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Tour the priceless wonders of Canadian art lost in that devastating Toronto church fire

The four-alarm fire that gutted St. Anne’s Anglican Church early Sunday has not only devastated its west-end Toronto community, but it’s been called “a catastrophe for Canadian architecture, Canadian art and Canadian heritage.

The Byzantine Revival church had been designated a national historic site for the “remarkable” cycle of paintings and sculptures that decorated its interior. In 1923, the church hired English-Canadian artist J.E.H. MacDonald, a member of the newfound Group of Seven, to decorate St. Anne’s. MacDonald enlisted the help of a group of artists, including some, like Group colleagues Frank Carmichael and Frederick Varley, who would be recognized as the country’s top talents.

St. Anne's church
Aerial (drone) images of the aftermath of St Anne’s Anglican Church Fire. Toronto Fire dousing hotspots. The historic church was destroyed by fire June 9, 2024. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

Quite simply, St. Anne’s was a treasure trove of Canadian art from the early 20th century.

“This was the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven,” says Rev. Don Beyers, a parish priest at the church. “And I’m sorry to say that’s been lost, from what I can see.”

Alongside the trio from the Group, the church also featured paintings by Thoreau MacDonald (son of J.E.H.), Neil Mackechnie, Arthur Martin, S. Treviranus, H.S. Palmer and H.S. Stansfield.

Notable murals included The Crucifixion by J.E.H. MacDonald, The Nativity by Varley, The Resurrection by Palmer and The Ascension by Stansfield. Sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, whose works can be found widely in Toronto, contributed sculptural medallions representing the four Gospels.

Writing in 1995, critic John Bentley Mays described the brightly frescoed church as “a symphony in colour and design.” And speaking to the Globe and Mail after news of the fire, McMichael Canadian Art Collection director Sarah Milroy called St. Anne’s “one of the most important cultural sites in Toronto.”

Beyers, already thinking about how the church will rebuild, told CBC News, “My predecessor had a greater vision: How do we invite Canadian artists and Canadian artwork to adorn this church … And that’s very much with me right now: How do we invite Canadian artists to be a part of this again, so this church reflects the Canada of today?”

During the pandemic, St. Anne’s Anglican Church recorded a series of virtual tours showcasing its incredible artworks, which you can view below:


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