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 which were located about 1 km to the east at Front E and Parliament Sts. That same year, a meeting was held to discuss a new church. Its construction was funded by paid subscriptions and a government grant.
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 along with 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
In 1833, the wooden church was replaced with a larger stone structure designed by Thomas Rogers. On a Sunday morning, prior to church services in January 1839, a fire broke out. Parishioners who were arriving for Sunday service came upon the heartbreaking scene. It was said that Reverend Strachan was so upset, he whistled as a way to relieve his stress. The fire was thought to be caused by a stove pipe. All but the church’s tower was destroyed by the flames.
There had been discussions prior to the fire to build another church however it was never realized. With the City’s Anglican church now gone, it brought to light the denomination’s need for more places of worship.
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.
Ten years after the first blaze, the Great Fire of Toronto 1849 occurred. The fire began at 1:30 am in the back of a tavern at King E and Jarvis Sts. By 3 am, 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 along with many homes and businesses in what was known then as the downtown core.
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 which included benches in the centre aisle along with 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 underwent an overhaul by renowned Canadian organ building company, Casavant Frères.
In 1982, the Cathedral completed a major renovation. In 1997 and 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 itself is over 165 years old. More information along with 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 is Toronto’s oldest burial ground still in operation. Prior to 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 ones 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.
The Cathedral Church of St James Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 106 King St E
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 106 King St E
- Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 1 by J Ross Robertson
- Toronto Street Names: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins by Leonard Wise & Allan Gould
- Heritage Toronto
- Friends of St James Park
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 1 by J Ross Robertson
- Vintage Map: Atlas of the City of Toronto 1890 by Chas E Goad from the Toronto Public Library