The West Toronto Junction

Much of St. Cecilia’s parish history is interwoven with the development of the West Toronto Junction area, the construction of the railways and the wave of Irish immigration during and following the great Irish famine.  In the 1840’s, Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine began to arrive at the docs of Toronto port.  Bishop Michael Power dedicated himself to the care and comfort of the sick arrivals housed in the dock front freight sheds.  In 1847, Bishop Power succumbed to the typhus fever which was sweeping the immigrant population.

The 1880s were pivotal growth years for the West Toronto Junction due to the railway construction boom.  These of the early railway lines joined just north of Dundas and Keele Streets, giving the area its name, Junction.  The construction, maintenance and operations of the railway demanded a large labour force and created an employment boom that drew people to the area.  The area became a favourite destination for Irish immigrants.  At the time, the area was predominantly Presbyterian in faith as were the railway employees.  Nonetheless, Mr. Whyte, General Superintendent of CPR in 1885, allowed a station waiting room to be used for Catholic services as there was no Catholic church in the area.

The spiritual needs of the people were ministered to by Dean Cassidy, Father Joseph McBride, Father P. McPhillips and Father J. Carberry.  Every Sunday mass and devotions were held at various venues over the years before the establishment of St. Cecilia’s parish. Every Sunday, over 20 people attended mass celebrated by Monsignor J.J. McCann and Father L. Minhand in the front parlour of Mr. John Gunning’s house (199 Medland Street); ten people received the sacrament of baptism there. According to the late Albert McGovern, a long time parishioner of St. Cecilia’s and resident of the Junction, Sunday mass was also held at a private home on Franklin Avenue; and some Catholics in the Junction area traveled the two miles by hand-car along the rail road tracks to the nearest church, St. Helen’s on the south west corner of Lansdowne Avenue and Dundas Street, in what was then the suburb of Brockton.

In 1888, the first mission Church was opened in the Junction area.  According to a notice in the Irish Canadian (a Toronto Catholic newspaper), Vicar –General Rooney, the Administrator of the Archdiocese, blessed St. Mary’s School on Edwin Avenue (Dundas and Dupont Streets) on Sunday October 14. The schoolhouse could serve both as a church and school for the Catholics in the area. An Altar was placed within the wooden building and Monsignor McCann was appointed pastor.

Later that same year, realizing the needs of a growing Catholic population, Monsignor McCann started a drive to raise money for the purchase of land on Edwin Avenue for the construction of a church and a new Catholic school.  Although a church was not built on the land acquired, in 1890, a new brick schoolhouse was erected in place of St. Mary’s. It was named St. Cecilia’s Catholic School (and has been renamed St. Rita’s C.S.). Sunday Mass continued to be held in this school until the establishment of the Parish.

The Establishment of the Parish

In March of 1895 His Grace, Archbishop John Walsh established the Parish of St. Cecilia. Bloor Street marked the southern boundary, the Humber River the most western one, while Washington Street (this is thought to be Eglinton Avenue West today) marked the northern boundary. The eastern boundary was a jagged line running down Weston Road, to Old Weston Road, then across to Davenport Road and south to Bloor Street. Father William Bergin (also spelled Berrigan), from St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, was appointed pastor of the parish. Thanks to the generosity of the new and growing Catholic population, Father Bergin was able to purchase a Presbyterian church located on the south west corner of Pacific Avenue and Annette Street to serve as an interim place of worship until a new church could be built. The parish took possession of the church on April 28, 1895 and it was promptly converted for Catholic worship.

The humble wooden frame structure was dedicated in February of 1896 by his Grace the Archbishop of Toronto. At the Dedication ceremony, extra chairs were added along the pews and in the aisles but many parishioners and Presbyterian observers still had to stand. According to an article in the Catholic Register on February 6, 1896, the inside of the church was entirely remodelled:  a white and gold altar had been placed in the easterly arched recess; confessionals of Gothic design installed; an organ loft graced the west end and; a basement had been built under a portion of the church and a heating unit was acquired for winter comfort. The church seated 350. The architects commissioned for the renovation were Post & Holmes and the contractor was Thos. Wright of Toronto Junction. The interim structure was used until 1911 and doubled as a school until 1900 when the final St. Cecilia’s school was completed.

