The eventful history of the Church of the Holy Trinity
Tucked beside the Eaton Centre and surrounded by high-rises stands a small church. Since its founding in 1847, the Church of the Holy Trinity’s focus on ministering to an ever-changing urban flock has regularly put it at the forefront of emerging social issues. The church reached out to the homeless and unemployed in the thirties, welcomed Vietnam War resisters and community activists in the 1960s, incubated sentiment for urban reform in the in the 1960s and 1970s, and encouraged the city’s nascent gay community to raise its voice in the 1970s and 1980s. Such stances have, over its century-and-a-half history, regularly created friction between Holy Trinity and the Anglican establishment, municipal officials, and real estate developers.
In the summer of 1845, Bishop John Strachan, head of the Anglican Church in Toronto, received a letter offering 5,000 pound sterling from an anonymous benefactress for the purpose of establishing a church. Among the stipulations attached was that it be named the Church of the Holy Trinity and that its pews be “free and unappropriated forever.” The latter was a radical suggestion at a time when Toronto’s three other Anglican churches, including St. James’ Cathedral, relied upon pew rentals as a major source of revenue. Although the anonymous donor’s intentions had never been to place limitations on the congregation’s composition, Strachan came to refer to Holy Trinity as the “Parochial Church of the Poor of Toronto.”
Strachan readily accepted the donation—an astronomical sum for that time—and the conditions. A site was selected near a fork in Taddle Creek on farmland donated to the Anglican diocese in the spring of 1845 by John Simcoe Macaulay. On the outskirts of town, the site was bordered by “treacherous swamps” to the south and by “tangled forest” to the north, as Eric Arthur described it No Mean (University of Toronto Press, 1986).
The Corfu-born and England-trained Henry Bowyer Joseph Lane was selected as architect in 1846. Still in his twenties at the time, Lane seemed destined for an esteemed architectural career in Toronto. He’d already designed Toronto’s first city hall, Little Trinity Church on King Street East, St. George the Martyr Church, major additions to Osgoode Hall, and other projects. But the dedication of Holy Trinity in late October 1847 proved to be Lane’s last public appearance, according to the Star‘s Donald Jones (January 25, 1986). The following month, Lane and his wife abruptly returned to England, where they lived out their days in obscurity.
The cruciform-shaped church was built in Gothic style with Hamilton limestone, white Suffolk brick, sandstone, and wood. The two landmark 80-foot turrets on the west end were, as C. Ian P. Tate writes in The Church of The Holy Trinity (1965), so prominent for many years that it was “said that vessels [approached] Toronto by taking bearings on the prominent towers.” The spacious and uncluttered interior was originally absent of almost all present-day ornamentation. With the walls alone bearing the weight of the roof, there was no need for pillars, leaving the lectern and altar visible from all seats.
In the mid-1850s, the building was altered through the addition of a William Hay–designed parochial school on the southeast corner of the main building. A boy’s school was established on the ground floor and the second floor accommodated the city’s first school for girls—eventually renovated to become a chapel. The rectory and the residence of the Reverend Dr. Henry Scadding were added to the site in the early 1860s.
The mystery surrounding the identity of the church’s anonymous benefactress was eventually solved decades after the church’s opening. Holy Trinity staff noticed a visitor from England closely examining the church’s architectural features and engaged him in conversation. He’d come to visit the church his step-mother had funded, he replied, and filled in the blanks in the history of the church’s origins. The daughter of a wealthy English family, Mary Lambert Swale, had followed Bishop Strachan’s work in Toronto. When she died, quite young, in 1844, she bequeathed the sum which allowed Strachan to build Holy Trinity. She had never intended that her largesse be kept secret. Her husband, the Reverend Hogarth Swale of Yorkshire, made that decision, fearful that when news of the substantial gift spread he would be inundated with similar requests.
Time passed and the city grew, enveloping Holy Trinity and its adjacent buildings. By 1900, farmland and forest had been replaced entirely by Eaton’s factories and warehouses besieging the church on almost all sides.
