The cathedral has welcomed parishioners of nearby Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Church to use its yet unfinished space for Sunday services. The Melkite Catholics had been homeless after their Thornhill, Ont., church was engulfed in flames last October.
They were allowed into the cathedral after Helen Roman-Barber, who sits on the board of the Slovak Greek Catholic Church Foundation, which owns the cathedral, received a temporary occupancy permit from the City of Markham to accommodate the Melkite Catholics.
Despite scaffolding and ongoing construction in the cathedral’s interior, the Melkite Catholic parishioners were grateful for the space. But although once again a place of worship for Eastern Catholics, the cathedral’s original vision will never be fully realized.
It was originally conceived by Stephen B. Roman, a mining magnate and father of Helen Roman-Barber, as “a beacon for his fellow Slavs in central and eastern Europe.” Now it seems destined to become a home of ecumenical worship for all Catholic rites, said Roman-Barber.
When Pope John Paul II established the first Slovak Byzantine Catholic Eparchy in North America in October 1980, he marked Toronto as a place of preservation for the spiritual heritage of the Slovak Byzantine Catholic Church. During his 1984 Canadian visit, Pope John Paul II blessed the cornerstone and the altar stone of the cathedral, making it the first church in North America consecrated by a pope.
Four years later, Roman died at the age of 66 without seeing his cathedral dream fully realized. The cathedral held its last Slovak Greek Catholic service in 2006 and, caught up in controversy, it has been closed to the public ever since.
Eparch John Pazak removed the blessed sacrament and the altar stone after negotiations with the foundation deteriorated. Pazak suspended permission for any of his priests to celebrate Mass in the former cathedral and asked the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto to do the same.
Since then, Roman-Barber, head of Cathedraltown Courtyard 1 Limited Partnership., has faced criticism from the residents of a subdivision surrounding the cathedral called Cathedraltown. It had been marketed as a European-inspired community with a lake, piazza and the cathedral at its centrepiece. Today there is no lake, no piazza and the cathedral is still under construction.
“Cathedrals take decades to finish,” said Roman-Barber.
But recent activity inside the cathedral has sparked a renewed interest among the residents.
The Melkite Catholics have seen a huge growth in their congregation since they began celebrating noon Mass at the cathedral. Fr. Ibrahim El Haddad, pastor of the Melkite Catholic church, had to add a second Sunday service at 10 a.m. to accommodate a new flood of people.
The Melkite Catholic Eparchy of St. Sauveur has no plans of adopting the cathedral as part of the eparchy. The eparchy’s cathedral is the St. Sauveur Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral in Montreal. The Slovak Greek Catholic community in Toronto currently gathers at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God in downtown Toronto.
So the cathedral in Markham will be a cathedral in name only.
“When it’s open to the public, the cathedral will be an ecumenical place of worship for all Catholic rites,” said Roman-Barber.
She hopes that, following the installation of new mosaics, the cathedral will reopen by spring.