Cathedral of St. Alban-the-Martyr

In 2014, Heritage Toronto installed two plaques at Royal St. George’s College. One commemorates the Cathedral of St. Alban-the-Martyr, used today by the school as a chapel, while the other recognizes the heritage value of See House, the Bishop’s residence, which is the school’s main administration building. This historical blog post, by Jonathan Lofft, explores the architectural and cultural heritage of these important buildings and their historic context in the Annex.

Plan for St. Alban's Cathedral by Ralh Adams Cram, 1913.  Courtesy of the Collection of Royal St. George's College.

Plan for St. Alban’s Cathedral by Ralh Adams Cram, 1913.
Courtesy of the Collection of Royal St. George’s College.

Toronto is noteworthy for its two Anglican cathedrals. That is, historically there have been two great sacred spaces belonging to the Anglican Church of Canada that have held the distinction of being chief church of the Diocese of Toronto. While the Cathedral Church of St. James is a distinctive landmark in the heart of the Old Town core, as familiar to tourists as religious faithful, the former Cathedral of St. Alban-the-Martyr, neatly tucked away in the shady residential comfort of an area now called the Annex, is a true hidden gem.

Regrettably, Toronto’s two cathedrals came to represent the divide between two rival parties within Anglicanism in the 19th century, even if this dichotomy doesn’t tell the whole story: those who imagined a Protestant Reformed religion based on Scripture, appealing to reason, without the trappings of mystery and high ceremony that baffled the minds of modern people, and those who preferred to behold the beauty of holiness when they went to worship, evoking the ritual and splendor of the ancient and medieval imaginations. As their names suggest, the Evangelicals were centered on the message of the Christian Gospel, while the Tractarians were influenced by a movement in Oxford University brought caused by a serial publication entitled Tracts For The Times.While these caricatures cannot do justice to the finer theological contours of their disagreements, it remains reasonable to describe at least two quarreling parties, Evangelicals and Tractarians, in 19th century Anglicanism.

Disputes about identity were not limited to the Church of England in the British Isles, but rapidly spilled out into Britain’s colonies. Anglicans in Canada were certainly not immune from these struggles and the legacy of this era is quite literally carved in stone in Toronto. St. James, on the one hand, is centrally located, though modestly limited in space; highly functional, but not especially ornate; a symbol of Anglican aspirations to Canadian establishment, yet built of brick, not of more costly and traditional stone. While only a trained eye might correctly comprehend these features, with the benefit of the analysis of historians we can rightly conclude that St. James Cathedral was built to the tastes of the Evangelical party between the 1850’s and 1870’s. Early drawings for St. James, prepared by architect F. W. Cumberland (1820-1881), included more elaborate interior decoration, featuring full-figured angels, but these dismayed Evangelicals, on the basis that excessive decoration was decadent and alien to their tradition and were never executed.

Often bitterly opposed to the Evangelical movement in Toronto, and elsewhere, were the Tractarians. Sometimes the conflict between these parties boiled over publicly, to the discredit of Anglicans on both sides. Locally, the troubled term of office of Toronto’s second Anglican bishop, Alexander Neil Bethune (1800-1879) represented the nadir of this conflict. Bishop Bethune’s predecessor, the famous John Strachan (1778-1867), was a force to be reckoned with and had kept peace between rival factions within the Diocese he lead through sheer force of personality. But Bethune had lived virtually his entire life in Strachan’s shadow, and was doomed by the very inevitability of his succession in the office Strachan had first held in 1839. Evangelicals saw in Bishop Bethune a hostile partisan, for he tended towards the Tractarian position, and had wrangled with Evangelicals. There was also the accusation he had beeb enabled by favoritism, for Strachan arranged for Bethune the right of episcopal succession. Bishop Bethune, for his part, was disadvantaged by the inhospitality of the Evangelicals who excluded him from physical attendance at St. James, where Strachan had centered his Diocese, at the end of his life. Some Evangelicals evaded Bethune’s authority as bishop to the point of prosecution. Though the Rector of St. James, Dean Henry James Grasett (1808-1882), and his co-defendants were ultimately spared an ecclesiastical trial, historically significant lines for Toronto’s religious history had been drawn.

