Cathedral Church of St James – Toronto’s Oldest Congregation, Since 1797

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2020 - The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
2020 – The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast

The beautiful Cathedral Church of St James is located at ‪106 King St E (at Church St on the northeast corner) in the Old Town, St Lawrence neighbourhood of Toronto.

Early Anglican Church Services

In 1793, the first Anglican (Church of England) service was held in the Town of York. In 1797, six acres of densely forested land bounded by King E, Church, Adelaide E and Jarvis Sts was allotted to the church. The first incumbent was Reverend George Okill Stuart. Until 1803, worship services were held in the then Parliament Buildings, once located about 1 km east at Front E and Parliament Sts. That same year, a meeting was held to discuss a new church. Paid subscriptions and a government grant funded its construction.

The First Church at York

In 1807, a wooden “Church at York” was built on the southwest corner of the allotted land. Costing no more than £600 to construct, parishioners and soldiers from the Garrison raised the primitive frame building. This first church was 12 m by 15 m or 40 ft by 50 ft, and the front door faced Church St. During the early part of the War of 1812, John Strachan was appointed “officiating minister” at York. By 1813, the church was being used as a hospital for soldiers, and it was later damaged and robbed by American troops.

In 1818, the church was enlarged on the north and south sides, which brought the axis of the building in a north-south direction. Painted light blue with white trim, the church’s main entrance, which featured a bell tower, was moved to the south side. Also used as a fire alarm, its bell was said to be so jarring that it caused the church to vibrate when it rang.

In 1828, the church was dedicated to St James the Apostle. In 1834, the Town of York became the City of Toronto.

The Second & Third St James Church

1835 - Postcard of the City of Toronto Upper Canada, looking east along King St E
1835 – Postcard of the City of Toronto Upper Canada, looking east along King St E (Toronto Public Library jrr262)

In 1831, the wooden church was replaced with a larger stone structure designed by Thomas Rogers. A fire broke out on a Sunday morning before church services in January 1839. Parishioners who were arriving for Sunday service came upon the heartbreaking scene. It was said that Reverend Strachan was so upset that he whistled to relieve his stress. The fire was thought to be caused by a stove pipe. The flames destroyed all but the church’s tower.

There had been discussions before the fire to build another church; however, it was never realized. With the city’s Anglican church now gone, the denomination’s need for more places of worship was brought to light.

Construction on the third church began in 1839, and while most of it was made of stone, the spire was wood. In the summer of that year, Reverend Strachan became the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, and since he was a Bishop, the church opened that December as a cathedral.

The Great Fire of Toronto in 1849 occurred ten years after the first blaze. The fire began at 1:30 a.m. in the back of a tavern at King E and Jarvis Sts. By 3 a.m., cinders from neighbouring wooden structures lit the church’s wooden spire on fire. Named the “Cathedral Fire” at the time, the huge blaze destroyed the church and many homes and businesses in what was known then as the downtown core.

1903 - Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
1903 – Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 278)

The Cathedral Church of St James

In 1853, the present-day Cathedral, the fourth church, was opened on the site. This gem is an example of Gothic Revival architecture and was designed by architects FW Cumberland and Thomas Ridout. With its steeply pitched roof, the church is constructed of brick and features decorative stone carvings, mouldings and facings. The tower, spire, porches, turrets and other architectural details in Mr Cumberland’s design were not completed until years later due to a lack of funds.

When built, the nave had seating for over 1,200, including benches in the centre aisle and seating for an additional 500 people in the galleries. There are beautiful stained glass windows throughout the church, along with finely carved oak details.

As the funds were raised, the building was brought to completion. In 1865, the tower was added, and the bells were installed. About a decade later, the spire, pinnacles and entry porches were finished with designs by Henry Langley. In 1876, the citizens of Toronto donated the clock as a gift.

In 1889, the galleries and benches in the aisles were removed. That same year, choir stalls and an organ console were installed in the chancel. In 1936, the organ was overhauled by the renowned Canadian organ-building company Casavant Frères.

2019 - The nave, chancel and altar of The Cathedral
2019 – The nave, chancel and altar of The Cathedral

In 1982, the Cathedral completed a significant renovation. In 1997 in celebration of the church’s 200th anniversary, the Bells of Old York were installed. The peal of 12 change-ringing bells can be heard ringing in the neighbourhood.

Today, the historic Cathedral Church of St James is over 165 years old. More information and a drone tour can be found at The Cathedral Church of St James.

Did You Know?

