A Place to Call Home

The Cross of God the Son in the South Windows, Designed by Lutz Haufschild, Commissioned by the members of the Latvian and Estonian congregations, Dedicated in 1989.  Photo by Eriks Dzenis

The Cross of God the Son in the South Windows, Designed by Lutz Haufschild, Commissioned by the members of the Latvian and Estonian congregations, Dedicated in 1989. Photo by Eriks Dzenis

The corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes

In April 1873, the members of St. Andrew’s Church gathered for a congregational meeting to discuss the future. Their forty-year-old building at the southwest corner of Church and Adelaide streets needed significant repairs. Additionally, with most of its pews full (or “rented,” as was the tradition of the time), the church also needed more space. Members cast their ballots, and a motion carried, 216 to 53: the church would build on land at the corner of King and Simcoe streets. Nevertheless, the small remnant that opposed the proposal circulated a petition, and with the signatures they collected, addressed a formal request to the Presbytery of Toronto. They asked to retain ownership of the old church and to form a new congregation called “Old St. Andrew's.”

The reasons for disagreement between this small contingent and the larger majority are not historically clear. Perhaps the dissenters were motivated by theological disagreement. Perhaps theirs was a case of simple pragmatism: they wanted to worship in the neighbourhood in which they lived. Whatever the reasons, the group took possession of the building on February 9, 1876. For all their enthusiasm, however, they had no pastor and a substantial mortgage to pay. 

As the congregation searched for a pastor, guest preachers filled the pulpit of St. Andrew’s each Sunday. The roster of pinch hitters included Dr. G.M. Milligan, pastor of a well-established Presbyterian church in Detroit. Milligan was traveling through Toronto on his way home from the American centennial celebration in Philadelphia and was persuaded to preach during his visit to the city. 

Sixty people gathered that Sunday morning to hear the scholarly guest preacher pacing the front of the church, leaning over his Bible, and gesturing in a manner “too frequent to be always opportune,” as one observer witnessed. But if only the familiar handfuls had attended the morning service, later that evening, more than three hundred curious returned—and with them, hope for the church’s future. Ignoring that Milligan had recently turned down the pastorate of Knox Church in Hamilton, Ontario, the congregation of St. Andrew’s begged the middle-aged Scotchman to become their pastor.

“It was the last thought in [Milligan’s] mind to come to Toronto,” wrote J. Ross Robertson in his Sketches of City Churches, first published in his one-cent daily, The Evening Telegram, in 1886. “The future of Old St. Andrew’s seemed irremediable. But the fervour of the people and their personal regard for [Milligan] impressed him with the suggestion that he ought to accept the invitation extended to him within twenty-four hours after the delivery of his first sermon.” 

To what might have been his own surprise, Milligan agreed to come to Toronto on two conditions: that the original church building be sold and the vacant lot at Carlton and Jarvis streets purchased. Milligan had deemed Jarvis Street, then “the most fashionable street in the city,” as an ideal location for a church. The congregation agreed to his terms, and a nine-member building committee was formed. After they had selected St. Andrew’s Church in St. John, New Brunswick, as a model for their new building, they engaged the Toronto architecture firm of Langley, Langley, and Burke, also commissioned with the Horticultural Pavilion at Allan Gardens. 

Early in the summer of 1877, construction began on what Robertson called “the magnificent church edifice that [was] the crowning glory of the Old St. Andrew’s Church.”

A City of Churches

The skyline of twenty-first century Toronto rises with angular buildings and the cranes to build them, and today’s Toronto can suitably be called “a city of condominiums.” And though the modern Torontonian is more likely to be found at Sunday brunch than Sunday worship, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the city of Toronto was, according to Robertson, a city of churches. Its skyline was recognizable for its steeples, included those of surviving churches like St. James’s Cathedral, as well as demolished ones like Bond Street Congregational Church. 

