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Fire ravages historic Toronto church, destroying Group of Seven murals

Building destroyed after fire broke out shortly before 8am
Firefighters work to put out a blaze at St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end on Sunday, June 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

A four-alarm fire ripped through St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto on Sunday morning, severely damaging a national historic site and destroying the “priceless” Group of Seven murals inside.

Fire officials said the blaze broke out shortly before 8 a.m., fuelling spires of smoke and shooting flames through the domed roof of the Byzantine Revival building erected in 1908.

There was no one inside the church in the city’s Little Portugal neighbourhood at the time and no injuries were reported, officials said.

Early paintings by three Group of Seven members and other prominent Canadian artists were installed along the interior in the 1920s. The murals decorated the chancel and the dome, which was destroyed in the blaze.

Father Don Beyers, rector of St. Anne’s, said the “invaluable” works were lost to the flames.

“The artwork was priceless. It was murals, beautiful murals,” he told reporters. “They were stunning.

“This was the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven. And I’m sorry to say that’s been lost, from what I can see.”

Jim Jessop, a deputy chief at Toronto Fire Services, confirmed the loss.

“The building is completely destroyed right now, as are all the artifacts inside,” he said.

As flames began to engulf the roof on Sunday morning, firefighters pulled out due to the risk it would collapse, officials said.

Crews extinguished the main body of the fire by mid-morning, they said. The cause had not been determined as of Sunday afternoon.

In 1923, the church commissioned founding Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ on the building’s interior, according to the St. Anne’s website. MacDonald then signed on nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley.

The three men formed part of the school of landscape painters known as the Group of Seven, renowned for their vibrant depictions of windswept forests and boreal ruggedness that helped forge a romanticized sense of Canadian vitality and independence.

“This is an extraordinary loss,” Beyers said a block from the building.

“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,” he said, deeming the incident “devastating” and “heartbreaking.”

Beneath the murals, the interior featured sparkling mosaics of Italian glass-and-gold tile in Byzantine style spanning several walls, decoration that was added in the 1960s.

The now gutted space hosted choral performances, meals, musical theatre, film productions, weddings and other special events, as well as providing a place of worship and prayer.

Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who represents the ward where the church sits, said residents are expressing “tremendous” grief over the destruction of a space that offered critical community support.

“This is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, a home, love, brought people from the community together … and provided the spiritual support that people so desperately need in times when they’ve fallen on hard times,” she said.

“It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada and in the world.”

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

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

READ ALSO: $3M Group of 7 collection highlights one of B.C.’s biggest-ever art donations

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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