The monumental bell tower of St George the Martyr is located on the northeast corner of John St and Stephanie St. It’s part of what’s known today as St George by the Grange Church just east of the tower at 30 Stephanie St (between McCaul St and John St on the north side) in the Grange Park neighbourhood of Toronto.
The Need for a Second Church
Founded in 1797, the only Anglican church in the Town of York was the Church of St James. By the 1830s, the new City of Toronto was growing. There had been discussions about the denomination’s need to build another church. A devastating fire destroyed the Church of St James in 1839 and brought that need to the forefront. St George the Martyr Church was the first offshoot of St James.
St George the Martyr Church
The influential D’Arcy Boulton Jr donated the land for the new church. His family’s home was The Grange, just north of the church and today part of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Construction of St George the Martyr began in 1844. Architect Henry Bowyer Lane designed the Early English Gothic-style structure, and its builder was John Ritchey. Its first service was held in 1845.
The church featured a sanctuary, hand-carved oak arches, two small transept galleries, a marble baptismal font, a chancel with choir seating, magnificent stained glass windows and a spacious gallery across the west end. While many churches charged a pew rental fee, a large amount of St George’s 750 seats were free and unappropriated.
The church’s spire towered 46 m or 150 ft high and was so tall that ships in Lake Ontario used it to guide their way into Toronto’s port. The total cost to build St George the Martyr reached $28,000. A ceremony was held in 1853 once the church was free of debt.
In 1857, an organ by Warren of Montreal was installed, and the parish school was built. In 1865, the rectory was added. The church was very well attended, so much that it was sometimes hard to find a seat. By 1888, over 400 children were in Sunday school.
Through the Years
As the 1900s came in, the neighbourhood was changing. Church attendance had dropped, and by 1909, St Margaret’s congregation (once on the east side of Spadina Ave, just south of Queen St W) joined with St George’s.
In 1949, gale force winds caused a lot of damage to the tower and spire. A beacon to so many, the spire was beyond repair and had to be removed.
A Fire and How the Solitary Tower Came to Be
On a cold Sunday morning in February 1955, a fire raged through St George The Martyr Church. It took 100 firefighters six hours to battle the three-alarm blaze. Against the firefighters’ orders, some people rushed to save any pieces they could gather, including a cross, a brass lectern, silver and linens. The roof of the cathedral-like church fell with an earth-shaking crash. Its century-old stained glass windows, some by renowned artist Sir Burne-Jones (England), shattered and fell while its handsome oak doors were scorched.
When the morning’s light shone on St George’s ice-coated iron fence and empty window frames, it created vivid prismatic effects. Young men climbed over the remnants of the church to get to the sanctuary after the fire was extinguished. They found the altar covered in an icy blanket and brought it out of the debris.
The evening of the fire, parishioners squeezed into St George’s rectory as a makeshift place of worship. Offers were received from other churches, including St Stephen’s and The Church of the Holy Trinity, to share their buildings.
The cause of the fire that destroyed the church, hall and Sunday school was never determined. Its ruins remained for months until a gentleman named Mr Badali and his team of Italian workers cleaned the bricks later used in the parish hall’s restoration.
Until 1957, the two front rooms of the rectory, furnished with pews recovered from the burnt church, were used for worship. Also, during those two years, the parish hall was being renovated to be the church’s new permanent place of worship. A pretty garden surrounded the church tower, and cherry trees marked where the former church’s columns once stood.
In 1973, the tower, hall and rectory were part of Heritage Toronto’s initial induction list.
Over 175 Years of Worship
The church has welcomed and served the community for more than 175 years. It was renamed St George by the Grange in 2018. As a testament to the past, the historic bell tower remains.
St George the Martyr Church Bell Tower Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 197 John St
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 197 John St
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 23, 1949, pg 13
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 14, 1955, pgs 1 & 21
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Feb 14, 1955, pgs 1 & 3
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 25, 1957, pg 5
- Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 4 by J Ross Robertson (1904), pgs 6-10
- St George by the Grange (the Martyr)
- AGO: The Grange
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Archives of Ontario