Harry Bruce described Holy Trinity’s setting in The Short Happy Walks of Max MacPherson (Macmillan, 1968). Terauley Street between Bay and Yonge—where the church was located—was essentially a back alley that “oppresses the spirit,” he said. Bruce added: “The cliffs of Eaton’s warehouses stare blackly down at her roof.” Nevertheless, he found the interior of the “squat and respectable” church to be an “astonishingly peaceful” respite amid the city bustle.
Bruce commented in particular on a wooden statue entitled Man. Its caption read: “The man of business, who becomes the victim of his impersonal thinking, needs to be liberated from a nameless dread of life.” This, he thought, seemed to capture the church’s distinct character.
From its opening in 1847, Holy Trinity established its “long tradition of social service to the city,” in Arthur’s words. The earliest indication of its distinctive character was perhaps in 1849 when St. James’ Cathedral burned and its congregation—composed of the upper crust of the colony’s social elite—worshipped at Holy Trinity. The next two years, while St. James’ was reconstructed, produced a fair share of friction with Holy Trinity’s more democratically-inclined parishioners.
Tate argues that Holy Trinity continuously adapted to meet the needs of a changing downtown and the pressing social issues of the day. During the Great Depression, the Reverend John Frank preached the Social Gospel, applying Christian principles to address social justice issues. Frank, his wife, and his congregants housed and fed the community’s unemployed and homeless, and established the production of “The Christmas Story” pageant in 1937, which continues as an inclusive annual tradition open to all.
Beginning in this period, Holy Trinity regularly lent its premises, and particularly the upper chapel, so fledgling congregations of diverse backgrounds had a place to worship until securing their own building. To the present day, such groups have included Coptic, Armenian, Japanese, and Hispanic congregations.
Holy Trinity’s “long history of innovative—critics would say maverick—approaches to church worship and outreach,” in Star reporter Tom Harpur’s words (May 28, 1977), was further strengthened when the Reverend C. James Fisk was appointed rector in 1962. Seeking to offer the membership greater influence in the running of the congregation, Fisk shared leadership with at least six part-time clergy selected from among the members.
Fisk believed, he once told a reporter, that Holy Trinity should welcome any person without their “beliefs and behavior” being questioned. Holy Trinity’s open-door policy eventually made it a haven for Vietnam War draft-dodgers, hippies, the city’s nascent gay community, the elderly, professors, and excommunicated priests. Responding to a journalist, one parishioner characterized the congregation as “unique.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a crowd of about 100 regularly attended the informal Sunday services—sitting in a circle, singing Pete Seeger-esque hymns to guitar accompaniment—and the church’s membership organized rallies in opposition to the Spadina Expressway, in support of gay rights, and countless other urban social causes. Religion was secondary, as one parishioner explained to a journalist: “The church services are regarded by some people as the least important part of this operation. I don’t really have any religion—nominally I’m an Anglican, I suppose. But I spend as much time around the square as the people who are religious.”
During those decades, Toronto was in the midst of the biggest construction boom in its history. City and Metro administrators accepted as given the logic of demolishing the old—historical houses, landmark buildings, and entire districts—in the name of jobs and progress (as defined by the real estate industry). A long-established neighbourhood was razed and rebuilt as the St. James Town high-rises; another was under threat of a planned freeway. The iconic new City Hall required obliterating Old Chinatown; a planned convention centre would come at the cost of Union Station.
In the mid-1960s, after years of encouragement from city officials, Eaton’s revealed long-awaited plans to redevelop its downtown factories and warehouses into an enormous commercial and residential complex. The plan called for closing off all interior streets in a 22.5-acre super-block bounded by Bay and Yonge Streets, and Dundas and Queen Streets, and for the demolition of most of Old City Hall to make way for a shopping mall and five high-rise towers. At this initial stage of an ever-changing plan, Holy Trinity would remain, but only because the department store had so far been unable to purchase the church property, as Mark Osbaldeston details in Unbuilt Toronto (Dundurn, 2008). City and Metro officials were ready to sell Old City Hall—historical preservation be damned—until real estate market conditions worsened and Eaton’s shelved its proposals.
