St. Luke’s, Bay Street

Today’s St. Luke’s Church, East York (seen in this picture from the parish’s website)  is a modern 1960s building located at the corner of Coxwell and Cosburn in the east end of Toronto.

St. Luke’s roots, though, are in the centre of the city, on what is now Bay Street but, in the nineteenth century, was called St. Vincent Street. The first St. Luke’s was a small frame building located at the corner of St. Vincent and Breadalbane, just south of what is now Bay & Wellesley. (I’ve not found a photograph of this building.)

The parish was founded in 1870. It seems that the impetus in establishing St. Luke’s was related, in substantial measure, to the desire among some in the district for an Anglican parish with a higher churchmanship. St. Luke’s first rector, John Langtry, previously served as the Assistant Curate of St. Paul’s, Yorkville (what is, today, St. Paul’s, Bloor Street) but  was said to be uncomfortable with its low churchmanship. (Langtry, born in 1832, was the first graduate of Trinity College to be ordained — in 1855 — just two days after his 23rd birthday, the canonical minimal age for ordination at the time.) A small geographic parish was set aside for St. Luke’s, carved out of the westernly portion of St. Paul’s parish.

In 1882, the second St. Luke’s was opened, to the north, at the south-east corner of St. Joseph & St. Vincent Streets, (what is now St. Joseph & Bay Streets). (The two photographs below are from the Toronto Public Library digital collection.)

Designed by the architects Darling & Curry, it was said to be far more attractive on the inside than the outside. (These photographs are also from the Toronto Public Library collection.)

The parish history, written in 1956, records that the interior attracted beyond denominations lines. “The chancel and nave were of compelling beauty, with a lovely altar lending itself perfectly to the realization that this was a House of God. Many Roman Catholics lived in the neighborhood, some of whom, because of the church’s beauty, used it as a place to say their prayers, although their own St. Basil’s Church was across the street and only a block away.”

The hope was that St. Luke’s would become a university parish, situated as it was at the western edge of the university. This hope never materalized, but St. Luke’s played an important role in missions to begin new parishes to the north, and in the support and establishment of the Sisters of St. John the Divine (SSJD). O.P. Ford, an Assistant Priest from 1886 to 1888, was the first warden of the nascent SSJD, until his early death. The parish also supported the presence of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew in Canada. Never a large parish, it did provide a high church alternative to its two neighbours to the north — St. Paul’s, and the Church of the Redeemer. In 1879, for example, St. Luke’s became the second Anglican parish in Toronto to have a vested choir (a sign of its Tractarian sympathies.) The photograph below, found in the Diocese of Toronto archives, was taken on Easter morning 1896. 

These photographs, also in the diocesan archives, show the interior of St. Luke’s.

A contemporary description of the parish’s demographics, written in 1890 when the new building was consecrated and debt-free, speaks of its economic make-up: “The congregation has not exceeded 500 regular attendants at any time. It has never had but one member (and that only for a short time) who had not had to earn an income. It has never had more than five members at any time who have not had to practice economy to live, and yet these results [i.e. the absence of capital debt] have been attained.”

In 1906, just three years after a parish hall was added to St. Luke’s, the parish was beginning to struggle. In part this was the result of the illness of the rector, John Langtry, who seems to have built and sustained the parish in large measure by force of personality. As well, wealthier parishioners had died or were moving out of the neighbourhood. In addition, St. Luke’s geographic parish was never large, with St. Paul’s and Redeemer to the north, and Grace Church, Elm Street and Holy Trinity to the south. By the 1920s, the neighbourhood had ceased to be residential. Bay Street had been extended from the south and become a major thoroughfare. Eatons, College Street and Maple Leaf Gardens had been built. Bishop Strachan School, which John Langtry had been instrumental in founding, had moved north from its location on College Street. As the parish history puts it: “By 1925, from a residential point of view, every aspect of permanence was obliterated. Save for the miraculous generosity of one wealthy man, with assistance from a few others, St. Luke’s flag would have been ‘stuck’ years before.”

In 1926, the vestry of St. Luke’s voted to relocate, a decision encouraged and supported by the bishop. The question was where. Several ideas were put on the table, all of them having St. Luke’s move north, but all of these plans were resisted by the parishes already established (such as St. Leonard’s, St. Clement’s and the Church of the Transfiguration). For four years, the future of St. Luke’s remained unclear until, in 1930, it was agreed that it would move to the east, to a new location on Westwood Avenue, just west of Pape, north of Danforth. The first plan had been to amalgamate St. Luke’s with St. Andrew’s, Todmorden. In the end, St. Andrew’s resisted and a parish was carved out of its territory for St. Luke’s. (The two parishes amalgamated six years later.)

The cornerstone on this building, shown below, makes the link back to 1870 and the founding of St. Luke’s in what is now the city’s core. (This building was sold in 1970 and the parish amalgamated with the Church of the Comforter, the name moving to the current St. Luke’s building. The building above, as well as St. Andrew’s, Todmorden, will be the subject of future blog posts when lostanglicanchurches moves across the Don River.)

The church and property on Bay Street were sold to the Dominion Automobile Company.

A condition of sale was that the church building be demolished. Below is a photograph of the site of St. Luke’s — Bay & St. Joseph — today. (With the downtown condo boom, this is now very much a mixed business — government — residential neighbourhood.)

A postscript: The 1956 parish history was written by the Reverend G.F.B. Doherty, who served as rector of St. Luke’s from 1913 until 1948. Writing some thirty years after the decision to relocate was taken, Fr. Doherty reflected rather strongly on the experience, and the opposition to the move: “Only those who have had a part in the closing and moving of a church can have any idea of the difficulties which such an operation involves, of the bitterness and unscrupulous determination of the opposition and the unkind and indefensible methods to which it resorts. The devil is exceedingly staunch when a church is to be kept where it is no longer useful. “Move a consecrated building!!!”, he cries, “never while I can tell lies and blacken character and write letters to the newspaper and the Bishop.”  (!)

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