Photo gallery
Contact us

St. John the Evangelist [Garrison] Church

Stephen Otto


St. John's Anglican ("The Garrison") Church in its various forms perched on the north side of Victoria Square for a century and a quarter until 1985. For the first thirty five years its story is an architectural one as two successive church structures, a rectory and a schoolhouse were erected; a military one as soldiers from Fort York and Stanley Barracks swelled its attendance; and one of religious observance as the faithful filled the rest of its pews. But for the latter half of the period the church, buffeted by wars and the Depression, struggled to remain relevant as the area around changed from residential to light industrial, from mostly British to multicultural; as the military at the fort and residents of Little Norway disappeared; and as its bold social service initiatives were superceded by state programs.

Historical Occupancy

In 1872 a schoolhouse- parish hall was built west of the church on Stewart Street. A roughcast frame structure 40 feet by 60 feet in size, it contained one large room with a gallery over one end. Under the gallery and capable of being closed off by a moveable screen was an area devoted to the infant school and a library. On the exterior the building was plain almost to a fault, with a dwarf trio of Gothic-headed windows above the front entrance, and large windows with pointed tops along the sides. Walter R. Strickland of Toronto was the architect. The schoolhouse was said to be modeled functionally on the plan of the Mechanics' Institute and was the locus of social welfare work. Dr. [Newman W.] Hoyles was instrumental in its construction, which cost almost $2,000. The contractor was Mr. W. A. Lee.

After the first church was demolished circa 1903/10, the schoolhouse was moved east to occupy a site next to the second church and raised three or four feet on a new basement. By then it had become solely a parish hall, where bazaars, fancy-fairs, church suppers and other events were held. In 1945 the building and its property at 7 Stewart Street were sold and Westco Pump and Engineering began its long occupancy. At the time the structure was torn down in 2002 to make way for a condominium, it was the oldest building in the Wellington Place Neighbourhood. In a report to a committee of Council in August, 2002, city staff recommended that the building not be included on the City's Inventory of Heritage Properties because it had been relocated and altered.

Second Church

The decision was taken at Easter, 1892, to replace the old church with a new one. Eden Smith was commissioned to produce the designs. He was a young English-born architect who had just started his own practice after spending four years in Strickland & Symons' office. The last project he worked on there was St. Simon's Anglican Church, Howard Street, Toronto. St. John's was his first job after setting out on his own. He may have won it on the recommendation of his old boss, Walter Strickland, who had been the architect for the schoolhouse twenty years before. At almost the same time as Eden Smith was working on St. John's, he was designing the extant St. Thomas's Church, Huron Street, but it is no longer possible to compare them in detail. While there was never any doubt the new church would be Gothic in style, Eden Smith brought an Arts and Crafts sensibility that produced, according to R.H. Hubbard, a drastic simplification of the style. This simplification and the architect's choice of brick over stone resulted in a building that, like its predecessor, was erected very economically. Both churches held about 600 worshipers, but the new one also could accommodate a choir of 60 members and had many more facilities tucked into its basement: a morning chapel for 80 to 100 people, two choir vestries, a Sunday School room, library, lavatory and furnace room. The cornerstone for the structure was laid on the 8 October 1892. John Smith and Scott & Cross were the contractors.
The new church was opened on 4 May 1893. It served almost exactly seventy years until it was deconsecrated in a final service held on 12 November 1963. Demolition began a month later, after the furnishings, flags and memorials had been removed.

Multi-Purpose Building: "St. John's House"

In 1962, in anticipation of the demolition of the 1892 church, the churchwardens in conjunction with the Diocese of Toronto commissioned plans from B. G. Ludlow & Partners, architects, of Toronto and Cobourg, for a rectangular brick building on the site of the old rectory to contain gymnasium equipment, a shower and kitchen in the basement, a “worship space” and rector's office on the main floor, and an apartment for the rector on the upper floor. Called St. John's house, it served the dwindling congregation for over twenty years until 1985, when it was sold with a parking lot to the north (the site of the 1892 church) to Main Entrance Entertainments. St. John's House stood until 2002 when it was demolished for the 50 Portland condominium.