With the Bronfman family’s Fairview Corporation as new lead partner, in May 1970, Eaton’s unveiled an altered plan for a 250-store shopping centre—an Eberhard Zeidler-designed galleria connecting Eaton’s and Simpsons department stores anchoring either end—high-rise towers, and 800 parking spots. The new proposal ensured the survival of Old City Hall but put Holy Trinity at risk of demolition since its property was vital to the execution of the Eaton Centre scheme.
Fisk and his congregation were thus placed in a powerful position, holding “an effective veto over a $200 million downtown development scheme” in the words of one reporter. They stood their ground against the powerful Eaton and Bronfman families, Mayor Bill Dennison, and many City and Metro politicians. Even the Anglican Diocese was prepared to disestablish the church to enable the municipality to expropriate the land.
As allies, the church counted upon a vanguard of reformers elected to Toronto city council in 1969 including William Kilbourn, John Sewell, Karl Jaffary, and David Crombie—some of whom were members of Holy Trinity and others had organized events there. This loose coalition of left-leaning reformers had been elected to office based on their community activism: seeking to have historical preservation and environmental concerns inform planning decisions, or leading neighbourhood residents’ associations against redevelopment schemes.
Mobilizing their congregation’s in-house professional expertise, Holy Trinity formed a seven-person development committee—chaired by lawyer Douglas Gibson—to negotiate with Fairview. The company’s president offered to relocate Holy Trinity congregation, touring the development committee through seven nearby downtown buildings, as Kilbourn recounts in an essay contained in his Toronto Remembered: A Celebration of the City (Stoddart, 1984): “One of the buildings shown, to their astonishment, was Massey Hall.”
In response to Fairview’s plans—as architect, activist, and member of Holy Trinity Gerald Robinson later explained—in January 1971, the church prepared its own counter-proposal for a pedestrian district and park surrounding Holy Trinity.
Little by little, agreement was reached on a number of points. Further alterations to the Eaton Centre plans ensured that Holy Trinity would not be demolished. Through a variety of land transactions, Fairview acquired the parcels it needed to complete their project and to create the church’s proposed pedestrian square. The developer also agreed to let Holy Trinity keep the two adjacent historical buildings if the church could raise the money necessary to move them a few feet west. The church did.
The main sticking point in the negotiations was Holy Trinity’s concern about how much sunlight Trinity Square would enjoy. “We have an obligation concerning the land,” Fisk told the Star (August 29, 1972). “It’s part of our ministry that we keep it open as a place where a person can come… We aren’t asking that the public square be bathed in sunshine all day. We just want at least the noon hour in the sun for people.” Fisk added: “The people should own something in the huge shopping complex.”
These negotiations, Katherine Govier recounted in the Globe and Mail (February 2, 1980), required experimenting with building models and lighting in the hopes of reaching an agreement on “a sunlight formula.” One rejected suggestion, she writes, even involved “mounting a prism on the side of one of the buildings, to bend sunbeams toward the enclosed spot.”
With negotiations dragging on for months, Mayor Dennison publicly complained that Holy Trinity was impertinently standing in the way of capital-P progress by quibbling over small details. With his business-as-usual approach to development, Dennison—and others at city hall—seemed incapable of understanding why parishioners cared so much. In interviews, Fisk and others specifically invoked their church’s history and tradition of social work—always adapting to the changing needs of the urban core—as evidence for their obstinacy.
To better understand the church and its membership, Star columnist Alexander Ross attended an October 1972 meeting at which they debated whether to ratify a compromise solution to the sunlight question that the development committee had reached with Fairview. Ross’ account was later republished in The Toronto Book (Macmillan, 1976).
