Incense and Song: Toronto’s Orthodox Churches

Bilibin illustrationA print by the great Russian illustrator, Ivan Bilibin (1876 – 1942) Orthodox Churches

We pass them often, even daily, on foot or by car, yet we remark their presence only mildly and store their images somewhere in the attic of our mind. I am speaking of the Orthodox churches whose exotic, even fairytale, shapes contrast with the mercilessly functional buildings of any North American city, especially including the vast swathes of identical houses that make up the inner and outer suburbs. All the more surprising, and delightful then, to discover or take a moment to notice these fabulous gems set down as if by an archangel’s hand, in the great urban sameness.

Orthodox churches are closely tied to the various waves of immigrants who have come to North America seeking a better life and a refuge from persecution. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Henry St., below College and just west of McCaul, was consecrated in 1920, but the building dates from 1896, when it was, ironically, the Holy Blossom Synagogue before it moved to its new quarters. And in a rather drab neighbourhood of warehouses, trailer trucks, chain link fences and a few bungalows is the magnificently brilliant Ethiopian Orthodox Church, exotic as ever despite its clean modernist outlines. The Ethiopians, one of Africa’s oldest Christian communities, are among our recent immigrants, whose presence is also manifest in the string of Ethiopian restaurants along Danforth Ave., from Greenwood Ave. to Monarch Park. The Ethiopian community in the GTA numbers 30,000 to 40,000.

The Greek Orthodox churches serving Toronto’s large Hellenic population are probably the most familiar, particularly after the charming romantic comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2001), whose ecclesiastical scenes were shot in Toronto’s St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Church on Bellwoods Ave.

Know your domes

The characteristic domes, easily the most arresting feature of these churches, come in a variety of shapes and elaborations. The most common are the onion domes (the German term Zweibeltürme is often used). St. Basil’s in Moscow is undoubtedly the most iconic and recognizable example, shown every time the Soviet Union was, or nowadays the Russian Federation is, in the news.St. Basil's, Moscow.

Unlike our essentially Protestant austerity (even in Catholic churches this side of the Atlantic), Orthodox churches often use imperial purple, gold, green and other hues of ancient Byzantium, sometimes in swirls and checks. A variant is the pear dome, with its flat sides tapering to a point, such as St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, The Ukraine.

St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, The UkraineThere is also the bud dome (below left) as in St. Andrew’s Church, Kiev, The Ukraine, and the so-called helmet dome (below right), without the onion dome’s bulge Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir (east of Moscow), c. 1160 (found here in Toronto on several churches).

The interior of an Orthodox churchinterior

The most splendid feature of an Orthodox church’s interior is undoubtedly the iconostasis, a screen, richly decorated with paintings and icons, that physically separates the sacred area where the bread and wine are consecrated; it can also be seen as a barrier between the mundane world and the spiritual world. Unlike Western churches, Orthodox churches generally do not have pews and the congregation stands during the services.

Orthodox services are rich in singing and incense. I attended a Coptic Mass in a Toronto church and was impressed by the creation of a sacred space enveloped in its own atmosphere and vibrating with choral singing. I also recently attended a Russian wedding and remarked on the beautiful, deep voice of the priest. The father of the bride informed me that priests undergo special voice training.

One last characteristic of Orthodox churches is the use of their graceful and esthetically pleasing writing systems. In addition to the Greek and Cyrillic (Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian) alphabets, churches are decorated with texts in the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, and in the gorgeous Ethiopic syllabary (each sign is a syllable). Lord Byron, in the year he lived in Venice, discovered the Armenian alphabet when he visited a monastery on San Lazaro Island. He fell in love with the beauty of this alphabet and began studying the language, however without much success.

Toronto Churches

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church,Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, 23 Henry Street, was built in 1922 as Beth Jacob Synagogue. In 1966, the building was purchased by the Russian Orthodox parish and, after renovations, was consecrated in 1969. The two tower domes and the central dome are surmounted by a variant of the Orthodox or Byzantine cross: the top bar represents the mocking inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (INRI in Latin), the second bar is the beam to which Jesus was nailed, the third bar is the footrest, which, according to one tradition (not this one), slants to upper left toward the repentant thief, St. Dismas, and downward to the right toward the unrepentant thief, Gestas.

The core of the original parish consisted mainly of Russian refugees scattered across Europe who immigrated to Canada in the late 1940s and held services in private homes and rented spaces downtown until acquiring the former synagogue on Henry Street. The church continues to be a centre for the Russian community.

The City of Toronto declared the building a Heritage Property in 1973.

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George -remodeledThe Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, 115 Bond Street (near Ryerson University) shares with Holy Trinity the history of having originally been a synagogue, in this case, the Holy Blossom Synagogue. The building was constructed in 1897 in the Judeo-Egyptian style, which has its roots in the 18th century and became popular in the 19th. European Jews were most likely seeking a diThe Greek Orthodox Church of St George,stinctive style for their synagogues, yet it may seem an ironic choice in view of the fraught relationship with Egypt as told in Exodus. This building on Bond St. is one of the few surviving synagogues in this style. It was designated a Heritage Property in 1976 by the City of Toronto.

