St. Basil's Catholic Church

John Velocci

Joined October 2012

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St. Basil’s Catholic Parish at the University of St. Michael’s College in downtown Toronto, Canada

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St. Basil’s Church, built in 1856, is the founding church of the Congregation of St. Basil in Toronto, the college church of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and a parish church serving a large local congregation.
St. Basil’s Church was built as part of St. Michael’s College. When the College was established by Monseigneur Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel, the second bishop of Toronto, he entrusted it to the Basilian Fathers who began immediately to look for a site where they might build. Captain, the Honourable John Elmsley, son of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Upper Canada, a convert to Catholicism and a strong supporter of Catholic education, offered to donate land for the construction of the new institution. However, he had one condition, one that the Bishop and the Basilians were quick to accept. The College should include a parish church.

The four lots that Elmsley donated were part of his estate that lay north of the city beyond clover-covered fields that rose gently to a low hill, hence its name, Cloverhill. The Basilians purchased four more lots at a cost of $2,000. The College site lay east-west across the brow of the hill at the estate’s southern boundary. The Church opened for worship on September 14, 1856, the College on the following day. The September 26 issue of the Catholic Mirror, describes the building. “Approaching from the south [the city] across open fields the building, constructed of white brick of the highest quality makes a most favourable impression. The College and Church are the finest in this section of the Province being distinctly superior as to situation and appearance to the University and the Colleges that surround them in the same locality”.

The general design of the building was in the hands of Father J. M. Soulerin, the first Rector of St. Michael’s College, in consultation with his Basilian Superior back in France and the Bishop. Details and construction were in the hands of a local architect, William Hay (architect). The architecture of the church was based on 13th century pointed English Gothic, with pointed arches above the windows and a gabled roof, a style favoured by Soulerin. At the official opening St. Basil’s Church was fulsomely described as, “One of the finest collegiate churches in North America. Its appearance both within and without is beautiful and though much is yet to be done before it will stand forth in the fullness of the original design it gives even now a fine conception of its intrinsic architectural merit.”

The initial architectural plan for the College, including St. Basil’s Church, proved to be beyond the funds initially raised for the purpose. The cornerstone was officially laid on Sunday September 16, 1855; and over the following year the Basilians and a group of laymen headed by Elmsley strove mightily to raise the ₤12,000 (about $20,000), estimated construction costs. They were unsuccessful, however, and the plan was scaled back in line with available funds. Compared to today’s figures, construction costs seem unreal. The overall cost amounted to some $12,000, which included the building itself, attendant stables, fencing and some furnishings. Records show the architect’s fee was $1,000; the painting contract came to $988. The final cost of the excavation was only $464, the initial estimate having been defrayed by selling the excavated sand that was found to be suitable for use in mixing concrete.

The original St. Basil’s Church was small, more accurately described as “very lofty, very short and definitely unfinished”. At its consecration the Church was 100’ in length and 50’ in width, with stone foundation walls some 30” thick tapering to 13” above which were double brick walls with small buttresses topped by a gabled roof with dormers. The initial brick work was done in Flemish bond style, the later brick work in English bond style. The ceiling was of open timber construction, the great oak beams visibly supporting the roof. A small sanctuary was formed by a semi-circular apse extending out from the north wall. It contained an altar and several choir stalls enclosed by a semi-circular communion rail. Three glass windows behind the main altar and the two side altars were covered with some colored material, probably red bunting. There were two side aisles but no centre aisle. Seating was provided by rough wood benches. The Stations of the Cross were simple etchings. The church had a small manual organ, purchased for $800.00. At the rear (south) end of the nave a wooden partition extending from the side walls separated the nave from small vestibule area that contained two confessionals, one on each side wall. The entrance from the south façade consisted of a high wooden platform reached by two steep flights of stairs from both the east and west sides down to ground level. There was no choir loft or steeple.

Following Elmsley’s death in 1863, at his request his heart was entombed in the western wall of the church just outside the sanctuary where it remains today. (His body is entombed in the crypt beneath the altar at St. Michael’s Cathedral, the construction of which he had helped finance.)

At its opening in 1856 St. Basil’s Church served some 50 local Catholic families and a student body of about 100, mostly boarders. It was the only church north of the cathedral. The parish boundaries extended from Carlton Street on the south then north past York Mills and Burwich to the northern boundary at Pine Grove. The eastern boundary was marked by Parliament Street on the east; extended westward to Lambton Mills and then further west on Dundas West, a very large area but one with few Catholic families. Over the next half century Toronto’s Catholic population expanded, mainly from Irish immigration. So too did the St. Basil’s parish congregation and the Church. As its congregation grew St. Basil’s was twice expanded and refurbished.