“In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the city of Toronto was a city of churches. Its skyline was recognizable for its steeples.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, many of the varied and beautiful churches in Toronto were built by the architectural firm of Langley, Langley, and Burke. Edmund Burke was a lifelong member of Jarvis Street Baptist Church; as such, he was primarily commissioned with designing Baptist and Methodist churches rather than Roman Catholic or Anglican ones. This included, of course, his own church as well as Old St. Andrew’s, both of which represented innovation in nineteenth-century ecclesiastical architecture. 

On the one hand, these churches Gothic Revival exteriors indicated nostalgia for old forms. Many Christians at the time were convinced that Gothic—the “pointed” architecture of the medieval European cathedral—was the only truly “Christian” architecture. (Beginning in the 1880s, churches in Toronto began to witness a revival of the round-arched style of the Romanesque.) But if the exterior of Jarvis Street Baptist and Old St. Andrew’s suggested a longing for the past, the churches’ interior plans reflected a pragmatic turn toward modernity. 

As an example of some of the architectural innovations of these nineteenth-century churches, the school rooms, added to the rear of Old St. Andrew’s auditorium in 1883, gave prominence to the presence of children and the importance of their instruction. This signaled the rising influence of Methodism with its institution of the Sunday school. As John Wesley had once enjoined, the church had the God-given duty to teach its children. “Gift or no gift, you are to do it. . . Do it as you can, till you can do it as you would.” Additionally, because nineteenth-century evangelicalism was a direct descendant of the Reformation, it emphasized the preaching of the Bible. To suit this auditory purpose, the sanctuary of Old St. Andrew’s was built with canted floors on an amphitheatre plan. The design primarily aided worshippers, not to take the Eucharist (as did the cathedrals of centuries past), but to hear God’s Word intoned from the hand-carved cherry pulpit. 

That preaching was imbued with such importance in the early years of Old St. Andrew’s stands as a matter of public record. Reverend Milligan did not tolerate his congregants’ inattention on Sunday mornings. On the day of Robertson’s visit, the reporter witnessed several young men talking in the gallery during one of Milligan’s sermons. “We have not a large audience, but it must be attentive,” Milligan interrupted. “If those young men can’t listen, I want them to leave. Old St. Andrew’s is known as a church of good order, and as long as God gives me power, I’ll keep it as such.” 

In 1906, on the thirtieth anniversary of the church building, Reverend Milligan received  a special gift. The congregation, having organized a drive to pay off the debts that remained on the building, presented their minister with a framed document of the mortgage. 

Four years later, Milligan retired. His ministry spanned more than three decades.

Jarvis Street, Map of Toronto, 1890

Jarvis Street, Map of Toronto, 1890

O Canada

Much was changing at the turn of the century in what had once been the muddy town of York. Toronto’s population—208,040 people in 1901—had grown to 376,538 by 1911. The influx of people strained housing, sanitation, transportation, and created inevitable labour and social problems, which churches struggled to address.

By 1925, evangelicalism in Canada was also changing. Most significantly, Canada’s 5,000 Methodist churches, two-thirds of its Presbyterian churches, and the nation’s Congregationalists and “Local Union” churches ratified, on June 10, 1925, a “Basis of Union,” which instituted the United Church of Canada. At the time, Old St. Andrew’s church, unlike its sister church at King and Simcoe, voted to leave its Presbyterian heritage and merge with St Enoch’s Presbyterian Church, forming Old St. Andrew’s United Church. 

In 1926, Old St. Andrew’s United Church had a membership of 899, a net revenue of $87,119. Under the leadership of Rev. John Robert Paterson Sclater (the church’s first and last minister), the church flourished. By 1936, the church membership had increased to 1,237 remembers. At the fiftieth anniversary of the church building, guest speaker Rev. R.P. McKay boasted of the church’s influence: “Many of the churches in Toronto have fallen to rise again, others have flourished only to pass away, while the church of Old St. Andrew’s has risen from strength to strength.” 

For more than twenty-five years, the congregation remained at the corners of Jarvis and Carlton streets, serving the city. But just as the neighbourhood at Church and Adelaide had changed many decades earlier, imposing necessary changes for the original St. Andrew’s, so, too, did life change on Jarvis Street. The neighbourhood’s mansions were demolished in favour of apartment buildings. The church’s long-standing wealthy patronage moved to neighbourhoods like Rosedale. 

