st anne

St. Anne’s resilient soul
Century-old church’s struggle to maintain building and relevancy

By Tom G. Kernaghan

St. Anne’s Anglican Church has endured bad weather, controversy, financial difficulties, and demographic shifts.

Now, as it approaches the 100th anniversary of its construction, the beautiful church that Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald once described as the “home for the soul of a wide neighbourhood,” is struggling to stay relevant.

“This was an Anglican neighbourhood when it was formed,” says Diana Schatz, who with her husband, Roy Schatz, has been an active member of St. Anne’s (270 Gladstone Ave.) since 1963, when the couple moved their family to what had been Mr. Schatz’s childhood community. “The neighbourhood has changed; the congregation is small.”

Estimating a current congregation of 150 families, as opposed to roughly 1000 families in 1908 when the church was consecrated, Diana Schatz attributes the drop in numbers to the changing ethnicity of the area, the growth of the suburbs, and busy modern schedules.

“The Church was a social centre as well as a religious centre,” she says. “That has changed. Television has come in, and many other things.”

But then, St. Anne’s has been facing change its own way since the first St. Anne’s was built in 1862.

Originally located on Dufferin Street, St. Anne’s spawned several other churches in the working class area.

In 1902, Reverend Lawrence Skey, a new rector with uncommon energy and zeal, saw the need for expansion. He and the church held a contest and Toronto architect W. Ford Howland won with a design modeled after St. Sophia in Istanbul.

This Byzantine style church – broad, with a dome built over a square and increased visibility of the altar – was at odds with the Gothic revival, setting it apart from most churches of its day.

In 1923 came another groundbreaking development, this one overhead, when Skey hired friend and artist J.E.H. MacDonald to bring the interior to life. MacDonald and a team that included fellow Group of Seven members Fred Varley and Frank Carmichael, became the first Canadian artists to decorate the inside of a Canadian church, to the dismay and disapproval of some critics.

“It wasn’t just painting,” says Diana Schatz says of the group’s murals, some of which depict Jesus against Canadian landscapes, the Nativity scene depicting Varley himself as the shepherd. “The idea was to accentuate the architecture, to meld with it.”

Howard’s design fit contest criteria that the church be well ventilated and allow for all to see and hear.

“It is acoustically superb, both for choral music and regular music,” says Diana Schatz, whose musical husband and daughter both participate in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan production, this year starting on January 26.

“We really do have fabulous music at St. Anne’s,” says Roy Schatz, adding conductor Elmer Eisler and pianist Anton Kuerti both have played in the church because of the sound quality. “That’s always meant a lot to me.”

Also important to the Schatz family is the community outreach at St. Anne’s. In 1968, the eminently charismatic Rev. George Victor Young, who had pulled the parish from the brink of dissolution during its dark years of the 1950s, saw to the opening of St. Anne’s Tower, the first non-denominational seniors’ residence in Toronto to be sponsored by a church.

Diana Schatz once acted as treasurer, and her husband sat on the board for 25 years until 2000, when Leap of Faith, Together (LOFT) purchased the tower, now called St. Anne’s Place (661 Dufferin St.), for $1.

Today, St. Anne’s, which became a National Historic Site in 1997, continues to open its doors to the public by serving monthly dinners, hosting concerts, renting the hall out at affordable rates, and inviting a Portuguese-speaking minister to the church.

While connecting with the diverse community is crucial, finding money for the restoration efforts remains a great challenge.

Since the mid-1980s, St. Anne’s has sunk almost $1.6 million into restoring the dome, roof, bell towers, windows, and paintings, among other features.

It will need the same amount again in order to complete the restoration, according to Diana Schatz. “This is a building that needs a lot of tender loving care.”

For more information, please visit www.stannes.on.ca

(Gleaner News, Toronto)

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