This cornerstone in Victoria Memorial Park (at the corner of Portland Street and Wellington Street West) is all that remains of the Church of St. John the Evangelist (hence S.J.E.), better known as St. John’s Garrison Church.
The parish was organized in 1844 with the intention of it being the garrison church. (Until then, St. James’ Church had been the garrison church, which was a significant walking distance from Fort York.) At first, meetings were held in the open air, later moving to St. Andrew’s Market. In 1848 two acres of crown land were allocated for a church and military burying ground.
The first St. John’s was a white clapboard building built in 1858. Originally the parish served both the military and the wealthy Torontonians who lived in the neighbourhood. A 1944 newspaper articles includes this bit of colour commentary from St. John’s military days: In the days when St. John’s was a military church the presence of row after row of smartly uniformed troops must have been a wonderful sight…The soldiers always left the church before the rest of the congregation. An old entry in the vestry book says: ‘After the military leaves there shall be a decent interlude to restore order before the service is resumed.’
By 1880 the neighbourhood had changed, and St. John’s congregation had become a good deal less wealthy. John Ross Robertson writes: Like the sleepers in the unknown graves by its side, so its former greatness and glory have departed forever. The fault is not in the church, but in the natural causes that more the residential centre and induce people to seek more modern and luxurious places of worship.
By the 1890s, the building was in poor shape and, despite the demographic changes of the parish, a decision taken to erect a more substantial St. John’s, designed by architect Eden Smith.
A map of the community displayed in Victoria Memorial Park shows the location of the second St. John’s.
In the twentieth century, St. John’s became the hub of substantial social service ministries. In 1922, in cooperation with St. John’s hospital on Major Street (owned by the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine), St. John’s Garrison Church bean to operate a medical clinic at which no one was refused medical care, even if they were unable to pay. In 1943, the clinic was treating 250 men, women and children each week.
St. John’s was also ran St. John’s Rest Home at Corbett’s Point, neary Whitby, a place where men and women employed in manufacturing in the local community could spend time with their families, enjoying “good nursing, good food and plenty of fresh air.”
In the 1950s St. John’s was situated in, what the the Reverend W.E. Mann, the parish priest, called “people in desperate, aching need.” By 1963 the building was in need of serious repairs which the congregation was not able to finance. The decision was taken to demolish the building. (Some of the windows were sent to St. Crispin’s, Scarborough, and others to the chapel of the Pickering Village Retirement Home.) In its place, build a modern multi-use building which included worship, meeting and recreational space, as well as living space for the priest. This new St. John’s, Portland Street continued until 1985, when the property was sold.
This is the site of the former St. John’s, as it appears today.
The story of St. John’s, the Garrison Church, is encapsulated in this historical plaque.