United had a long history in the Bloor and Spadina neighbourhood. It began as a Presbyterian Sunday School in 1886 to serve the youth of its growing neighbourhood who had previously commuted to other Presbyterian churches. The school opened in a house that still stands at 33 Sussex Avenue before moving to a permanent school building in 1888. In 1890, a new church building was constructed at a cost of $6500, and with a seating capacity of 1170 people. The Presbyterian congregation joined the newly formed United Church of Canada in 1925 to become Bloor Street United Church. A fire in 1954 led to the rebuilding of the church as it stands today.
With a permanent home in Bloor Street United Church, The Alpha Korean United Church continues to serve its members, as well as local Korean immigrants and international students. With its long and active history, the AKUC is an important part of not only the Korean community’s heritage, but also the history of Toronto.
‘30 years of History of Toronto Korean United Church’ brochure
Jung Gun Kim, ‘How Koreans Came to Call Toronto their Home’, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, (Multicultural History Society, 1984) pg. 176-180.
Yi, Hyun Soo, Kim, Kidong; Yoo, Mi; Yoo, Gemma & Kim, Anna, ‘A Profile of Korean Canadians in Ontario’, 1978.
Interview with Ms. Soon Ok Cho, July 2012
Interview with Mr. Jeomsoo Chong, July 2012
Interview with Rev. Haebin Jung, July 2012
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.