Partially visible in some photographs is a rubble stone cairn inset with a bronze plaque. The earliest reference to it found so far dates to 1921, when City Council voted monies to cover “the repairs required to the monument of St. John's Church.” In 1929 the cairn was described as “a monument . . . erected by the men of the Stanley Barracks.” Passing references through the 1940s make clear that memorial wreaths were placed there on Remembrance Day and other occasions. The cairn remained until 1982 at least, and probably until the property was sold in 1985, long after the church had been demolished and its site was being used as a parking lot.

Historical Events and Associations

1 Military

The Church of St. John the Evangelist was often called the Garrison Church, or St. John's Garrison Church. This was an honorific rather than an official designation, although the church's links with the military were strong. As noted above, Sir John Colborne's plans to build a chapel for soldiers at the Toronto Garrison on public land with public funds fell through. While the military authorities granted the Anglicans a site in Victoria Square, the land was reserved there for ?churches' in general, and in due course some was granted to the Methodists too. However, those same authorities contributed nothing to building the first St. John's, leaving the costs to be met by private subscribers. Pews in the church were reserved for soldiers at the Garrison for reasons of pride and proximity, not obligation.

Until 1870 the Garrison was made up of British Regulars and church parades were a traditional part of a soldier's life. Most were held in conjunction with Anglican churches, although Scottish regiments often marched to Presbyterian churches. Roman Catholics and non-Christians but not Dissenters were excused from church parades. It was natural that St. John's, as the nearest Anglican church to Fort York and the military cemeteries, would be involved with the religious side of military life. When Canada took over responsibility for its own defense from Britain in 1870 the available evidence suggests there were few changes in the way church parades and the chaplaincies were handled.

At least two incumbents at St. John's, the Rev. J. Russell MacLean and Capt. the Rev. J. T. Robbins, were chaplains to the soldiers at the Stanley Barracks. With the establishment in 1883 of a small Canadian Permanent Force, Col. [later Sir] William D. Otter who was the officer commanding the Infantry School Corps at the Stanley Barracks took an interest in St. John's that continued until he stepped down as Rector's Warden shortly before his death in 1929. In the following year a window in the church was dedicated in his memory.

Col. Otter and the band of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, as the Infantry School Corps came to be known, were present in 1892 at the laying of the cornerstone for the second church, and also in the following year at the first service in the new church. In 1922 the Royal Canadian Dragoons were the first to lay up their colours in St. John's Church. Their example was followed later that year by H. M. Army and Navy Veterans' Association who laid up the flag presented to the unit by George V before he became king. In 1941 the First Canadian Armoured Car Regiment, Royal Canadian Dragoons, followed suit. When the church was closed and deconsecrated in 1963 the regimental flags were taken down and said to be sent to St. James' Cathedral. Their present whereabouts are unknown.

2 Medical Mission

From 1922 until some time after WW II a medical mission and dispensary existed at St. John's providing outpatient care without fee and follow-up visits for low-income residents in the area. It was established under the leadership of the rector, the Rev. J. Russell MacLean, as a memorial to the 40 members of the parish who died in the First World War. Held thrice-weekly in the church basement, the clinics were run by St. John's Hospital, Major Street, under the direction of the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. The hospital provided the medical staff while operating expenses were met by the Anglican Church and the Garrison District Business Men's Association. From 1800 patients in 1922, the Mission's caseload rose to 4000 in 1931, when it could claim to be the largest free clinic in Canada. By 1946 some 12,000 people were treated annually. The Mission was open to all denominations without distinction, although specific spiritual support was offered to those who wanted it.