 Construction and Dedication of the Parish

In September of 1901, Father Bergin was replaced by Father Eugene Gallagher.  It was Father Gallagher’s hard work and fundraising efforts which built St. Cecilia’s Church in which we worship today. A building committee composed of the following parishioners was created:  A.J. Heydon, Albert McGovern, the Messers, John Mullen, T.J. Smith and Michael Tobin.  In 1909, architectural plans were drawn up based on a recently constructed Catholic Church in Pickering.  Albert McGovern quoted Father Gallagher as saying during the planning stages: “We’ll never fill a church that size in 100 years.”  Because of the size of the planned church, it was necessary to buy adjoining lots. This caused some delay since one lot owner, Mr. Greenwood, was living there and was reluctant to sell. Eventually he and his neighbour did sell and the two lots were acquired.

The cornerstone of the church was laid on November 14, 1909. Much of the labour was provided by the local parishioners. The church was completed in two years.  It was opened and blessed but Monsignor McCann on September 10, 1911. The total cost of the church was approximated at $55,000.00. The Reverend Father Finn of the Paulist Fathers and his choir sang during the formal dedication of the church. The choir was popular at the time and is considered the predecessor of the St. Michael’s Choir.

Architecturally, St. Cecilia’s Church compliments the area and other buildings even today; at the same time, its bulk and high steeples make it a definite landmark. Archdiocese records describe the building as a plain symmetrical version of Gothic style. For better visibility from the aisles there are no pillars, the ceiling of pointed arches is a classic feature of Gothic design symbolizing fingers rising upwards to God.

Interior Decoration and Beautification of the Church

Father Gallagher left St. Cecilia’s Parish in 1912 and passed away on October 29, 1913. In January 1913, Monsignor J.P. Treacy was appointed pastor of the Parish where he remained for 33 years until his death on November 23, 1946. During his tenure at St. Cecilia’s many of the following noted aspects of the interior were completed.

In 1917, the interior of the Church was painted buy a famous artist of the time, Mr. P.C. Brown at the cost of $2,500.00. Paintings of the twelve apostles decorated the back wall of the sanctuary (and have since been painted over). Mr. Brown was also responsible for painting the heavenly choirs of angels on the ceiling in various attitudes of adoration, depiction of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the western wall of the sanctuary and of the Resurrection on the eastern wall. Still visible today are the Ascension of Jesus on the forward ceiling on the south side and the Coronation of Our Lady which appear on the opposite panel. Above the stained-glass windows that grace the east and west walls of the main body of the church, Mr. Brown completed twenty-four paintings symbolic of the Christian virtues. Originally painted above Saint Joseph’s Altar was the Transfiguration and over Our Lady’s Shrine the Assumption. Also a portrait of Saint Cecilia could be viewed from the gallery and on either side of her portrait were historical paintings and representing respectively, Saint Augustine landing in England, and Saint Patrick preaching to the Celts. These have since been painted over. In 1957, the decorations, murals and paintings that grace the walls of St. Cecilia were renewed by the son of the original artist. They remained essentially the same with the above noted exceptions.

The statue of the Blessed Virgin was purchased in May. 1911 for the church by the children of St. Cecilia’s School. The pupils raised $64.00 by saving their self-denial money during lent. Later that same year, two bells were christened and hung in the steeple: the larger is named Cecilia and the smaller Mary. Back then, the bells rang in the morning, at noon and in the evening announcing the time for the Angelus to commemorate the Incarnation. The Catholic Register noted that the new pipe organ, manufactured by Cassavant in Quebec, was blessed and played for the first time on Easter Sunday 1915. It was installed at a cost of $5,000. At the celebration, Archbishop Neil McNeil was escorted into the church by the Knights of St. John, and he administered the solemn blessing in the presence of Monsignor Whelan, other clergy and 1200 people.