The church was consecrated in 1938 after being remodeled in the Byzantine Revival Style, with helmet domes replacing the original domes, seen here in a photograph taken about 1900.

Above the main entrance is a splendid golden mosaic depicting, quite appropriately, St. George slaying the dragon. The interior of the church is decorated lavishly with traditional Greek icons and murals painted by monks from Mt. Athos.

Interior of St George’s Greek Orthodox ChurchInterior of St George’s Greek Orthodox Church

St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral

St Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox CathedraSt. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery crJust west of Kensington Market is St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, 406 Bathurst St, built in 1951 in the Cossack Baroque style. St. Volodymyr’s was inspired by St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery (Ukrainian: Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир), in Kiev (Kyiv). The Cossack or Ukrainian Baroque is characterized by a reduction in the complex, exuberant decoration seen in the Baroque of Western Europe, and by pear or bud domes, as in Toronto’s St. Volodymyr’s.

The Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour

Exterior (original Anglican church) of Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the SaviourThe Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour, 823 Manning Street, was from 1907-1966 St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church. This neighbourhood of Toronto is Seaton Village, named for John Colborne, Baron Seaton, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, 1828-36. Appropriate to a part of our city with such a long history, 2015 is the 100th anniversary of this parish, the oldest Russian Orthodox parish west of the Quebec border. Russian original Orthodox Church of Christ the SaviourThis photograph shows the original church at Royce Ave., near Dupont, in 1917. In the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution, so many parishioners left the church to follow the doctrines of Communism that the parish was dissolved and the Royce Ave. church was sold. In 1930 the remnants of the parish managed to buy a Lutheran church on Glen Morris Ave. One of the parishioners, Count Pavel Nikolaevich Ignatieff, Michael Ignatieff’s grandfather, raised money for the new church by giving lectures. Count George Ignatieff, Canada’s representative to the U.N., and Michael Ignatieff’s father, was also a parishioner. In 1947 the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister of Tsar Nicholas II, joined the parish, where she contributed icons and was very active in the social life of the community. She died in 1960. The Royal Ontario Museum donated to the church a 16th century painting of the Mother of God, which can still be seen today in the church on Manning Ave. In 1966 the Province of Ontario bought up buildings on Glen Morris, including the church, for use by the University of Toronto; it is now the University’s Studio Theater. In the same year, the parish purchased St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church, which became the present Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour. The church has a splendid iconostasis in gold. It retains the original Anglican stained glass windows, but has placed Russian icons in between them. The pews have been removed as is customary in Orthodox churches.

The Holy Resurrection ChurchHoly Resurrection ChurchRussian Orthodox church in EkutnaThe Holy Resurrection Church, 213 Winona Drive, is a very small Orthodox church, like those of Russian colonists in early Alaska. The founders of this church split off from the Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour after a dispute in 1970. It is very similar to this Russian Orthodox church in Ekutna AK, 24 miles northeast of Anchorage.

St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church

St Mary Armenian Apostolic ChurchSt. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church, 45 Hallcrown (Sheppard & Victoria Park), was consecrated in 1990 and has the characteristic pointed, hexagonal domes that immediately identify Armenian churches. St Hripsime Church, ArmeniaOther features of Armenian churches are the fact that the building is higher than long and has tall narrow windows. St. Hripsime Church in Armenia is the architectural model for St. Mary.

As any Armenian will tell you, with justifiable pride, within five minutes of knowing him or her, Armenia is the first Christian nation on Earth. The Armenian Patriarchate is also famous as a self-regulating entity under the Israeli “confessional system” in regard to marriage and divorce. The Armenian Patriarchate is charged with the guardianship of several important holy sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Valley of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Here is the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian:Lord’s Prayer in Armenian

St. George and St. Rueiss Coptic ChurchSt George and St Rueiss Coptic Church

St. George and St. Rueiss Coptic Church, 141 Bond Street (off Don Mills Rd, south of York Mills Rd.) was completed in 1995. This is a beautiful church of which Torontonians should be proud. Its white stone gleams in the sunlight, especially on those rare dry days when we experience an “Egyptian sky”.

The Copts (a word derived from the Greek aigýptios ‘Egyptian’ via Arabic qubt) constitute a sizeable minority in Egypt, about eight percent of a total population of 83 million, but are prominent in many professions and in business. An example is Boutros-Ghali who was Egypt’s foreign minister and later Secretary-General of the United Nations. Another 500,000 Copts live in Sudan, amounting to about one percent of the population. Because of long-standing and increasingly violent persecution in both Egypt and the Sudan, many Copts have sought refuge in Canada and settled in Toronto.

Most Orthodox churches do not recognize the authority of the Pope, and the Copts in fact have their own pope, Tawdros II, the 118th Pope of the Coptic Church, who is visiting Toronto in September 2014.