The first expansion occurred in 1877-78 when the Church was enlarged on the north end by some 50’. The original apse was removed and a new larger sanctuary plus a sacristy constructed. A new high altar was installed, which remained until 1943, and a skylight added above it. The original high altar was moved to the side altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the west side of the sanctuary and a similar side altar dedicated to St. Joseph erected on the east side. Stained glass windows began to be installed. A trefoil stained glass window was created above the main altar depicting St. Michael, St. Basil and St. Charles Borromeo, the latter being the patron saint of Fr. Charles Vincent, who at the time was both the Rector of St. Michael’s College and the Pastor of St. Basil’s. The two windows above the side altars were also provided with stained glass. These were later bricked up, although their outline can be seen from the exterior. Stained glass was also installed in some of the windows on the west wall. The statue of the Sacred Heart, an earlier gift of Mrs. Elmsley that had stood above the tabernacle over the main altar was moved to the west wall, where it continues to stand. A small pulpit, the gift of two sisters in the parish, was erected inside the altar railing. It was later moved into the nave on the west side. A Pieta statue was added outside the sanctuary on the east wall. New Stations of the Cross, the work of Lucille Chivot, a noted French painter of religious subjects, were installed. New vestments, liturgical vessels and a sanctuary lamp were purchased, their cost met by donations from parishioners and College alumni. The completion of this expansion, renovation and refurbishment was celebrated in 1878 on the occasion of the silver anniversary of Vincent’s ordination to the priesthood. Vincent was one of the four Basilians who had come to Toronto more than a quarter of a century earlier to help found St. Michael’s College. At the time a deacon, he was ordained in 1853; and since 1861 had served as Rector of St. Michael’s College and Pastor of St. Basil’s Church.

The late 1880s saw further expansion and refurbishment of St. Basil’s under the direction of Father Laurence Brennan. A St. Michael’s College alumnus, Brennan was the third pastor of St. Basil’s and the first who was not the College Rector. During his pastorate, which covered more than 20 years, St. Basil’s was expanded a second time to meet the needs of a growing congregation. This second expansion involved the south façade and produced the church’s exterior form that continues to this day.

The original south facade with its partial tower was demolished to make way for a 40’ extension. This provided for an enlarged vestibule, a choir loft, a new south façade with a rose window, and a proper tower with a slated-covered steeple topped by a Celtic cross. In 1953, the slate was replaced by the current copper sheathing. The east side entrance, now primary, was provided with a pointed overhead arch and granite columns on both sides. The expanded vestibule was given a proper entrance to the nave. Three doors were installed in a wooden frame of tracery and overhead glass windows. Inside, the original wooden sanctuary floor was replaced with tile and the benches with pews. The cost of the pews was partially financed by offering a reserved pew in perpetuity to a family that donated $500. A new organ was installed. In 1892, these improvements were celebrated in conjunction with the College’s golden jubilee.

Shortly thereafter a proper church bell was purchased for $800.00. It first rang on Christmas Day, 1895. In this period, the basement student chapel was expanded to the south and refurbished including the installation of stained glass windows. To mark the first anniversary of Father Brennan’s death, in 1906 a west wall stained glass window of Christ blessing the children was erected and dedicated. A proper heating system was installed in 1907 and in 1911 electric lighting. Renovation in 1919-21 saw the open timber roof enclosed with a wood and plaster vaulted ceiling. At this time the stained glass in the dormer windows was removed; and the two side altars were moved back in line with the main altar. As part of the 1944-45 renovations the main altar and two side altars were replaced with new ones each having front and sides faced with Italian marble.

Following the 1960s post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, the sanctuary underwent a major change. While remaining in place the three altars ceased to be used for the celebration of the Eucharist (Mass). The sanctuary railing and choir screens were removed, as was the pulpit in the nave. The sanctuary floor was raised with four steps leading up from the nave to an altar facing the congregation. In 1980 this altar was replaced by a more permanent one dedicated to the memory of a parishioner, Colin P. O’Shea, was installed along with a matching ambo and commentator’s stand. In 1981, a small shrine of St. Basil was added in the vestibule to commemorate the parish’s 125th anniversary.

In the most recent renovations, (2014–15), several pews at the rear of the nave have been removed to create space for a baptistery area and a new baptismal font has been installed. This area also includes a Reconciliation Room constructed from the wood taken from an old confessional. The statues of the Sacred Heart and the Pieta have been moved to the rear of the nave. The Stations of the Cross have been cleaned, placed behind glass in frames and top lit. A new sound system and new more energy efficient lighting have been installed. The carpeting in the sanctuary has been removed to expose the earlier marble flooring at the front of the sanctuary. The marble has been polished and new carpeting installed behind at the rear of the sanctuary. A new simpler wooden main altar has been installed along with a matching wooden ambo and lectern.

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