Such antics can and sometimes do occur in many organizations, including churches, but seldom do they take place in such publicly significant venues as a cathedral. A cathedral derives its name from the Latin word cathedra, or throne. Thus, a cathedral is a church distinguished by the presence of a bishop’s seat, signifying his jurisdictional authority. A cathedral church, by virtue of this special relationship with the bishop is the chief church in a given area of administration, called a diocese. In 1839, when Queen Victoria erected the Diocese of Toronto by letters patent and selected John Strachan to be the first bishop of Toronto, no church was officially designated the cathedral. St. James was certainly the oldest church in Toronto, with its congregation first meeting in 1797. While this maternal status was a most honorable distinction, it was separate from the legalism of formal cathedral status, and Strachan’s withholding this title suggests, along with documentary evidence, that he actively considered establishing a separate cathedral for Toronto.

Strachan imagined a magnificent edifice for his cathedral. Soaring upwards on sprawling grounds, this cathedral would be a beacon in Toronto of global British Christianity- of Canadian Anglicanism. It would not be built through the leasing of pews and the collection of ground rents payable by anyone who wanted a seat inside to pray, unlike St. James. It would not undermine the dignity of any older sacred space, but it would command the lawful obedience of all, while at the same time belonging to all. Strachan’s dream was not to be. Various reasons, including a lack of financing held the project back for decades, until Strachan died and Bishop Bethune succeeded him in 1867.

Bishop Bethune was keen to carry forward Strachan’s ambition for a cathedral built in Toronto on the English model of independence and free access. The Evangelical faction entrenched at St. James conceded their church was the most obvious choice to be designated cathedral, but were unwilling to part with their proprietary pew rental income, or to deal with their bishop, with whom they had developed increasingly divergent theological opinions. Bethune bungled the few attempts he made at reconciliation and died a side-lined figure in 1879. He has the dubiously mournful distinction of being buried outside the City limits, in Cobourg, ON.

Bishop Arthur Sweatman. Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Bishop Arthur Sweatman. Archives of the Anglican Diocese of

Bishop Bethune’s successor, Arthur Sweatman (1834-1909), was elected to the office of bishop of Toronto as a compromise candidate, acceptable to both factious parties. Gradually, however, Sweatman came to sympathize, not necessarily with Bethune’s theology, but with those who saw the deceased bishop as a victim of a rebellious flock who succeeded in using the legislature of the Diocese of Toronto, called its Synod, to frustrate the bishop’s very jurisdictional authority embodied in a cathedral church. Encouraged by Bethune’s progeny, Bishop Sweatman resolved to establish a cathedral church in the Diocese of Toronto, separate from Synod, or any existing church, including St. James. This bold move was accomplished by an Act of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1883. Without any land being purchased, or a single stone being laid, the Cathedral of St. Alban-the-Martyr, Toronto, along with its governing Chapter, a body corporate with medieval origins, became a legal, if not a physical, reality.

A weak domestic economy as well as indifference on the part of many Toronto Anglicans meant that progress on the St. Alban’s project would be slow. Only in 1885 was a suitable tract of land purchased on which could be built a sprawling cathedral, but even this lay beyond the existing city limit at Bloor Street and had to be annexed to Toronto by a second Act of the Legislature the same year! With only a small amount of money in reserve, and with a practically rustic property on which to build, St. Alban’s began to rise. The cornerstone of St. Alban’s was laid on June 16th, 1887 by Bishop Sweatman in the presence of a small band of supporters, including the founder of the Wychwood Park estate, artist Marmaduke Matthews (1837-1913). Matthews and his son, also called Marmaduke, would subsequently operate the St. Alban’s Cathedral School elsewhere on the site, beginning in 1898.

