Church fire that gutted Group of Seven murals was ‘heartbreaking’: priest
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Church fire that gutted Group of Seven murals was ‘heartbreaking’: priest

TORONTO — As investigators work to determine the cause of a devastating fire at a historic Toronto church, community members and art experts are mourning the loss of a sacred space that housed unique works of art by members of the Group of Seven.

TORONTO — As investigators work to determine the cause of a devastating fire at a historic Toronto church, community members and art experts are mourning the loss of a sacred space that housed unique works of art by members of the Group of Seven.

The Sunday morning fire caused extensive damage to the Anglican Church of St. Anne, a national historic site where “remarkable” early paintings by three members of the Group of Seven and other prominent Canadian artists were installed in the interior in the 1920s.

Paintings decorated the presbytery and the dome, which were destroyed in the fire. There was no one in the church at that time.

“Honestly, it breaks my heart to come here and see a church like this,” said the parish priest of St. Anna, priest Don Beyers, in an interview Monday near the building as the smell of ash hung in the air.

“I almost felt sick when I saw it,” he said, adding that church members were “extremely hurt and sad.”

The distinctive central dome of the Byzantine-style church built in the early 20th century is no longer there, its interior appears to be dilapidated, and its brick walls are damaged but still standing. On Monday, several church employees accompanied by firefighters carried documents out of the building.

Toronto police said the fire is not currently being treated as suspicious, although investigators are still trying to determine the cause.

The fire marshal’s office said Monday it was too early to draw any conclusions.

“The timeline for this investigation, like all others we are conducting, is fluid and will take as long as necessary to definitively determine how the fire started,” spokesman Sean Driscoll said in an email.

Beyers said the community not only lost a place of worship, rituals and holiday celebrations, but also “Canadian artwork at its best.”

In 1923, the church commissioned J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ throughout the interior of the building. MacDonald subsequently signed nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley.

MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley formed part of the school of landscape painters known as the Group of Seven.

“It’s almost hard to describe how beautiful these pieces were and how rare they were. As far as I know, it was the only religious work ever created by the Group of Seven,” Beyers said, noting that the murals depicted important biblical scenes and prophets.

These depictions of prophets in particular showcased Varley’s skill as a portrait painter as well as his landscape artistry, said Rob Cowley, president of Cowley Abbott, a Toronto-based art auction company.

Cowley said in an interview that it would be “impossible” to assign a monetary value to the destroyed murals.

“What was so valuable was the space in which they were located and their historical significance,” he said. “Their importance in the marketplace cannot be determined simply because they are different from what the Group of Seven was most famous for, which were representations of the Canadian landscape.”

Sarah Bassnett, an art history professor at Western University, said the missing murals were part of an early 20th century movement to integrate painting with architecture. This movement was interrupted by the First World War, but to some extent it was revived in the 1920s, she added.

“It’s part of a movement against mass production and an appreciation for what is unique, beautiful, handmade and… that has been incorporated into this particular church in Toronto,” Bassnett said.

Peter Coffman, an architectural historian at Carleton University, in an “eulogy” published Monday, called the church St. Anna’s “magnificent renegade”.

“It was beautiful, it’s true, exceptional. But it was also rebellious. It was Byzantine when Anglican churches were supposed to be Gothic. They were decorated by artists with no experience in liturgical art,” Coffman wrote in a post on the university’s website. website.

“When fully completed, it was certainly the strangest Anglican church in Toronto and probably in the country,” he wrote, concluding that it would be “impossible” to rebuild the building.

However, Beyers, a priest at St. Anna, said that the church community is determined to be reborn from the ashes. He hopes to achieve this goal through donations and support from others.

“I know we’ll get out of this,” he said. “This is not the end for us and we have no intention of stopping it. We will continue”.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2024.

Maan Alhmidi, Alex Goudge and Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press