After a 6-year $128-million renovation, Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral finally reopens. Photo by Michael Swan

Refurbished St. Michael's Cathedral resumes its place in the heart of Toronto

By 
  • September 27, 2016

TORONTO – Following a six-year, $128-million renovation St. Michael’s Cathedral is finally ready to open its doors, rededicate its altar and give thanks to God for its new life in the heart of Toronto.

No corner of the cathedral was overlooked as the 168-year old building, from spire to crypts, was stripped down, repaired and expanded.

It didn’t start out as such a mammoth project for the Archdiocese of Toronto, but God laughs when we make plans.

“It needed repair. It needed to be fixed,” said Toronto’s archbishop, Cardinal Thomas Collins.

“It’s a sign to the whole diocese of the kingdom of God, and it’s a sign to the secular world. One of the things we need to point out to people is the vibrant presence of Christ in the midst of our life.”

That vibrant presence will receive a two-day, 21st-century coming-out party with an invitation-only rededication Mass of the cathedral Sept. 29 and a Mass of Thanksgiving at noon the following day, followed by a party outside the cathedral on Bond Street.

A Friday night concert featuring St. Michael’s Choir School and the cathedral’s brand new Opus 3907 Casavant Organ has been sold out.

Space is tight for all the events, but the occasion will call the attention of the entire city.

“I’m sure we will have such a celebration,” Mayor John Tory told The Catholic Register. “It will be very broadly inclusive of all the people of Toronto, not just people who are Catholics.”

When Collins arrived in Toronto in 2006, he wanted to paint the front doors of the cathedral. St. Michael’s rector Fr. Michael Busch immediately looked into what he thought would be a simple job of necessary maintenance. But they couldn’t paint the doors without scraping off old paint. The old paint contained lead. Scraping that paint would disturb the plaster nearby. Underneath that plaster was asbestos. On it went.

New doors have been waiting to be unveiled to the public since 2012. The main carpenter on the restoration project has kept the doors in the back of his shop in Mississauga. There’s no sense risking a nick or a dent before the rededication.

“We’ve had those entrance doors on hold since 2012 in our shop. Hopefully, they will be installed shortly,” Art Magic owner Vince Parolin said as the project entered the home stretch.

In addition to new doors, the cathedral has a new choir loft that seats about 260 people, new pews, new marble flooring, new and restored stained glass, new and restored statues and new lighting, sound system and elevator. There will also be a memorial to Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, and a new chapel in the crypts with seating for about 300.

With the outdoor scaffolding down, the most visible and obvious exterior difference is new and cleaned bricks along with restored statuary around the cathedral spire. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. That spire has a new steel interior structure which should keep it standing for another 100 years. As renovations began almost six years ago, engineers discovered the spire was in danger of falling over.

Inside, church-goers will likely first notice the new ceiling arrayed with gold stars painted on a dark blue background. But looking up, you won’t notice how the pillars, which had been crumbling and threatening to bring down the roof, have been stabilized. Engineers closed down the church in June 2015 when it became clear the interior structure was unstable.

“Some things are priceless,” said architect Catherine Nasmith. “How do you put a value on conserving the collective memory associated with the religion, the city, the place, the time of its creation and, most of all, the extraordinary commitment to future generations made by those who created it in the first place?”

With both visible and invisible restorations complete, including rebuilt foundations, Busch is anxious to get one of Toronto’s hardest working churches back into gear. The rector is adamant St. Michael’s hasn’t been restored for merely historical or esthetic reasons.

“I’m not interested in building a museum,” he said. “I’ve said all the way along, this is not a historic relic for me. This is a living, vibrant community that we’re building for.”

For people who care about preserving Toronto’s architecture, reopening the cathedral represents a milestone in awakening Toronto to its own history.

“It’s not enough to simply restore and conserve,” said Kaitlin Wainwright, Heritage Toronto’s director of programming.

“But telling the story of the history of the building as well as the restoration process is really important to helping the public understand.”

“We don’t want cultural amnesia,” said Collins. “This is holy ground.”

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