In 1916 or 1917, a marble altar rail, and a new mosaic tile and marble floor in the sanctuary were installed at the cost of $2 600.00. (The majority of the altar rail was removed in 1965. Today only the sections in front of the east and west side altars remain).  In alcoves on the western and eastern side of the church are transept altars, shrines of the Sacred Heart and Saint Rita, respectively. These were constructed in 1926. His Eminence Cardinal Raphale Merry Del Val donated the statue of Saint Rita to the Parish.

Until 1916, it is presumed the pastors of St. Cecilia resided at various locations. Two noted in various sources were the Sacred Heart Orphanage near St. Joseph’s Hospital on Sunnyside Avenue and a house at 781 Keele Street just south of Humberside Avenue. The rectory which stands today was completed in February 1916 at a cost of $13 184.00. The architect was J. Craven.

In the late 1920’s, three white marble altars were acquired. The one which graces the high altar was a gift from Mrs. Alexandra Heydon, in memory of her husband. The white marble statue of Saint Cecilia which stands above the Tabernacle was a gift to the Parish from His Eminence Cardinal Rampolla. The altars were consecrated by Archbishop McNeil on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1928. Smaller white marble altars also grace the east and west sides. The east altar is in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the west altar in honour of Saint Joseph. Also in 1928, Bishop Alexander McDonald blessed the newly acquired statue of Saint Cecilia which graces the steeple tower on the exterior of the church.

In 1932 the church purchased the white marble statues of Saint Patrick and Saint Anthony which stand between the sanctuary and the side altars on marble pedestals. Parish and Archdiocese records do not record the purchase or installation of the Stations of the Cross. They are thought to date back to when the church was first opened in 1911. The polychrome Stations of the Cross are made form plaster and have ornate Gothic style frames. The earliest stained glass windows date from the original opening of the church, the latest was installed in 1972. The majority of the windows were made by N.T. Lyon Glass Co. of Toronto.

Loretto Sisters Convent
St. Cecilia’s Parish

The Loretto Sisters arrived in Canada in 1847. Their purpose was to provide a Catholic education for the children in Toronto and the vicinity. Upon arrival, Bishop Power engaged the Sisters to care for the Irish immigrants arriving in Toronto suffering from “ship fever and hunger.” In the late 1880’s, the sisters began teaching in parishes around Toronto including St. Mary’s School in what would become the Parish of St. Cecilia.

In a 1920 letter to parishioners requesting financial support for the purchase of a house for the sisters, the St. Cecilia’s Convent Committee described the Sisters’ work in the Parish: “the Loretto Sisters… have endeared themselves to you by their sweet acts of mercy, their splendid work in the moulding of our children’s education, the courageous spirit they have manifested in the face of hardships, yes—even insults—to carry on work which they have dedicated their lives.” The Committee asked that “every wage earner” in the Parish make six monthly installments (in addition to their regular contributions) to support a Convent situated within the community. Previously, the sisters commuted every day from the Loretto Abbey on Wellington Street (where the Globe & Mail building now stands) to perform their teaching duties.

In 1920, St. Cecilia’s Parish purchased the famous Heintzman house at 288 Annette Street on the north east corner of Laws Street for the Loretto Sisters. The 5 500 square foot mansion was built for the piano maker Theodore August Heintzman in 1891 by the architects Knox, Elliot and Jarvis (based in the United States). Although Mr. Heintzman passed away in 1899, his family remained in the house until 1920 when the Catholic Church took possession of it. The purchase price was $27 000.00. The Convent was formally opened and blessed on October 17, 1920 by Archbishop McNeil with Monsignor Kidd and St. Cecilia’s pastor, Monsignor Treacy assisting. By 1925, the sisters were teaching at three West Toronto Catholic Schools: St. Cecilia’s on Evelyn Avenue; St. Rita’s on Edwin Avenue and St. James Catholic School (Dundas and Jane Streets; opened in 1922). At the time there were 317 boys and 333 girls attending the schools. The sisters also ran a private school within the Convent, St Cecilia’s Academy. The Academy went up to grade 4. Music lessons were also taught by the sisters. In 1974 the Convent was formally closed.

