Saint Anne’s for Canadian Art and the Scent of Chocolate

By Isobel Warren | @WarWords


The sun dazzles through stained glass windows, enhancing the altar’s golden glow. The mighty Cassavant organ pours its musical heart out. The soaring dome sparkles with original art. Chocolate incense perfumes the air.

No, wait! That’s not incense. It’s the aroma of milk chocolate emanating from the Cadbury factory just across Gladstone Avenue from Saint Anne’s Anglican Church, one of Toronto’s most beautiful and historic places of worship.

And while the scent may trigger mystical experiences for chocoholics, the particulars of Saint Anne’s gladden the hearts of history and architecture buffs. The church was built in 1908, replacing the original 1862 model, at the shocking cost of $55,000. Now a National Historic Site, Saint Anne’s Byzantine Revival style was inspired by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul although early parishioners were startled by the unconventional non-Gothic design.

The octagonal central dome, supported by four columns of Caen stone, soars 21 metres (70 feet) heavenward. Encircling the dome and the chancel are 21 works of art by distinguished Canadian artists — Thoreau MacDonald, Neil Mackechnie, Arthur Martin, H.S. Palmer and H.S. Stansfield, and sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle and highlighted by three members of Canada’s renowned Group of Seven – J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Carmichael and Frederick H. Varley, the Group’s only known religious artworks.

Preservation and maintenance mean never-ending fund-raising for Saint Anne’s. The paintings on canvas are fastened directly to the walls, putting them at risk to moisture oozing through the slate roof. The $80,000 job of shoring up the exterior brickwork is but a drop in the bucket of the $270,000 the church needs to fully restore the building. Like almost all churches, congregations are dwindling – around 100 on any given Sunday morning, compared to about 1,000 when the church was new.

Last year’s 150th anniversary triggered a dandy celebration that brought local artists into the church to create original and often quirky works, such as inflatable horses, an inflatable organ and a field of wheat (and fresh bread baked from that wheat). This year will be quieter with participation in Doors Open Toronto on May 26 and a special Saint Anne’s Day service on June 23. During summer the church is open only on Sundays and offers a tour of the building and its art works after the 10:30 a.m. service. Tours for 10 or more can be arranged during the week.

Among the guides is the ebullient Roy Schatz, a retired teacher who has been the spiritual leader of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Toronto for decades. The Society meets in the parish hall (the original 1862 church) and fans out twice weekly to sing excerpts from the beloved operettas at seniors’ homes across the city. Each January a lively full-scale G&S production is unveiled, directed by Roy’s daughter, Laura.

And across the way, Cadbury’s Caramilks and Crispy Crunches continue to waft sweet scents upon the breeze.

And so the circle remains unbroken.

Isobel Warren is a Toronto booster, a veteran travel writer and a recently converted blogger. She is travel columnist for Good Times Magazine and her articles have appeared in major Canadian publications. After a stint as a producer of The Senior Report at TVO, she joined Anne Martin to produce the travel series, On Top of the World. She is the author of two travel guides (a third to be published this year) and a contributor to Fodor Canada guidebooks.