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Professor Roberto Perin launches website tracing social history of local churches

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New incarnations for houses of God

A new website traces the social history of 240 churches in the west end of Toronto

Jun 17, 2007 04:30 AM
Leslie Scrivener
Toronto Star

"It's sad to see how the old WASPs have abandoned their ancestral churches in droves," a tall man, who looked like he might belong to Toronto's Jackman family, said last Tuesday at a Glendon College party. "They don't know what churches their parents attended, or what churches their grandparents were married in."

His comments were fitting, considering the occasion, the launch of a website dedicated to the ever-changing landscape of churches and other places of worship in west end Toronto.

It turned out that Rev. Edward Jackman, a church historian and a priest in the Dominican order, which is noted for its preaching, is the brother of Ontario's former Lieutenant Governor Hal Jackman. He had done some changing himself. The Jackmans are United Church, but Edward converted to Catholicism decades ago.

Places of Worship in West Toronto (www.glendon.yorku.ca/placesofworship) is the result of 10 years of research, on foot, in interviews and in archives by two Toronto professors, Roberto Perin and Gabe Scardellato of York University. The Sunday Star wrote about their project two years ago, and they expressed their hope that a website or walking-tour guide might emerge from their research.

The result is a clearly organized reference tool, with hundreds of photos and text on the social history of each building, which can be called up by clicking on a map.

About 35 people, mostly professors, students and a few clergymen, were at the celebration in York Hall, which has wide windows that overlook a ravine and the toy-like parade of cars across the Bayview Ave. bridge.

Perin, who shares with Scardellato an interest in immigrant history, highlighted a half-dozen or so of the 240 places of worship they chronicled. Most carry stories of the movement of people, often immigrants, through the city. One hundred years ago, Toronto was uniformly Protestant – mostly Anglican – he said.

Some churches have had seven incarnations, revealing unusual combinations of ethnicity and religious alignment. As in Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Clinton St., which was previously home to congregations of fundamentalist Christian Workers, Welsh-speaking Presbyterians and Slovak Lutheran Evangelicals.

Places of worship "speak to what the city was once and what it has become," the website notes.

Perin told the story of the former High Park Presbyterian on Boustead Ave. It was formed by church members who opposed the union of Protestant denominations that led to the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925 and built their own church. But faced with declining membership in 1966, they joined with Morningside Presbyterian on the west side of High Park, and three years later, sold the building, which became Toronto's first mosque, the Jami Mosque.

Perin went on to describe the First Narayever Synagogue on Brunswick Ave. It started life in the 1880s as an order of Foresters Hall and later was home to a congregation of English-speaking Mennonites, until it became a synagogue in 1943. In the 1960s, the congregation began to change as members decamped for the suburbs. But a decade later, young Jewish families eager to embrace the downtown their parents had abandoned started moving in. "Except their form of worship was different from the old-timers, and they had to worship on different floors," he said. The newcomers prevailed, and it's now an Orthodox egalitarian congregation.

Questions followed. Why only the west end?

"We both live in the west end," Perin said, but mostly because waves of immigrants settled in the west part of the city.

Scardellato noted that even though the older immigrant families may have moved on, younger generations still return to the neighbourhoods and the old churches. "It's not just religious; it has these social signifiers."

As the party drew to a close, Jackman, general secretary of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, also had something to say about the suburbs.

"Religion is by no means dead. It has new forms, especially in the suburbs."

And why is that? "Parking lots."


Published on June 18, 2007