Though Frank Darling (1850-1923) was convinced to undertake building an official residence for Bishop Sweatman on the St. Alban’s Park property, called See House, he declined further involvement in the project, and so other talents were recruited. Edward Marion Chadwick (1840-1921), one of Sweatman’s closest advisors, and a talented amateur, along with professional architect Richard Cunningham Windeyer (1830-1900) devised grandiose plans that were only partially realized. In fact, Windeyer’s sudden death threw the project into confusion, with lavish heraldic decorations in stained glass, enamel, and wood devised by Chadwick being strewn on memorials throughout the soaring chancel of the vast intended building. By the time funding was available to resume the ambitious scheme in 1912 with a new architect, Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) of Boston, Bishop Sweatman was already dead, succeeded by James Fielding Sweeny (1857-1940). Prince Arthur of Connaught, then serving as Canada’s Governor General, accompanied by his daughter, Princess Patricia, laid a second cornerstone in 1912, though Cram’s design, executed in limestone from Indiana, as the original Ontario sandstone quarry that had supplied St. Alban’s had been exhausted, would never be completed, either. The outbreak of the Great War, and continuing popular indifference frustrated the long-standing commitment of a small group of supporters.

These halting attempts at erecting a monumental building should not be underestimated, despite the complexities and frustrations they revealed. St. Alban’s served as the cathedral of the Diocese of Toronto for half a century, witnessing many baptisms, marriages, funerals, ordinations, meetings, and important visits. J. P. Morgan (1837-1913) attended Evening Prayer at St. Alban’s in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson (1848-1930), shortly before the former’s death. Governors General Lord Aberdeen (1847-1934), and Lord Minto (1845-1914) were also visitors, while Sir Henry Pellatt (1859-1939) of Casa Loma was sometime chair of the St. Alban’s building committee. Perhaps the most significant occurrence in the storied life of St. Alban’s was the 1893 inaugural meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, the birthday, in a sense, of a truly national Anglican identity, which ceremonially opened in the former Cathedral. Famous musicians associated with St. Alban’s include Dr. Healey Willan (1880-1968), the so-called ‘Dean of Canadian composers’, the Wagnerian conductor, Sir Reginald Goodall (1901-1990), as well as the famed piano accompanist, Gerald Moore (1899-1987) .

Interior stained glass window, dedicated to Edward Marion Chadwick (left) and Fanny Chadwick (right). Photograph by Louise Marion.

Interior stained glass window, dedicated to Edward Marion Chadwick (left) and Fanny Chadwick (right). Photograph by Louise Marion.

The stained glass windows within the chancel of St. Alban’s, executed by the local firm of N. T. Lyon to Chadwick’s designs, are among the finest examples of their kind. The double hammer beam roof, the most costly and elaborate of medieval roofing techniques, carved out of pine and oak, is one of only two examples of its kind in Canada. The oaken stalls, built by the firm of Jones & Willis of Birmingham, with locally manufactured ornaments and financed through voluntary subscription, intended to accommodate the members of the Cathedral Chapter during corporate worship, are also unparalleled, as is the ornately carved Baptismal Font cover, which is entirely Canadian work.

St. Alban’s was finally given up as diocesan cathedral in 1935 by the will of Bishop Derwyn Owen (1876-1947). St. James enthusiastically revived its role as chief church, subsequently receiving formal cathedral designation. St. Alban’s continued to function as a viable downtown parish until the 1990’s. In 1964, the fledgling Royal St. George’s College, an Anglican independent school for boys with an emphasis upon the choral tradition, opened on the premises by arrangement of the bishop and the parish. Eventually, St. George’s purchased the property outright, with St. Alban’s continuing to function as a chapel for school services. Hundreds of boys attend a regular schedule of divine worship conducted to the liturgical standards of the Anglican Church of Canada within St. Alban’s, which, all things considered, is a most satisfactory use of this magnificent building, its mighty organ, and soaring, bright sacred space.

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