Source: Facebook

Police are investigating after a historic church in Toronto containing artwork by Canada’s famous Group of Seven was completely destroyed by a fire on Sunday.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church,  in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood was constructed between 1907 and 1908.

The church was designated as a national historic site in 1996 and was given heritage protection by the City of Toronto that same year. 

Toronto police arrived on the scene around 8am on Sunday morning and found the church “fully engulfed in flames.” No one was injured by the fire.

“The building is completely destroyed right now, as are all the artifacts inside,” Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop told reporters.

While Jessop said that it’s still “way too early” to speculate what the cause of the fire may have been, Toronto police have set up an online portal for people to submit photos or videos which may help with the investigation. 

“This is incredibly devastating for my congregation. It’s devastating for this community,” Father Don Beyers, a priest at St. Anne’s, told reporters during a press conference on Sunday. “I cannot express how far-reaching (the impact of) this church fire is.”

Beyers said that beyond Sunday services and weddings, the church hosted music and arts programs, events for various communities, dinners and was a “vital resource” for the community. 

The church was built in a Byzantine revival style style, replacing a previous church on the same site that was built in 1862. 

St. Anne’s also continued a number of notable artworks by prominent Canadian artists, including a series of murals done by three members of the Group of Seven, all of which were lost in the fire. 

The murals were the only religious works of art known to be done by the Group of Seven, commissioned by the group’s founding member J.E.H. MacDonald in 1923. 

Group members Fred Varley and Frank Carmichael were also contributors.  

“The elaborate interior mural decorations, designed by J.E.H. MacDonald, cover the walls and ceiling of the apse, the main arches, the pendentives and the central dome,” reads the Parks Canada website.

Parks Canada called the murals a “remarkable cycle of paintings” which belonged to the “revival of mural decoration that emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century and is a manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to ally architecture with the sister arts of painting and sculpture.”

In describing the church’s heritage value, Parks Canada said St. Anne’s decorative Byzantine art was integral to the church’s architectural style.

“This is the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven, and I’m sorry to say, but that’s been lost from what I can see,” said Beyers, who called the incident “devastating” and “heartbreaking.”

“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.”

Davenport city councillor Alejandro Bravo said that St. Anne’s was not only important to the local community but also to Canada’s history and culture as well.

“It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada, and in the world, but this is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, home, love, brought people from the community together, served (the) needs of people who needed it and provided the spiritual support that people so desperately needed in times where they’ve also fallen on hard times,” said Bravo at Sunday’s press conference.

“Davenport has lost something that can never be replaced, and the grief that people are expressing to our office is tremendous.”