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‘Heartbreaking’: fire destroys historic Toronto church and rare paintings

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An early morning fire at a Toronto church has destroyed both a historic site and rare paintings by an acclaimed group of Canadian artists, leaving the city reeling from a “heartbreaking” loss.

Fire crews responded on Sunday to a blaze engulfing St Anne’s Anglican church, a national historic site in the city’s Little Portugal neighbourhood.

“The building is completely destroyed right now, as are all the artefacts inside,” Jim Jessop, deputy fire chief, told reporters, adding it was “way too early” to determine the cause of the fire.

For those close to the church, the blaze represented an “extraordinary” cultural loss.

“While this is incredibly devastating for my congregation, it’s devastating for this community,” Don Beyers, a priest at St Anne’s, told reporters. “I cannot express enough how far-reaching this church fire is going to be.”

Among the vibrant art on the walls of the church were nearly 20 works depicting Jesus’s life painted by members of the Group of Seven, an acclaimed Canadian art collective that reached its creative zenith in the 1920s.

The group is credited with dramatically reshaping how Canadians understood and perceived the vast wilds of the country. In recent decades, work by the members has become among the most highly sought-after art in the country.

In 2016, a mountain scene by member Lawren Harris sold at auction for more than C$11m (US$8m). While the group stands atop lists of Canada’s most famous painters, the legacy of the Group of Seven has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, including how it excluded equally talented painters who were women.

The Group of Seven members JEH MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley contributed scenes high above the pews. This detail is by MacDonald and titled Entry Into Jerusalem. Photograph: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The works lost in the fire were by JEH MacDonald, Fred Varley and Franklin Carmichael, who depicted Old Testament prophets, the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

“The elaborate interior mural decorations, designed by JEH MacDonald, cover the walls and ceiling of the apse, the main arches, the pendentives and the central dome,” Parks Canada says on its website. “The cycle combines narrative scenes, written texts, as well as decorative plasterwork and detailing accentuating the architectural lines of the building.”

Beyers said the 18 murals were exceedingly rare.

“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,” he said.

The church, inspired in part by the Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, was completed in 1908, eventually designated a national historic site of Canada in 1996. The Byzantine design marked a departure from the conventional look of Anglican churches and the only of its kind in Canada.

As the building smouldered on Sunday, local politicians gathered to mourn a cornerstone of the community.

“It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada, and in the world, but this is much more than just a building,” said city councillor Alejandra Bravo. “This is a place that has provided support, home, love, brought people from the community together, served 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.”

According to reporting by CBC News, 33 churches across the country have been destroyed by fire over the last two and a half years, with many ruled to be arson.

Fire officials say no one was inside the church at the time of the fire and there were no reports of injuries. Police have set up an online portal for members of the public to submit photos or video footage as investigators try to determine the cause of the blaze.

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