St. Cecilia’s School

Historical records are somewhat confusing regarding the schools of St. Cecilia. The wooden framed schoolhouse on Edwin Avenue was originally named St. Mary’s School and renamed for Saint Cecilia in 1888, when it was rebuilt, and later was named for Saint Rita. There is a reference to a new separate school in the Toronto Junction in the Catholic Register on November 1, 1900. Presumably, this was the interim church of St. Cecilia’s which was converted into a two-room schoolhouse and was the predecessor of St. Cecilia’s School on the corner of Evelyn Avenue and Annette Street. It was likely at this time that the school on Edwin Avenue was name St. Rita’s to avoid confusion.

St. Cecilia’s School on Evelyn Avenue was opened on November 1, 1914. It was described a being simple in architecture of brick construction and contained “4 bright and airy classrooms.” The old schoolhouse behind St. Cecilia’s Church was torn down and remained a field of corn for many years.

Irish Traditions within the Parish

Irish missionary priests who had followed the post-famine immigrants from Ireland were instrumental in the founding of St. Cecilia’s Parish. Parish records show that 60 percent of early parishioners were Irish immigrants; and the first five pastors (1895-1968) were of Irish heritage. The Parish continues to cherish its Irish roots: 2002 marked the 24th annual concelebrated mass in honour of Saint Patrick. However, 24 years ago was not the first celebration at the parish in honour of the Saint. On March 18, 1895, a celebration in honour of Saint Patrick was held at the nearby Kilburn Hall (Dundas Street West and Heintzman Street). According to the Catholic Register’s April 4, 1895 edition, this was the first celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day in the West Toronto Junction. The proceeds from the celebration went to the church’s building fund.

The Mission of the Vietnamese Martyrs

In 1980, Father Peter Pham-Hoang Ba arrived in Canada from Rome. The Reverend Ba was placed at St. Cecilia’s as a visiting associate pastor for the Vietnamese community in Toronto. In 1986, a Vietnamese mission was established at St. James Catholic Church on Annette Street. In 1993, the congregation moved to its permanent home at St. Cecilia’s Church and brought over an assistant, Father Joseph Lam, to help tend the needs of the young parish.

Today, Father Joseph Lam is the head of the Vietnamese congregation which numbers approximately 5,000 parishioners with 2,000 in regular attendance. The Parish covers an area that spans the boundaries of greater Metropolitan Toronto. Active organizations within the Vietnamese community at St. Cecilia’s include: the Legion of Mary; an adult prayer group; the Catholic Youth Organization and; a children’s catechism class with over 200 pupils. The congregation is relatively young in age and therefore has high rate of marriages.

Special masses include celebrations of the Flowers in tribute to Our Lady, in May; in June, a pilgrimage to the Martyrs Shrine in Midland and; in November, the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs.

St. Cecilia’s Parish Today

Over the past 100 years, St. Cecilia’s Parish has become both a demographic and spiritual cornerstone of our community. In its early years, it was a place of worship as well as a meeting place for many Irish descendants and immigrants. Today, the Parish is home to a large Vietnamese congregation as well as a cross-section of Toronto’s multicultural descendants and new immigrants.

Both weather and age have taken their toll on the church’s structure. In 1895 the Catholic community had a great need to construct a place of worship. Today, the need exists to preserve the very church the community built. Fund-raising efforts to restore the once majestic structure swung into full gear in 1994. The daunting challenge facing what is now a relatively small parish is being met with faith and dedication.

In November 1994, Mr. Gordon Angus and his friend and assistant, Mr. Robert Mylchreest began restoration work on St. Cecilia’s 1915 organ. Estimates provided in previous years showed that the work costs would have totalled approximately $65,000.00.  Mr. Angus and Mr. Mylchreest undertook the task free of charge and full of spirit. In five months, their precision, hard work and dedication was fulfilled. Upon completion Father Turk, the pastor at the time, asked the Anglican gentlemen if there was some way the congregation might show their appreciation. Father Turk paraphrased Mr. Angus’ response; “If your congregation will increase in numbers and spirit to praise the Lord, this will be the best remuneration for our work.”