By 1946, the estimated revenue of the church was only $11,300. (Operating expenses were estimated at $18,000.) After Rev. Sclater’s death in 1949, the congregation deliberated for a year, finally deciding to put the church up for sale in October 1950. In 1951, it sold to two congregations: the First Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and the First Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

A New Home

Eneri Taul escaped Estonia with her mother when Russia occupied her country in the Second World War II. She was bundled by her mother into a leaky fishing trawler with other Estonians fleeing the Russian fighter planes and submarines.

The Refugee Window, located on the south wall of the main floor of Old St. Andrew’s, depicts the treacherous journey these refugees made, first to Sweden, then to their new home in North America. As the National Post reported in an interview with Taul, a member of the First Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, Estonia lost one quarter of her population during WWII. “When it was over, there was no going home,” Taul explains. “But there was Canada.”

Before the Second World War, it is estimated that only a few hundred Estonians lived in Toronto; some were members of First Lutheran Church at 116 Bond Street, an English-speaking congregation. After the war ended, thousands of Estonian and Latvian refugees arrived in Toronto and soon formed churches of their own, including The First Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Toronto and the First Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation. Both congregations shared the building at 116 Bond Street to host their services, which became an important source of spiritual stability as well as cultural identity. 

Rev. Grunwald, minister of First Lutheran Church, gladly aided the refugee congregations, excepting the unfortunate dispute over the sauerkraut. As someone later testified, “Rev. Grunwald went out of his way to assist [the Latvian refugees], but he objected to the cooking of big pots of Latvian style sauerkraut, which filled the church and the neighbourhood with strong odours. He suggested either the Latvian church social gathering should be held without sauerkraut or the Latvians would have to leave the church.”

Both congregations did eventually move out of 116 Bond Street, although not for reasons of sauerkraut. Instead, their membership rolls were expanding, necessitating their own space. Seeing the “For Sale” sign at the church of Old St. Andrew’s, the congregations began to consider purchasing the Gothic Revival church, which resembled many of the churches in their respective homelands. They considered the advantage of the Sunday school rooms, which would provide an ideal place for church events as well as social and cultural gatherings. Finally, the building at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets provided accessibility.

On October 2, 1951, the Estonian and Latvian congregations purchased Old St. Andrew’s for $125,000, and on Sunday, November 4, 1951, celebrated their first joint worship service at 383 Jarvis.

Commemorative Plaque at Old St. Andrew's Building, 1978  Photo by Shenlor Young and Leemarc Lao

Commemorative Plaque at Old St. Andrew's Building, 1978
Photo by Shenlor Young and Leemarc Lao

Sent From on High

As the secretary and archivist for St. Andrew’s Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, Epp Aruja explains, the church served as more than a centre for worship services for the two congregations. It was an important cultural hub for the new immigrants. “The church was also the base for our Estonian schools, the Estonian Credit Union, guides, and scouts.” One part of the church basement was allocated to the two hundred thirty-second Toronto Boy Scout Troops, also known as “Riga 72” and sponsored by the Latvian Relief Society. As a test of courage, the scouts were dared to investigate the dark, shadowy corners of the basement. (Only the most timid were afforded flashlights.)

Years of archived photographs depict large gatherings in celebration of national holidays, confirmation classes, church anniversaries, children’s performances, as well as investiture and installation services. For over sixty years, the two congregations frequently used the building according to a creative timetable: Mondays and Wednesdays were scheduled as “Latvian days;” Tuesdays and Thursdays as “Estonian days;” weekend service times were rotated. (The Estonians had the morning worship service on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays of the month, the afternoon service on the 2nd and the 4th Sundays of the month.)

For more than sixty years, the congregations contributed equally to the building’s maintenance and improvement. They rebuilt the organ, replaced the original hot air furnace with a gas furnace, updated the electrical and lighting systems, sandblasted the church’s exterior, and replaced the roof three times. In 1989, the two congregations also impressively raised $250,000 to commission German-Canadian artist Lutz Haufschild with the design of 1,200 square feet of new stained glass windows.