The sunlight issue was debated with grave seriousness, he found, but also with an air of informality. As congregants took turns speaking, others snacked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken soup, or chili; and the discussion was occasionally interrupted when children playing in front of the altar squabbled or when newborns cried.
Comparing the meeting to that of a “rebellious union local,” Ross asserted: “It would have horrified Mayor Dennison if he could have seen it—offended his sense of order, freaked him out completely.” He continued:
The people in Trinity Square’s [sic] congregation are mostly not Bill Dennison’s kind of people. They tend to be the sort of citizens who fly ecology flags on the front porches of their houses, and sign anti-Viet Nam [sic] war petitions, and send their kids to free schools, and support the California lettuce-pickers, and put on freshly-laundered jeans to shop at Kensington Market on Saturday mornings, and let their kids paint creative graffiti on their kitchen walls, and play guitars and recorders and use the word ‘community’ a lot.
The gathering was almost evenly divided between those supporting the proposed compromise and those opposed to any concessions to their original demands. Alderman, activist, and future NDP MP Dan Heap criticized: “Our obligation to the people who live and work in downtown Toronto far overrides our obligation to give Eaton’s an 11 per cent return on investment, instead of just 10 per cent.” After nearly four hours, a vote narrowly approved the compromise. Ross observed bitter disappointment on the faces of some, but Fisk gathered his flock together to close the meeting. “Come on in!” he called. “Let’s feel our alienation for one another, as well as our closeness!” As the group joined hands in a circle and closed their eyes, Fisk added: “Let us go forth in peace. In the name of the Lord.”
Holy Trinity’s resistance to the Eaton Centre struck a blow in the name of historical preservation and people-scale urban development, resulting in a pleasant public square that continues to provide refuge from the city’s towers and traffic. Their success proved to be somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, however, in Govier’s assessment. As the Anglican Church establishment re-asserted influence over its rebellious parish—particularly after Fisk resigned in 1976—its seemingly endless array of extra-curricular social work and community organizing activities were curtailed. “Some were enraged,” Harpur wrote, for example, “that the church has been made available to homosexual groups worship services, and even the ‘blessing of unions’ between homosexual couples.”
Then, on May 9, 1977, an early-morning fire broke out in one of the Eaton’s warehouses awaiting demolition. The fire spread, causing $250,000 damage to the church, destroying Holy Trinity’s roof and several windows on the south side of the nave. The replacement roof featured an elaborate stenciled ceiling, painted by Holy Trinity congregants perched on 40-foot scaffolding. Further interior restoration work took place in the 1980s.
Subsequent negotiations in 1983 resulted in a three-way land transfer in which Fairview enlarged Trinity Square and built hundreds of units of social housing nearby on behalf of Holy Trinity—in buildings named for the church’s benefactress Mary Lambert Swale, and its socially conscious priest John Frank—in exchange for land lost to enable the construction of Bell Trinity Square. Holy Trinity also participated in a Cadillac Fairview–led project to build a 400-room hotel fronting on Bay south of Dundas. After a court battle confirmed that the church could lease the land necessary for the hotel, the deal was finalized in 1987.
The real estate projects that once threatened the destruction of the historic church enabled it to continue its social justice work with the poor—including erecting a memorial to the homeless who’ve died on the streets of Toronto—and the marginalized, including an early and active role in supporting the gay community throughout the 1980s and to the present day. “Today Holy Trinity is in a strong position geographically,” the church’s website explains, “to minister to the urban core. Holy Trinity strives to work with others in the community to uproot the systemic injustice which entraps the weakest members of our society.”
Other sources consulted: Proposed Fairview-Eaton’s, Trinity Church Development (City of Toronto Development Department, 1972); John Sewell, David Crombie, William Kilbourn, and Karl Jaffary, eds., Inside City Hall (A.M. Hakkert Ltd., 1971); and articles from the Toronto Star (April 17, 1982; October 2 and November 28, 1987; and March 6, 1993).