A Short History of St. Michael's Cathedral
St. Michael's Cathedral, situated in the heart of Toronto, is the
principal church of Canada's largest English-speaking Catholic
archdiocese. A sanctuary of quiet prayer in the midst of the city's busy
sidewalks and streets, this venerable edifice is a link to the early days
of the metropolis and the scene and witness of many solemn ceremonies.
When the Cathedral was first planned twenty-two years before Canadian
Confederation, the location on the northern section of a market garden
which extended down to Lot (Queen) Street was considered "too far" from
town. Today, the Cathedral is only a few blocks east of Toronto's
ultra-modern City Hall, its financial district, and the Eaton Centre. The
cream-coloured brick structure has darkened with age and acquired a tower
and graceful steeple, its clear panes have given way to stained-glass
works of art, and illustrious leaders have taken up their last sleep in
its crypt. Though the Cathedral's interior has been modified several
times, enough remains of its original dimension and style to proclaim the
vision of its builders and the generosity of its supporters.
The Cathedral is the work of both prelates and rich and poor people.
When Fr. Michael Power, pastor of La Prairie, Quebec, was named first
bishop of Toronto on December 17, 1841, one of his major problems was to
build a cathedral in his new See of Toronto, at that time a city of 13,000
with a Catholic population of 3,000. Part of the purchase price of the
land came from his own modest savings. Another source of funds was a
Sunday "penny collection" contributed by the Irish faithful, who were rich
in faith but poor in goods.
The Honourable John Elmsley, a convert to Catholicism, was an
outstanding benefactor who, with his friend Samuel G. Lynn, another
convert, headed the Cathedral building fund and contributed much time and
talent to saving the enterprise from receivership. As consecration is a
ceremony which is permitted only for a debt-free church, they finally
pledged their personal fortunes as mortgage security so that this could
Bishop Power laid the cornerstone of the new church "well and truly" on
May 8, 1845, and the consecration of the completed edifice took place on
September 29, 1848. The celebrant, Rt. Rev. Ignace Bourget, Bishop of
Montreal, was accompanied by an impressive concourse of prelates from
Ottawa, Kingston, and Montreal, Mass was the celebrated for the first time
over the stone containing relics of Sts. Clement and Peter, martyrs.
Bishop Power, a victim of typhus, had died in 1847 but his work had been
carried on by administrators.
The Cathedral's architect was William Thomas, who also designed eight
other Toronto churches and the historic St. Lawrence Hall. Much influenced
by Jon Elmsley's Anglican antecedents, the architecture of the Cathedral
is inspired by the plan of Yorksminster in England, one of the greatest
examples of fourteenth-century Gothic. This explains the two faces,
representing King Edwin of Northumbria and Paulinus, first bishop of York,
carved in the pillars flanking the main doors. The great chancel window,
the work of the noted French artist Thevenot, also reflects the
inspiration of Yorkminster. The window, one of three gifted to the
Cathedral by the Most Reverend
Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel, second
bishop of Toronto, was installed in 1858, relieving the excess of light
which was one of the early complaints of worshippers. The present Stations
of the Cross also recall Bishop de Charbonnel's generosity and piety with
their inscriptions in the original French.
Several major renovations and changes have been carried out since the
redecorating of the interior was completed in the 1890s. In 1937,
Archbishop James Charles McGuigan, who was Ordinary of the Archdiocese
from 1934 until 1971, redecorated the Cathedral's interior. The present
paintings, murals, achievements of arms and symbols which adorn the vaults
and walls of the Cathedral date from that time. The two largest paintings
on the sanctuary ceiling portray Christ celebrating the Eucharist for the
disciples whom He met on the road to Emmaus and as a boy of twelve
teaching the doctors in the temple.
A new series of changes in the Cathedral's interior were begun in 1980
Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter and his Cathedral Rector,
Monsignor Kenneth Robitaille. A new marble high altar, pulpit, and altar
of the Blessed Sacrament, decorated in a Gothic style that matches the
Cathedral's architecture, were added to a raised sanctuary. A
semi-circular oak reredos was constructed behind the altar and six smaller
chairs were placed on either side of the episcopal chair, symbolizing the
presbyterium—the bishop surrounded by his priests and deacons. The wooden
Gothic canopy, which used to stand over the archiepiscopal chair, the
sanctuary lamp, and other beautiful Gothic decorations were combined to
create a splendid shrine for the Blessed Sacrament on the right-hand side
of the sanctuary.
Far above the Cathedral's high altar, a cardinalatial "Red Hat" hangs
from the ceiling. This was conferred by
Pope Pius XII
on James Charles McGuigan, the first cardinal of English Canada, on
February 18, 1946.
The Cathedral is still gloriously served by the great organ which was
installed by Archbishop Joseph Lynch in 1880.
St. Michael's was endowed with its present tower and steeple at the
beginning of Confederation. Reflecting the spirit of the times, it was
conceived as an ecumenical project with financial contributions from many
leading citizens including George Brown, the Protestant champion of the
day. Though the 260-foot reach of its steeple is surpassed by the
skyscrapers of downtown Toronto, the Cathedral today is an ever-increasing
influence in the lives of thousands of people.
(Source: pamphlet from St. Michael's Cathedral)