  • Church St was named after the first “Church at York” that once stood on the site of The Cathedral Church of St James.
  • Bishop John Strachan is buried in the chancel of the Cathedral.
  • In 1844, 65 acres of land was purchased for a cemetery by the west side of the Don River at ‪635 Parliament St. St James Cemetery, Toronto’s oldest burial ground still in operation. Before the purchase of the cemetery land, many were interred in the grounds surrounding the church. Some were moved to the new cemetery, while others are still buried in unmarked graves to the north of the Cathedral. A few headstones of prominent Torontonians (who were moved to the new cemetery) can be found at the entrance of the Cathedral.
  • For many years, it was common practice for Anglican and Catholic churches to charge parishioners subscription or pew rental fees. It began as a means to fund the construction of the churches; however, as time went on, it also showed one’s social status. This controversial practice stopped in the mid-20th century.
  • The Cathedral Church of St James was one of the 490 buildings on Heritage Toronto’s initial induction list in June of 1973.
  • A few blocks northwest of St James is Metropolitan United Church and St Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.

The Cathedral Church of St James Photos

2020 - The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
2020 – The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
1903 - Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
1903 – Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 278)
2019 - The nave, chancel and altar of The Cathedral
2019 – The nave, chancel and altar of The Cathedral
1882 - Interior view of The Cathedral - notice the benches in the centre aisle, gallery and staircase before they were removed in 1889
1882 – Interior view of The Cathedral – notice the benches in the centre aisle, gallery and staircase before they were removed in 1889 (Toronto Public Library r-6733)
2020 - The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking north
2020 – The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking north
1861 - The Cathedral prior to the tower and spire being added, looking northeas
1861 – The Cathedral prior to the tower and spire being added, looking northeast (Toronto Public Library r-6719)
1867 - The Cathedral prior to the spire being added, looking southeast
1867 – The Cathedral prior to the spire being added, looking southeast (Toronto Public Library r-6723)
2022 - Looking southeast towards The Cathedral Church of St James at 106 King St E and Church St
2022 – Looking southeast towards The Cathedral Church of St James at 106 King St E and Church St
2023 - The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
2023 – The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
1923 - Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast
1923 – Overhead view of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 83)
2022 - Looking northeast towards the main entrance and tower of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
2022 – Looking northeast towards the main entrance and tower of The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
2020 - Stonework details of The Cathedral's entrance and tower
2020 – Stonework details of The Cathedral’s entrance and tower
2020 - Clock tower and steeple of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 – Clock tower and steeple of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 - Organ pipes and main entrance of The Cathedral
2020 – Organ pipes and main entrance of The Cathedral
2020 - Stained glass window over the main entrance of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 – Stained glass window over the main entrance of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 - The interior and pews of The Cathedral
2020 – The interior and pews of The Cathedral
2019 - Chancel and altar of The Cathedral Church of St James
2019 – Chancel and altar of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 - Organ pipes in The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 – Organ pipes in The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 - Stained glass windows on the east side of The Cathedral
2020 – Stained glass windows on the east side of The Cathedral
2020 - Interior of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 – Interior of The Cathedral Church of St James
2020 - Decorative stone carvings and woodwork at the main entrance of The Cathedral
2020 – Decorative stone carvings and woodwork at the main entrance of The Cathedral
2020 - Headstones of those once laid to rest in the cemetery grounds of The Cathedral - prior to being moved to St James Cemetery at 635 Parliament St
2020 – Headstones of those once laid to rest in the cemetery grounds of The Cathedral – prior to being moved to St James Cemetery at 635 Parliament St
1924 - A service at the Great War (WWI) memorial at The Cathedral Church of St James
1924 – A service at the Great War (WWI) memorial at The Cathedral Church of St James (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 4048)
2022 - Looking east towards the Great War (WWI) wayside cross at The Cathedral Church of St James. The memorial was unveiled in 1924
2022 – Looking east towards the Great War (WWI) wayside cross at The Cathedral Church of St James. The memorial was unveiled in 1924
2020 - Stained glass and carved stone details of The Cathedral
2020 – Stained glass and carved stone details of The Cathedral
1971 - Looking northwest from Jarvis St and King St E
1971 – Looking northwest from Jarvis St and King St E (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 105)
1950's - The Cathedral Church of St James on the northeast corner of King St E and Church St
1950’s – The Cathedral Church of St James on the northeast corner of King St E and Church St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 119)
2020 - The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
2020 – The Cathedral Church of St James at King St E and Church St
2020 - Looking north from Front St E through a walkway towards Toronto Sculpture Garden and King St E
2020 – Looking north from Front St E through a walkway towards Toronto Sculpture Garden and King St E
1972 - Looking north from a walkway between Front St E and King St E
1972 – Looking north from a walkway between Front St E and King St E (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 116)
1868/69 - Looking west along King St E from the top of St Lawrence Hall
1868/69 – Looking west along King St E from the top of St Lawrence Hall (Toronto Public Library t119)
2022 - Built in 1909, St James Parish House at 65 Church St is known today as St James Cathedral Centre
2022 – Built in 1909, St James Parish House at 65 Church St is known today as St James Cathedral Centre
2022 - The entrance to the St James Cathedral Centre at 65 Church St. Originally known as the St James Parish House, it was built in 1909
2022 – The entrance to the St James Cathedral Centre at 65 Church St. Originally known as the St James Parish House, it was built in 1909
2022 - The heritage plaque reads:

