“The art that was destroyed is irreplaceable”: The rector of St. Anne’s Church on the fire that burned down the historic building

Reverend Don Beyers discusses the Group of Seven murals that went up in flames, how he’s been handling the loss spiritually and how the church plans to rebuild

By Anthony Milton| Photography by Derek Shapton
Reverend Don Beyers standing in front of St. Annes, which has been burnt except for it's exterior walls

In the early morning of June 9, as the vendors of Do West Fest were setting up their stalls for the day, smoke and flames began spewing from St. Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue. The landmark, whose great Byzantine dome was adorned with intricate murals painted by members of the Group of Seven, had caught fire. Despite the efforts of firefighters, by day’s end the church was gutted, its dome reduced to charred beams. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but all of the building’s art and artifacts were destroyed. To take stock of the tragedy, we spoke with St. Anne’s rector, Reverend Don Beyers, about the day of the fire, the priceless artwork that was lost and the future of his parish.

Where were you when you first heard about the fire? I was at home, which is on Queen West just south of the church. I got a panicked text message at 8:09 a.m. from one of the church leaders saying he saw smoke in the area. I left right away, but it was only when I got to Dundas that I saw the actual flames. It knocked the wind out of me. At first, I stood there in shock, not knowing what to think. I just started crying. But, three or four minutes later, I realized I needed to act. I gave the firefighters a sense of the building’s interior and showed them where the gas line was. I could confirm there was no one inside—I’m usually the first one to get there on a Sunday morning.

How did the rest of that day go? I camped out at Loveless, a nearby café, since it was one of the only places open that early. Eventually, I went over to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, on Manning Avenue, to join my congregation. I answered their questions and held our Sunday mass. It was one of the most moving worship experiences of my life. There was immense grief and sadness, yet also hope.

Before the fire, had there been any concerns about the building? Old wiring and so on? No, and there’s no evidence of foul play either. Historic buildings have to go through annual inspections, and all that came up in the last one were typical capital repairs. Nothing was flagged as dangerous or worrisome. Our staff had done a great job of maintaining the structure, and it’s deeply traumatizing for them to see the thing they devoted themselves to come crashing down.

The exterior walls of St. Anne's church are all that remains after the fire

What was it like to preach in a space adorned with Group of Seven paintings? Oh my gosh, amazing. The previous church I was at was in Bolton, Ontario. It was a classic country Anglican church with white walls and simple stained glass. On my first Sunday at St. Anne’s, the place felt huge, and it was overwhelming to be surrounded by these great pieces of Canadian art. The church’s large central dome held four major murals, which were painted by Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael and J. E. H. MacDonald. They depicted the birth, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Varley also did paintings of St. Anne, St. George and the four great prophets. It took a while to get used to. It was powerful.

Were churchgoers just as inspired? Definitely. Almost every Sunday, we’d have five to ten people come just to look at the artwork. One of our congregants developed an online tour of the church, which is on our YouTube page. This may sound strange, but it had an almost living element to it. It wasn’t a passive experience to look at these works; they drew you in. The dome in particular had a way of elevating your mind.

A painting of Jesus in a boat during a thunderstorm
Photo courtesy of St. Anne’s Anglican Church

How did those murals get there in the first place? At the time the building was conceived, the priest at St. Anne’s was Reverend Lawrence Skey. He was a member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, where he met and befriended members of the Group of Seven. When it came time to design a new church for the site, he approached them to decorate it. They accepted, and the project was done in 1923. The result was these very unique murals, which in some ways respected traditional Byzantine iconography but also had these contemporary art deco flourishes.

A painting of Jesus rising from the dead
Photo courtesy of St. Anne’s Anglican Church

The structure was notable for being built in the Byzantine style—odd for an Anglican church. How did that happen? At the time St. Anne’s was built, most Anglican churches were going through an English Gothic revival. But Reverend Skey had done a sabbatical in Istanbul, where he was struck by the Hagia Sophia, a mosque that’s an amazing example of Byzantine architecture. There are different accounts, but the story goes that Skey appreciated that this style predated modern divisions within the Church. That fit with his own ideas: at a time when Protestantism was very sectarian, Skey was revolutionary for inviting ministers of other Protestant sects to preach. That was basically unheard of.

The interior of the dome that was destroyed at St. Anne's
Photo courtesy of St. Anne’s Anglican Church

St. Anne’s also had huge stained-glass windows. Were they valuable as artworks too? Extraordinarily so. At the time, churches usually went to Europe for stained glass, but the windows at St. Anne’s were produced in Canada, mostly in Toronto. On the north side, there was a huge window that was a memorial for First World War soldiers. The glass itself incorporated themes of resurrection as well as Canada’s flag at the time, which still had the Union Jack. The windows on the south side had scenes from the lives of Jesus and several saints.

The massive stained glass windows at St. Anne's
Photo courtesy of St. Anne’s Anglican Church

What were some of the lesser-known artifacts? There were sculptures done by two women, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, that depicted the four gospel writers. There was also a three-part mosaic in the sanctuary by Alexander Sboboda. It had a large cross, which drew people’s eyes as they walked into the church. We also have an Indigenous sacred garden on the church grounds, and unfortunately part of it was destroyed trying to shore up the building after the fire. The work was necessary—parts of the church could have collapsed and killed people. But it meant that sacred trees and medicinal plants were lost. I’m not Indigenous myself, but that loss felt just as great as the loss of the church.

Can any of this ever be replicated? No, and we have no intention of trying. Nothing could possibly compare. Whatever comes next will be built in consultation with the worshipping community and neighbourhood, and any artwork will be done by Canadian artists who reflect the rich diversity of our country. My dream is to get Indigenous and queer artists to paint the interior of the new church. In recent years, St. Anne’s has been dedicated to creating deeper relationships with Indigenous peoples and advocating for same-sex marriage. I’m gay, and I’ve felt alienation from the church over the years. I see commissioning artists as an opportunity for reconciliation.

A look at the damage done by the fire, which took out the interior and roof of St. Anne's

You’re a reverend without a physical church. How are you carrying on? We’re still proceeding as a regular church, just in the parish hall behind the main building. It has a large auditorium that we’re using for worship, events, programming, education and community dinners.

Have congregants been looking to you for answers about the random nature of the fire from a spiritual point of view? Oftentimes, people react to a tragedy by asking, “Why did God allow this to happen?” But, with the fire, what I’m hearing is, “Look what God is doing through this.” God didn’t make the fire happen. All buildings are vulnerable. That’s the reality of living in the material world. In some unique way, this tragedy has actually given life to the community. As Anglicans, we see God through relationships and love, and people have been coming together since the fire. That’s God working within and among us, drawing us closer as a congregation—and as a neighbourhood. People are stopping me on the street, asking how they can help.

You must have had to answer a lot of questions about loss in the past weeks. How has that been? Yesterday, I was looking at the remains of the church, and I got quite emotional. There was this deep sadness. We forget, in this day and age, how historic buildings and artworks ground us in something deeper than our present moment. We need that. If we’re always focusing on current affairs, we lose a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. I’ve been reflecting on how we take the art and beauty around us for granted. I wish I had appreciated it more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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