The only directive given to Haufschild by the Estonian Archbishop involved the south Trinity Windows: “I don’t care what you do just so long as there is a big Jesus in that window,” he said. Haufschild, however, followed his own artistic impulse. In every successive design of the south Trinity Windows, the figure of Jesus grew smaller and smaller until he finally disappeared. “I push people,” Haufschild explained. “I can see more than they see.” In the end, the Archbishop conceded that Haufschild’s vision  had been the right one. 

But just as the members of St. Andrew’s United Church had moved out of the neighbourhood several generations earlier, the Estonian and Latvian congregations also saw an eventual decline in membership. The joint decision was made to sell the building to Grace Toronto Church. As one member recorded at the time, “We enjoyed the historic sanctuary for over sixty years. Many organizations got their start here over the years. Although massive and well-built, 136 years have done their work, and there is increasingly needed maintenance and repairs.”

“When Grace Toronto Church approached, it was like it was sent from on high.”

Mustard Seeds and Miracles

In July 2011, Kyle Hackmann, then associate pastor of Grace Toronto Church, stopped into Old St. Andrew’s “on a Calvinistic whim.” In a subsequent email to the church’s elders detailing his conversation with the church secretary, Hackmann explained that he had suggested to her the possibility of renting the building with an option to buy. Seeming enthused by the proposition, even intimating that the church had been praying for such an arrangement, the secretary had promised to speak with the pastor and council.

Although the initial enquiry and further discussions proved favourable, they did not produce immediate fruit. The purchase of Old St. Andrew’s would be contingent on the sale of the commercial building at 41 Britain Street, which Grace Toronto Church had owned since 2006. 

41B, as Grace congregants came to affectionately call their worship space at 41 Britain Street, had been purchased for $2.2 million dollars when Grace Toronto Church was only a year old, had no more than forty regular attendees, and was looking for a regular space to lease for their Sunday morning services. At the time, the church’s realtor had suggested looking for a place to buy. Rev. Dan MacDonald, pastor of Grace Toronto Church, had responded ironically, “I think this is a bit of a stretch.” But the realtor would not be dissuaded. “Don’t you believe in a God who made the whole universe in seven days? C’mon, where’s your faith?” 

The small congregation of Grace Toronto Church, not unlike the fledging congregation of Old St. Andrews one hundred and thirty years earlier, witnessed the providence of God as they sought to establish themselves in the heart of the city and purchase 41B. As one example of what MacDonald calls “miracles,” the owner of the commercial building on Britain Street, himself a professing Christian, generously agreed to donate $775,000 toward its purchase. Further, a friend of the ministry offered to lend more than $650,000 interest-free. As MacDonald puts it, “By God’s grace, a ragtag little church of forty people got a $2 million dollar building in the heart of the city.” 

Until the congregation eventually outgrew the space, 41 Britain was home. After 41B could no longer accommodate Grace Toronto’s Sunday morning worship services, the church began renting Sunday morning worship in local schools—first Jarvis Collegiate, then Rosedale School of the Arts.

Long-term leasing, however, had its obvious disadvantages. The weekly set-up and tear-down fatigued the church’s roster of volunteers. The children’s ministry required more suitable, safe space. The school permits were often subject to unexpected rental increases and building restrictions. Buying a church building was a logical next step, even if the church’s elders could foresee no obvious way of financing such an enormous project. 

Before the purchase of Old St. Andrews was eventually finalized in October 2015, three deals, for the sale and purchase of 41 Britain, fell through, and three church leaders, in all three congregations, despaired of the prospects that a final purchase agreement might be reached. But the leaders of the Estonian and Latvian congregation were undeterred: rather than see their historic church building developed into a large condominium, they held out hope that the building at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets would continue to serve the spiritual needs of Toronto.

Their prayers—and the prayers of Grace Toronto Church—were eventually answered. 41 Britain was sold, 383 Jarvis purchased, and a capital campaign to raise $2.63 million of the $4.1 purchase price was launched in earnest in the fall of 2015. 

