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Historic Canadian church in Toronto’s west end devastated by fire: a loss ‘too great to comprehend’

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A historic piece of artwork has been lost in a fire that destroyed much of church in Toronto’s Little Portugal area on Sunday.

Emergency crews were called to St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue, just north of Dundas Street West, just before 8 a.m. 

The scene of a fire at St. Anne’s Church in Toronto can be seen above. (CP24)

Footage from the scene this morning showed the blaze, which had evolved into a four-alarm fire. It caused significant structural damage and destroyed much of the roof.

Police say that no injuries were reported, and the cause of the fire remains unknown.

“This is incredibly devastating for my congregation. It’s devastating for this community,” Father Don Beyers, a priest at St. Anne’s, told reporters in an update on Sunday afternoon.

“I cannot express how far-reaching [the impacts of] this church fire is.”

St. Anne’s was built between 1907 and 1908, and was designated a heritage easement by the City of Toronto in 1996. It was the second St. Anne’s at that site. The first church was built there in 1862 at the same location facing Dufferin.

Beyers said that the church has provided a “vital resource” to many communities within the area and the city of Toronto in general. It hosts music and arts programs, Sunday worship services, community dinners and serves as a wedding venue among other pursuits, he said.

In addition, it was home to the only known piece of religious artwork made by the Group of Seven, alongside other notable paintings.

According to its website, the church’s interior design was commissioned by Group of Seven member J.E.H MacDonald. He enlisted a number of other artists to help execute the design, including Fred Varley and Frank Carmichael, who went on to be create, in-part, the revered Canadian painting group, Group of Seven.

However, in the Sunday afternoon update, Beyers’ said that it appears the artwork has been destroyed.

“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.

St. Anne’s ‘much more than just a building’

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Davenport Coun Alejandra Bravo amplified the important role that St. Anne’s had on both the local community and in Canada.

“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 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,” she said.

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

Crews are battling a fire at St. Anne’s Church in Toronto on Sunday. (CP24)

The church was designated a National Historic Site by the government of Canada in 1996 for its interior artwork.

Not only were the paintings done by legacy Canadian artists, but, according to Parks Canada, their detailed combination of written texts, narrative imagery, decorative plasterwork, and detailed architectural lines within the building manifest the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement that sought to pair architecture, painting and sculpture.

It’s a loss, Bravo said, “too great to comprehend.”

Too soon to know the cause of fire: TFS

Police say to expect delays in the area and use alternative routes, as Gladstone Ave is closed between College and Dundas street while crews continue to put out the fire.

“At this point our focus, our primary focus, is to make sure we knock down the remaining bulk of the fire and the hotspots, that we don’t allow it to spread, and the investigation will follow our normal systematic-scientific approach,” Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop told media.

Jessop said that the investigation will begin this afternoon, however it is “way too early” to speculate the cause of the fire.

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