Historicist: The Church on Cecil Street
Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
Spadina doesn’t change, but is always changing. If you compare the present-day streetscape with the archival record—or the images in Rosemary Donegan’s Spadina Avenue (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985)—you notice that many of the early buildings remain. But the neighbourhood has evolved, reshaped by an influx of Jewish, then Chinese, immigrants. Occupants changed, each adapting their buildings to new uses, burying the past beneath renovations or a new coat of paint.
Rarely are the layers of the neighbourhood’s social and cultural history visible, unless, for example, a Chinatown establishment’s renovation uncovers a former Jewish shopkeeper’s original signage. But tucked on Cecil Street, a side street south of College, beside a community centre’s front door, a fading cornerstone carved with Hebrew lettering sits right beside Chinese-language placards advertising the centre’s services for current residents. It’s a strange juxtaposition that hints at the building’s past lives. Built for the Church of Christ (Disciples) in 1891, the building has been a synagogue, Chinese Catholic Centre, headquarters for a gay rights group, and a community centre.
Photo of Church of Christ, Cecil Street, circa 1912 by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2366.
On Sunday, March 15, 1891, Toronto’s Church of Christ (Disciples) congregation—a mainline Protestant sect with beliefs based on the content of the New Testament—inaugurated their new church at 58 Cecil Street.
“Our sense of venture, and yet of some attainment, was then very strong,” a member of the church, Reuben Butchart, wrote in his official history, The Disciples of Christ in Canada since 1830 (1949). “At last we had become a people, with a church home of our very own. Gone were the memories of ill-equipped mission hall days, and a revamped church building.”
Prior to the new structure, the congregation had drifted in the late 1880s. They had met first at the Occident Hall at Queen and Bathurst. Then, with membership swelling to fifty-four, they rented a vacant church building at Denison and Queen. With 161 members by early 1887, the church bought a lot on Cecil Street and a building committee was established to ensure a proper setting for worship.
The local architectural firm of Knox & Elliott, who’d recently designed a church for the Disciples in Bowmanville, was hired. Wilm Knox and John Elliot’s other early work in the 1880s and 1890s included residences, row houses, and even the Toronto Edison Electric Light Company transformer station at Bay and Dundas. Their grandest commission was the Confederation Life Building at Richmond and Yonge, built in an architectural style then in vogue with Torontonians. The architects chose to use the same Romanesque Revival style for the church on Cecil Street.
Article from the Globe, March 14, 1891.
The imposing white brick building stood square, sixty-five feet by sixty-five feet, but was asymmetrical with large gables on the south and west side, each housing stained glass windows under a slate roof. The exterior ornamentation was reasonably restrained. The ninety-five-foot tower at the southwest corner that dominated the building was described by Patricia McHugh in the Toronto Architecture: A City Guide 2nd edition (M&S, 1989) as, “dramatically decorated with conical top and circular turret buttresses.”
The interior featured a high-domed roof supported by arches throughout. The dome, from which was hung a large burnished brass chandelier, was surrounded on three sides by an ample second-storey balcony overlooking the gathering space below, where seats were arranged in concentric circles radiating from the platform. The building was completed in March 1891, though a schoolroom would be added by 1908 and an organ installed in 1915. It was a most suitable venue for observing the Lord’s Supper each Sunday, and hosting the regular Wednesday evening prayer meetings.
The Church of Christ, as Butchart put it, was “a ‘mission’ church, with the duty and hope of laying deep foundations for the kingdom in Toronto.” In other words, they sought converts and, free of denominational dogma, the church accepted all who professed their belief in Jesus. Through the years the congregation continued to grow, with each pastor’s success measured, in Butchart’s official history, by the number of baptisms.
But as the congregation grew, the surrounding neighbourhood was undergoing massive changes. While Toronto’s population increased from 156,000 to 631,000 between 1901 and 1931, as Rosemary Donegan points out in Spadina Avenue (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985), the city’s Jewish population grew by a much larger proportion, from 3,000 to 45,000, over the same period.
Once largely confined to the reception area of The Ward, the growing Jewish immigrant population was now relocating to Spadina Avenue. The Disciples would’ve found few receptive ears or eager converts among the new neighbours. Since their arrival from Eastern Europe, the city’s Jewish community had a well-earned reputation for actively resisting the multitude of soapbox preachers and store-front evangelists that loitered in their neighbourhood.
Interior detail by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
Butchart seemed disappointed by the demographic shift. He wrote somewhat boorishly: “[W]e had discovered in Cecil St. that we were a mere island, surrounded by a sea of European faiths and tongues. Our home missionary territory had become foreign-missionary ground. What we wished was to make a building and cause where Ontario young people could find a welcome.”
And so, seeking to decamp, the congregation merged with the Wychwood Church of Christ, a former satellite mission of the Cecil Street church. Perhaps the last large gathering at 58 Cecil Street was the meeting on January 11, 1921, when the resolution to merge was passed. Two years later, a new church called the Hillcrest Church of Christ (Disciples) was built on the Wychwood site at Helena Avenue and Vaughan Road.
They weren’t the only Christian congregations packing up. Around the corner, the Spadina Avenue Congregation Church had merged with another local Presbyterian church because of dwindling membership. They sold their large white brick building (at 327-329 Spadina Avenue) to the Beis Harness Anshei England for $70,000 in 1921. With renovations by architect B. Swartz—funded through a seat sale to its members, as was the common practice for church construction—it was inaugurated as the Hebrew Men of England Synagogue in August 1922 (but it would burn to the ground in 1960).
The Church of Christ followed suit and sold the building on Cecil Street to a Jewish congregation for $20,000 in July 1922 and, as Butchart said, “The Old and New Testaments were reversed on that property.”
