St. Stephen-in-the-Fields at College and Bellevue is one of the city's most romantic buildings - but it's now threatened by the Anglican diocese, which wants to turf the congregation. We're losing too many of our sacred inheritances. Here's why you should kick up a storm. Rating: NNNNN
A brief history
• Built in 1857 by Robert Brittain Denison, a member of the Family Compact who helped put down the Rebellion of 1837.
• Burned to its exterior walls in 1865. Rebuilt in 1866.
• Gets its name from the fact that it used to be situated quite literally in fields before College was extended west of University.
• Designated as a heritage property by the city in 1977.
• In the early 80s, property around the church, including the parish hall and rectory, was sold, and parts of the church itself were converted into 4,000 square feet of rental space to raise money for the beleaguered parish.
• Today the church houses three congregations (English, francophone African and Spanish), hosts weekend breakfast programs, ESL classes for immigrants, a youth theatre company and a sanctuary for the homeless, and serves 7,000 meals a year to the needy.
• Bell tower, red brick and pale grey stone facings, humped roof, stained glass windows, pipe organ, choir stalls with carved poppy-head ornaments, hanging lamps in the sanctuary.
Claim to fame
• One of Toronto's oldest surviving Victorian Gothic revival churches, it was the first Anglican church west of Spadina.
• Home to first religious broadcasts aired on CFRB and shortwave radio during the Great Depression.
• The only remaining building in the city by renowned architect Thomas Fuller, who also designed the original Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
The current controversy
• Anglican diocese has ordered the parish to repay $375,000 in money owed for priest's salary over the last 15 years by next June or move.
The big fear
• That the diocese has plans to sell the church to a developer, or at the very least sell it to commercial interests that will mess with its historical integrity.
What makes preservationists think diocese has plans to sell the church
• The diocese fought to be excluded from recent protections for heritage properties written into the Ontario Heritage Act, arguing instead for the right to dispose of the property.
• The diocese has declared one of every 10 of its church properties surplus and is already closing another church in the area.
The planning fix
• Although it's been declared a heritage property, the church can still be sold to a developer, knocked down and replaced with a condo if council determines such a plan is suitable.
• A prospective developer can appeal to the OMB if council withholds approval of such a plan, an eventuality preservationists don't want to chance since there is no precedent here and the OMB has been developer-friendly in recent years.
What the diocese says
"We are still in discussions with the parish about how they can eliminate the debt. They were asked to bring a proposal to the diocese. We've discussed how [the church] might be able to meet its financial obligations and how it might proceed if it can't. There's been much speculation that the building will be sold, but we've had no discussions about the future of the building at this stage."
Peter Fenty, Archdeacon of York, executive assistant to the bishop
What the parish says
"We do a lot of multicultural and multilingual programming. If they shut us down and evict us, all of that stops and the Anglican church loses a socially progressive voice in Kensington Market."
Jeff Nowers, warden of St. Stephen
What preservationists say
"The loss of St. Stephen would be a cultural calamity that would generate tidal waves of shock, indignation, outrage and fury. This building cannot, must not be lost to posterity. It must be saved and every possible step taken to ensure its survival."
K. Corey Keeble, curator of Western art and culture, Royal Ontario Museum
"The diocese can't argue that it has the same rights as a private landowner to sell the property. It owes its standing to its tax-free status and other subsidies granted by society. That should be returned in kind by leaving the church in the hands of its congregation."
Catherine Nasmith, vice-president, Architectural Conservancy of Ontario