St. James' Cathedral

“York's first church was built here in 1803-07 with the aid of public subscriptions and a government grant. That frame building was enlarged in 1818-19 and replaced by a larger one in 1831. The first incumbent was the Rev. George Okill Stuart, who served from 1800 to 1812 when he was succeeded by the Rev. John Strachan, later first bishop of Toronto. The second church was burnt in 1839. Toronto's first cathedral was then erected on this site but was destroyed in the great fire of 1849. The present cathedral was begun in 1850, opened for divine service in 1853, and completed in 1874.”

Erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board
2022 – The heritage plaque reads:

St. James’ Cathedral

“York’s first church was built here in 1803-07 with the aid of public subscriptions and a government grant. That frame building was enlarged in 1818-19 and replaced by a larger one in 1831. The first incumbent was the Rev. George Okill Stuart, who served from 1800 to 1812 when he was succeeded by the Rev. John Strachan, later first bishop of Toronto. The second church was burnt in 1839. Toronto’s first cathedral was then erected on this site but was destroyed in the great fire of 1849. The present cathedral was begun in 1850, opened for divine service in 1853, and completed in 1874.”

Erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board
2019 - The heritage plaque reads:

The Cathedral Church of St. James

"In 1796, the first Anglican priest arrived from England to minister to the citizens of York. The following year, the province set aside this piece of land for the building of a church. The present cathedral, the fourth church erected on this site, opened in 1853, replacing the previous structure destroyed in the Great Fire of 1849. The first Bishop of Toronto, the Right Reverend John Strachan, along with a number of his parishioners, played an important role in the early development of the city and province. Over the years, the cathedral, the Mother Church for Anglicans in the diocese of Toronto, has been a place of worship, prayer and outreach in the heart of a busy community."

Heritage Toronto 1997
2019 – The heritage plaque reads:

The Cathedral Church of St. James

“In 1796, the first Anglican priest arrived from England to minister to the citizens of York. The following year, the province set aside this piece of land for the building of a church. The present cathedral, the fourth church erected on this site, opened in 1853, replacing the previous structure destroyed in the Great Fire of 1849. The first Bishop of Toronto, the Right Reverend John Strachan, along with a number of his parishioners, played an important role in the early development of the city and province. Over the years, the cathedral, the Mother Church for Anglicans in the diocese of Toronto, has been a place of worship, prayer and outreach in the heart of a busy community.”

Heritage Toronto 1997
1890 - Goads Map showing the location of the Cathedral
1890 – Goads Map showing the location of the Cathedral (Toronto Public Library)
1869 - Pew ticket from St James' Cathedral
1869 – Pew ticket from St James’ Cathedral (Toronto Public Library STJAMESTICKET)
1850 - The Cathedral's ground floor plan by architect, Frederick Cumberland
1850 – The Cathedral’s ground floor plan by architect, Frederick Cumberland (Toronto Public Library r-6731)
1849 - Sketch of the third St James Church after the Great Toronto Fire 1849, also known as the Cathedral Fire
1849 – Sketch of the third St James Church after the Great Toronto Fire 1849, also known as the Cathedral Fire (Toronto Public Library r-6715)
1835 - Postcard of the City of Toronto Upper Canada, looking east along King St E
1835 – Postcard of the City of Toronto Upper Canada, looking east along King St E (Toronto Public Library jrr262)
Sketch of Cathedral Church of St James - the present-day cathedral
Sketch of Cathedral Church of St James – the present-day cathedral (Landmarks of Toronto Volume 4 by J Ross Robertson – 1904)
Sketch of third St James Cathedral (1840 to 1849)
Sketch of third St James Cathedral (1840 to 1849) (Landmarks of Toronto Volume 4 by J Ross Robertson – 1904)
Sketch of second St James Church (1831 to 1839)
Sketch of second St James Church (1831 to 1839) (Landmarks of Toronto Volume 4 by J Ross Robertson – 1904)
Sketch of the first St James Church (1818 to 1831)
Sketch of the first St James Church (1818 to 1831) (Landmarks of Toronto Volume 4 by J Ross Robertson – 1904)
Sketch of the Church of York (1807-1818) that fronted Church St - prior to becoming St James Church
Sketch of the Church of York (1807-1818) that fronted Church St – prior to becoming St James Church (Landmarks of Toronto Volume 1 by J Ross Robertson – 1894)
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