As of August 2017, over 90% of the originally pledged monies had come in.

In the City, for the City

Grace Toronto Church calls itself “a church in the city, for the city.” Its mission uncannily parallels that of Old St. Andrew’s under the leadership of Reverend Milligan. 

On the morning of J. Ross Robertson’s visit in 1886, Milligan preached on the nature of a Christian’s calling. “A religious person may be at the carpenter’s bench or in the pulpit. The great thing is holy character. All Christian service, secular or otherwise, is holy.” In 1876, people were not simply gathered for worship at 383 Jarvis; they were sent out—into banks and schools, law firms and hospitals, apartment buildings and factories—to be agents of cultural and spiritual renewal. Rev. MacDonald, a former Toronto lawyer, preaches a similar message on the nature of Christian obedience. “Love for God and others is the primary motivation for all that we do—in work, play and rest.” He imagines commissioning the members of Grace Toronto Church, having been blessed by the gospel of God’s grace expressed through Jesus Christ, to share its good news.

“Love for God and others is the primary motivation for all that we do—in work, play and rest.”

Although the average Torontonian expresses wariness toward the institutional church, a 2016 research study by the University of Toronto, replicating a similar study by the University of Pennsylvania, has identified a ‘halo effect’ in cities and neighbourhoods as a result of a church’s active engagement. Of the ten congregations studied in Toronto, approximately $45 million dollars of cumulative impact in their communities was identified. This estimated economic benefit is owed to a church’s social capital and care, its value on volunteerism, and its direct impact on the lives of its congregations. In other words, for every dollar in a religious congregation’s annual budget, a city gets an estimated $4.77 worth of common good services. The Halo Project attempts to quantify what a community gains when a church comes to town. As one biblical proverb puts it, when the church functions well, “the city rejoices” (Prov. 11:10). The leadership of Grace Toronto Church is committed to this biblical idea of blessing their city—and being a good neighbour.

To support their mission of cultural renewal in Toronto, in collaboration with Larkin Architect Limited, Grace Toronto Church has executed an extensive renovation to the 139-year-old building at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton. Besides upgrading all mechanical systems, the church has lowered the basement floor to add classroom and office space in addition to accessible bathrooms. They have also replaced the pulpit and pews in the main auditorium as well as removed the stage in the upper hall, making more room for large gatherings and receptions.

In the ambitious capital campaign to fund these interior changes, a season which MacDonald admits to having entered with apprehension, he realized quickly with joy that “this community of people is really a family.” The church experienced a palpable degree of excitement at the prospect of owning Old St. Andrews, just as a young family might rejoice in the purchase of a home where they might grow and flourish. The church’s leadership imagines the building to be used, not just for its weekly services and events, but as a Church Planting Centre, a centre for concerts and community events, as well as a place to support the economically broken and spiritually hungry of the city.

Open for Business

As J. Ross Robertson sat in a pew at Old St. Andrew’s Church in 1886, he heard Reverend Milligan remind his congregants that “millionaires giving to the church and taking pews don’t make the church; holy [people] and praying [people] make it.” Milligan was referring to the common nineteenth-century practice of supplementing church budgets with pew rentals. Inevitably, the practice assured the best seats in the house were afforded by the very rich, and as the history of St. Andrew’s evidences, few vacancies accommodated the poor.

But Grace Toronto Church at Old St. Andrew’s, like most churches today, does not sell or rent its pews; its doors open wide to everyone. And through these doors, seating themselves on one of the sanctuary pews, visitors might enter on a Sunday morning to hear a public reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah during a Sunday morning service: “Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk, without money and without price.” From its weekly sermon to its small groups’ curriculum to its discipleship classes to its social justice partnerships, Toronto Church preaches a gospel of grace, which is to say: God’s reserves his most lavish gifts for the undeserving.

The church at the corners of Jarvis and Carlton remains open for business. And the good news is free.


Grace Toronto Church holds Sunday morning services at 10:30am. Children are welcome. 

Text: Jen Michel