The St. Anne’s Church fire in Toronto serves as a cautionary tale to preserve our cultural heritage

The St. Anne’s Church fire in Toronto serves as a cautionary tale to preserve our cultural heritage

On June 9, St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood was substantially damaged by fire. The church was designated as a National Historic Site in 1997, in part due to its unique collection of murals that included rare examples of religious-themed Group of Seven artwork.

A historian characterized the fire as a “catastrophe for Canadian architecture, Canadian art and Canadian heritage.”

When I visited the site of the fire on the day after the blaze, it was difficult to take in the sight of the fire-ravaged church. Bystanders were struggling to make meaning of the profound loss, and clergy displaced by the fire were on the streets to provide solace.

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The church is now trying to regroup by moving activities to a parish hall, and a GoFundMe campaign is underway to support rebuilding.

The study of protection of historic sites during disaster tells us that cultural heritage is a fixed and nonrenewable resource. In St. Anne’s Church, a collection of religious murals — including some by the Group of Seven — form part of Toronto’s cultural patrimony that has now been lost.

The art within St. Anne’s Church is now part of Toronto’s lost cultural legacy.

Preventive conservation

At the time of writing, fire investigators are still determining the cause of the St. Anne’s Church fire. Arson is not suspected.

From a fire safety perspective, historical structures present unique fire safety challenges.

St. Anne’s church was built between 1907 and 1908. The church did not have an installed fire sprinkler system because it was built prior to the existence of modern fire codes.

Preventive conservation standards suggest that one important way fire hazards can be controlled is by installing an automatic sprinkler system throughout the building. Technologies and practices do exist for placing sprinkler systems in historical buildings, but costs can be high.

Efforts could have been made anytime in the last 117 years to better safeguard the structure from fire. But actions were not taken.

It is not fair to suggest that St. Anne’s parishioners should have alone absorbed that burden to protect the structure and its contents valued by the wider community. In retrospect, an open question is how could have St. Anne’s have been better helped by heritage and government programs supporting historical preservation?

a man in neon yellow protective gear stands outside a burned-down church

Fire crews inspecting the damage at St. Anne’s on June 10, 2024.
(J. Rozdilsky), CC BY

Inspiration for recovery

All that is now left at St. Anne’s is ruins which may be difficult, if not impossible, to rehabilitate. But inspiration for the recovery can be drawn from what happened after a cathedral fire in Winnipeg 56 years ago. St. Boniface Cathedral-Basilica was constructed out of the ruins of a 1908 structure that was consumed by fire.

On July 22, 1968, workers were doing some roofing maintenance and repair on the bell towers, when one reportedly carelessly disposed of a smouldering cigarette. The church’s wood chip insulation ignited, and fire quickly spread through the 60-year-old structure’s wooden frame.

For the recovery, decisions were made that the effort would not try to recreate the old cathedral. Rather, the fire was commemorated as the ruins were incorporated into the design of the new cathedral. Manitoba architect Étienne Gaboury created a new hybrid construction.

In 1971, a new chapel reopened within the ruins of the previous building. Today, the new smaller cathedral incorporates the ruins of the burned façade. The unique redesign of St. Boniface now serves as the space for a continuation of over 200 years of religious practice, along with being a unique architectural asset for Winnipeg.

A cautionary tale

Barriers to retrofitting the church with modern fire suppression systems include making modern alterations to the original historic building, managing a very challenging task and obtaining the money to get it done. In retrospect, it may be found that those barriers may seem small as compared to the tasks that may be faced with replacing the entire structure, notwithstanding the loss of irreplaceable cultural artifacts.

It will take a large effort to rebuild St. Anne’s Church. Inspiration, creativity, patience, grit, determination and support from the wider community are needed for St. Anne’s to rise again from the ashes.

The St. Anne’s fire is a cautionary tale about what happens when we know how to reduce risks to safeguard our cultural heritage, but then for a variety of reasons we do not.

The post “The St. Anne’s Church fire in Toronto serves as a cautionary tale to preserve our cultural heritage” by Jack L. Rozdilsky, Associate Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management, York University, Canada was published on 06/26/2024 by