Detail of the interior plaques by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
At this time, “[t]he majority of the synagogues in Toronto,” Stephen A. Speisman writes in The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (McClelland and Stewart, 1979), “were of the landsmanshaft type,” meaning they were ethnically homogenous based on country, district, or—in the case of Poles—towns of origin. Such was the case of the Ostrovtker congregation, founded in The Ward in 1908 and named for the city of Ostrowiec in Poland. As a tiny congregation, the Ostrovtker shul met in the homes of early members, according to Cyril Gryfe in the March 2008 issue of Shem Tov: Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada (Toronto).
Such geography-based synagogues were more than communities for worship. They were fraternities, offering opportunities for socializing in a familiar setting with others of a similar background. They were also de facto settlement houses where more established members eased the transition of often destitute newcomers, trusting each other with interest-free loans, caring for the ill, or raising funds in times of economic difficulty. The Ostrovtzer congregation even incorporated its desire to assist new arrivals into its official name: Tifereth Israel Bikur Cholim Anshei Ostrovtze (which Gryfe translates as “The glory of Israel, caring for the sick, the people of Ostrovitz”).
With time and increasing membership, the congregation aspired to build their own synagogue. But buying the Cecil Street church proved a more practical solution and they did so through the tried-and-true fundraising practice of a seat sale.
Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
In 1922, the building was renovated to bring the structure more in line with synagogue design. In particular, the imposing steeple and bell tower was altered and capped by a modest dome. The Ostrovtzer Synagogue’s inauguration was celebrated with the installation of two immense marble plaques, etched with gold Hebrew lettering, to honour all those whose donations had made the building possible. The markers remain in the exact spot to this day, in the lobby of the community centre.
For the next three decades, the Ostrovtzer shul, and other congregations or institutions were part of a vibrant Jewish culture that thrived along Spadina and in Kensington Market. The garment industry prospered—albeit with often abysmal conditions for workers—and kosher diners lined the avenue. The Standard Theatre provided Yiddish entertainment (before transforming into the Victory Burlesque and a Chinese theatre in later lives).
Enjoying growing affluence, Donegan notes, many in the Jewish community moved north to Forest Hill, Bathurst Avenue, or scattered into the suburbs. The Ostrovtzer congregation dwindled and left Cecil Street in the 1950s. The congregation was eventually absorbed with North York’s Shaarei Tefillah Congregation.
Exterior detail by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
Spadina Avenue’s newest residents had charted a similar past to the Jewish community. The city’s earliest Chinese residents—many of whom operated hand laundries—had been scattered across town. But with a growing population—in spite of the federal government’s particular antagonisms towards Chinese immigrants—The Ward became the first discernible Chinese neighbourhood with a growing number of groceries, shops, and fraternal organizations.
With plans to build a new city hall in the mid-1950s, the municipality vacated the city’s first Chinatown. With residents and businesses relocating to the north and west, a new Chinatown developed around Spadina and Dundas. “Spadina,” Donegan notes, “has become about as Chinese as it once was Jewish.”
The former synagogue on Cecil Street was acquired by the Catholic diocese and became the Chinese Catholic Centre by the mid-1960s. Such Christian institutions had always been important focal points in Toronto’s Chinese neighbourhoods, serving both an ecclesiastical role, and helping acculturate new immigrants through services such as language classes. By the 1970s, however, a Catholic priest observed in Richard H. Thompson’s Toronto’s Chinatown (AMS Press, Inc., 1989) that his Chinese congregation was “mostly educated and well-to-do and come from all over Metro Toronto.”
The Chinese Catholic Centre’s existence at 58 Cecil Street coincided with a period of rapid growth in the city’s Chinese population. The Chinese population was 2,900 in 1950, according to Dora Nipp’s contribution to Robert F. Harney’s Gathering Place (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985), and had reached 15,700 by 1971. It would grow exponentially to 120,000 by the 1980s. For one reason or another, the Chinese Catholic Centre had relocated by the early 1970s, and 58 Cecil Street—now unconsecrated—next became home to the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT), one of the city’s earliest gay rights groups.
Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.
The organization, which had George Hislop as its president for its entire existence, used the building—Rick Bébout recalls—for “doing everything from lobbying to social work to public education.” Visitors to the centre were impressed with the building’s “high dome and…great brass chandelier,” and were disappointed that due to inadequate parking, CHAT couldn’t host dances at the location. The organization splintered, left 58 Cecil Street for offices elsewhere by late 1972, and had ceased to exist entirely by the late 1970s.
“[A]fter years of desultory use” for much of the 1970s, in McHugh’s words, 58 Cecil Street was acquired by the city in the late 1970s and entered its current incarnation as the Cecil Street Community Centre (or just the Cecil Community Centre). The structure was gracefully altered once again by Matsui Baer & Vanstone in about 1978.
Although the immense marble plaques with their gold Hebrew lettering remain exactly where they were installed, the balcony now houses a Chinese-language lending library. The meeting area below can host weddings, community meetings, or regular language classes. Benches on the grounds, in the shade of mature trees, offer a quiet sanctuary away from the bustle of Spadina. The Chinese placards and cornerstone carved in Hebrew are now joined by a Heritage Toronto plaque, unveiled on the site on May 10, 2010.
In over a century of existence, 58 Cecil Street has spent thirty years as a revival church, thirty as a synagogue, and thirty as a secular community centre. In each of these lives it has been appropriated and adapted, remade as the neighbourhood evolved. Constant change has been the enduring legacy of 58 Cecil Street—and of the city around it.
Thanks to the folks at Heritage Toronto for idea for the column and for sharing some research suggestions.