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Investigation underway after fire destroys historic west Toronto church, Group of Seven murals

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An investigation is now underway after a historic church in Toronto's Little Portugal area was completely destroyed by a four-alarm fire on Sunday.

Emergency crews were called to St. Anne’s Anglican Church at 270 Gladstone Ave., just north of Dundas Street West, shortly before 8 a.m. 

The scene of a fire at St. Anne's Church in Toronto can be seen above. (CP24)

In a Sunday evening news release, Toronto police said that they arrived at the scene and saw thick black smoke coming from the church, which they said was "fully engulfed in flames."

Footage captured by CP24 showed smoke and flames shooting through the building's iconic domed roof. The blaze caused significant structural damage throughout the building.

The main body of the fire was doused by mid-morning, however fire crews remain on scene to keep an eye out for any hot spots.

No one was inside St. Anne's at the time of the fire and no injuries were reported, officials said.

“The building is completely destroyed right now, as are all the artifacts inside,” said Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop, adding it's "way too early" to speculate what might have caused the fire.

Toronto Police Service, Toronto Fire Services, and the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management are now investigating.

Police have set up an online portal for members of the public to submit photos or video footage.

Anyone with information can also contact them at 416-808-1400 or Crime Stoppers anonymously. 

Community is devastated by loss, says priest

“This is incredibly devastating for my congregation. It’s devastating for this community,” Father Don Beyers, a priest at St. Anne’s, told reporters on Sunday afternoon.

“I cannot express how far-reaching [the impact of] this church fire is.”

Beyers said that it was a “vital resource” to many communities within the area and the city of Toronto in general. He said that St. Anne's hosted music and arts programs, Sunday worship services, community dinners and served as a wedding venue among other things.

A historically significant church

St. Anne’s, a Byzantine Revival style structure, was built between 1907 and 1908, and was designated a heritage easement by the City of Toronto in 1996. It was also designated a National Historic Site of Canada that year.

The church was the second one constructed at that site. The first one was built there in 1862 and also faced Dufferin Street.

This fire is especially devastating as several notable works of art by 10 prominent artists, including series of murals painted by three members of the Group of Seven, were lost. The pieces are the only known religious works painted by the revered Canadian artists collective.

According to St. Anne's website, the church’s interior design was commissioned by Group of Seven founding member J.E.H. MacDonald. He enlisted a number of other artists to help execute the design, including Fred Varley and Frank Carmichael, who went on to be create, in-part, the Group of Seven.

Parks Canada said the "cycle of paintings" at St. Anne's Anglican Church combined "narrative scenes, written texts, as well as decorative plasterwork and detailing accentuating the architectural lines of the building" and were a "manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to ally architecture with the sister arts of painting and sculpture. The national agency noted that the works drew "upon the motifs, colours and the artistic conventions of Byzantine art, and (were) integral to the church’s architectural style."

However, in the Sunday afternoon update, Beyers’ said that it appears that all of the artwork has been destroyed in the fire. 

“This is the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven, and I’m sorry to say, but that’s been lost from what I can see,” he said, calling what has happened both "devastating" and "heartbreaking."

"Not only was the art important, but the church itself was important architecturally. It was one of the rare Anglican churches that was in the Byzantine style, an Eastern Christian style."

Crews are battling a fire at St. Anne's Church in Toronto on Sunday. (CP24)

 

'Much more than just a building'

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Davenport Coun. Alejandra Bravo amplified the important role that St. Anne’s has had on both the local community and in Canada.

“It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada, and in the world, but this is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, home, love, brought people from the community together, served needs of people who needed it and provided the spiritual support that people so desperately needed in times where they’ve also fallen on hard times,” she said.

“…Davenport has lost something that can never be replaced, and the grief that people are expressing to our office is tremendous.”

Bravo called this loss is “too great to comprehend.”

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow highlighted the perseverance of the church's parishioners, if not its physical form.

"The spirit of the place, however — how they are so compassionate to everyone around them — will still be there," she said.

Marit Stiles, who represents the riding provincially and also leads the Ontario NDP, offered another note of hope.

"This is going to be a tremendous loss for the community, but it's not over, because we will rebuild."

With files from The Canadian Press

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