Coptic, a direct descent of Ancient Egyptian, is an extinct language that died out in the 17th century and is used for the liturgy in the Coptic Church. It is written in a form of the Greek alphabet. On the right is the modern Arabic translation.interior St George and St Rueiss Coptic ChurchInterior of St. George and St. Rueiss Coptic Church

No fewer than five Coptic churches are found in Toronto’s neighbouring municipality to the west, Mississauga, and one in Brampton, to the north. Once again, their almost otherworldly appearance astonishes us, especially in the context of a vast Canadian suburban environment. Two are most remarkable: Archangel Michael and St. Tekla Coptic Orthodox Church, 12091 Hurontario St., Brampton, and St. Mina and St. Kyrillos Coptic Orthodox Church, Dundas St. East, Mississauga.

Archangel Michael and St. Tekla                                                     St. Mina and St. Kyrillos 

Menbere Berhan Saint Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Cathedral

Toronto Menbere Berhan Saint Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo CathedralThe Toronto Menbere Berhan Saint Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Cathedral is located at 80 Tycos Drive (west of Dufferin, halfway between Lawrence and Eglinton). The Ethiopic liturgy is probably the most exotic among the Orthodox churches in singing, but also adds ululation, musical instruments, vestments and brilliant ceremonial umbrellas. Many examples of the liturgy from this church in Toronto are on YouTube and are a joy to hear; you may listen here and here.Ethiopian priests.

Christianity came to Ethiopia from Coptic missionaries from Egypt. Ge’ez is a Semitic language related to modern Amharic and the South Arabian languages. It is now extinct, but is still used as the liturgical language of the Ethiopic Orthodox Church. Here is the Lord’s Prayer in Ge’ez: Lord’s Prayer in Ge’ez

St Panteleimon Greek Orthodox Church 

St Panteleimon Greek Orthodox Church of Markhamsmall barrel vault church in Oia, Santoroni, Greece-St Panteleimon Greek Orthodox Church of Markham (11345-11425 Warden Ave., north of 407, south of 19th Ave.) is the best local example of a barrel vault Greek church, of the kind seen all over Greece. It sits in a field, totally unobstructed by any other buildings or houses.

Example of small barrel vault church in Oia, Santorini, Greece

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Demetrius 

Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St DemetriusThe Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Demetrius (3338 Lake Shore Blvd. West, Etobicoke, west of Kipling) is just barely in Toronto, only a block or two from the Mississauga border. Built in 1958, it is a magnificent example of the Ukrainian Baroque style.

Iconostasis in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St DemetriusIconostasis in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St Demetrius

St. Elias the Prophet Church

St. Elias the Prophet ChurchSt. Elias the Prophet Church,10193 Heritage Rd., Brampton. Built in 1995, constructed entirely of heavy wooden beams of Douglas fir sheathed in Western red cedar, it was a spectacular and beautiful addition to the architecture of the GTA. St George’s Church, Galicia, western UkraineIts construction was financed by two million dollars in donations collected over twenty-five years. The church was modeled on St. George’s Church in Drohobych, Galicia, in the western Ukraine, a surviving example of the 17th century Cossack or Boyko style.

Heartbreakingly, St. Elias the Prophet Church burned to the ground on April 4th, 2014. The fire apparently started in the basement, perhaps in a container of hot ashes left over from a ceremony the previous day. The blaze was soon out of control and the all-wooden structure was quickly engulfed in flames. After two-and-a-half hours all that was left was a smoldering skeleton of timbers.St Elias the Prophet Church burnedBefore the fire the church had contained dazzling icons and paintings. dazzling icons and paintingsAccording to its website, the church plans to rebuild in 2015, provided sufficient funds are available.Church of the Transfiguration of Kizhi

Miraculously, a number of ancient wooden churches have survived in Russia’s north, principally in Karelia, near Finland. A stunning example is the Church of the Transfiguration on the island of Kizhi in Lake Onega, built in the 17th century. UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site.

Cathedral of the Transfiguration

Cathedral of the Transfuguration,Not an orthodox church, but it is nevertheless topped with an impressive copper dome specially made in Moravia: the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Slovak Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic Church, 10350 Woodbine Ave., Markham. This multi-million dollar church has never opened since its completion because of an ecclesiastic dispute which has led to the bishop’s refusal to consecrate the altar. This is a terrible waste of a very beautiful church.

The turmoil and religious intolerance of the 20th century, and so far of this century, have displaced entire populations from their ancient homelands. These uprooted refugees will never return and their children born here become, to some extent strangers, without the emotions and memories that bind their parents to forests, mountains, streams, villages and ports. These images slowly grow dim with the passing years, in what was considered at first exile, but has by now become home. The Orthodox churches are often the core of each community where parishioners may sing to their hearts’ content, to create in this peaceful, tolerant land a little of the atmosphere of paradise with incense and a glimpse of the golden beauty of their version of heaven with icons and outlandish domes.

– Robert L. Fisher

This article is in WHAT’S HERE, in the section The City.


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