3 Fresh Air Camp

In the same year, 1922, that St. John's established the Medical Mission, it also launched a Rest Home and Fresh Air Camp at Corbett's Point on Lake Ontario near Whitby for lower-income people living and working in the vicinity of the church. Again, the rector, the Rev. J. Russell MacLean, seems to have been the driving force behind the project. The Medical Mission and the camp operated in tandem; the health of those attending the camp was overseen by the staff of the Mission. By 1928 some 550 men, women and children enjoyed a week or two in the country each year. At first the camp had only one permanent building, which contained a lounge, dining hall and offices. Sleeping accommodation was in tents. Later, a recreation hall was donated by E. B. Collett, president of the Garrison District Business Men's Association, and several cottages by the Westminster and Clementina Fessenden Chapters, I.O.D.E. The camp's operations had to be scaled down in 1933 on account of the Depression; they appear to have been discontinued a short time later.

4 Little Norway

The Nazi invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940 was met by two months of active resistance before King Haakon VII and his government fled to exile in London. There they undertook among other things an immediate reorganization of the Royal Norwegian Air Force. In August, 1940, they made an agreement with Canada to establish a training centre in Toronto; by November “Little Norway” camp had opened to train pilots and aircrews. Ultimately two thousand airmen would pass through the camp, located at the foot of Bathurst Street in close proximity to the Island airport where flight training took place. There was also a school for recruits at Hanlan's Point. By April 1941 the first trainees were on their way back to Europe. In 1942 a second flight training centre was established at the Muskoka Airport, Gravenhurst, and the recruit school relocated to 'Vesle Skaugum', some log buildings specially erected at Interlaken, northeast of Huntsville.

“Little Norway” attracted a stream of important visitors. Perhaps the most notable were Crown Prince Olav and Princess Marthe who came in early 1941. The schedule for their visit included a church service in Norwegian in St. John's Church. Ingmar Bergman's muse, Liv Ullmann, was christened there on Christmas Eve, 1941, having been brought to Little Norway as a small child after her father, a flight lieutenant and engineer, was posted there. After the war the Norwegians left behind a plaque and a Norwegian flag to commemorate their links to St. John's. Both now seem to have disappeared.

5 Early Ecumenical Initiatives

In 1922, at the invitation of the rector, Rev. J. Russell MacLean, Russian Orthodox services in Russian were held weekly in the church presided over by a priest, Father L. Bodnarchuk. This arrangement appears to have continued for several years. In 1926 the courtesy was extended to followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox tradition and St. John's was the setting for the first Orthodox mass celebrated in Ukrainian in Toronto. Father A. Sarmatiuk officiated.


A bronze plaque erected in 2000 by Toronto Culture exists already on the grassy boulevard along the south side of Wellington Street facing the new condominium that now occupies the site of the church. It is increasingly difficult for anyone to visualize the context in which St. John's existed before its demolition without having graphic materials that help tell the story. As well, the plaque text dwells heavily on the architectural history of the church at the expense of other aspects of its story that are outlined above.
There exist a small number of pictures of the two church buildings and the schoolhouse, several maps and insurance plans for the area, and a few news photographs of St. John's social service activities. Only one physical remnant of the second church, although admittedly a robust one, survives. Its red sandstone cornerstone laid in October, 1892, sits at present largely unnoticed under a tree in the park, having been rescued at the last moment before the demolition of St. John's House in 2002. Complementing this artifact is a hand-lettered memorial to which attention has been directed above commemorating the laying of the cornerstone.

However, the biggest change in the area's character came between 1900 and 1914 when factories and warehouses were built to replace houses along King, Spadina, Wellington and Bathurst streets. These employers attracted hourly-paid workers to the vicinity who often were of European rather than British stock and lived in rented rooms instead of owning their homes. By 1922 when St. John's Medical Mission was founded out of the necessities of the district' to serve local residents of all creeds and nationalities,' it was apparent that unemployment, mental illness, poverty and sickness were the lot of many living within the boundaries of the parish. This profile worsened with time as scrap yards and parking lots replaced the remaining houses and St. John's inescapable problem came to be depopulation.

St. John's Anglican Church
City of Toronto Archives -
Series 380

Cairn, 1981
Patrick Cummins Collection