Restoration help St. John's reconnect with its past

  • February 12, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - St. John’s Church isn’t what it used to be, but to Lynn East it feels like home.

“This is lovely. It’s like coming home again,” said East as she gazed from the back pew up toward the altar.

East was married at St. John’s on Kingston Road in Toronto’s east end in 1969. Shortly after her wedding the church went through major, post-Concilliar surgery. Not only was the communion rail taken down and the altar turned around, but the icons painted on the wall behind the altar were painted over and the grotto-like shrine for Mary filled in, covering up one of the church’s stained glass windows.

When church restorer Carlos Nunes came in to help the parish reconnect with its 1909 roots, just what was behind the layers of paint and under the broadloom carpet had been mostly reduced to foggy memory.

“We found this by accident,” he said.

Nunes found a lot, but the highlight is four iconographic symbols of sacrifice painted directly on the lathe and plaster walls surrounding the altar.

“For some reason they were covered over,” said Nunes.

More intricate hand painting looms above the altar on the apse, but for now they will remain covered. The St. John’s restoration budget can’t quite stretch to cover the hundreds of hours of painstaking work it would take to restore those long-lost paintings.

Nunes is hopeful the parish will one day find the money. He describes what’s lurking behind the paint high above as “breathtaking.”

Nunes and his team of expert restorers have uncovered and polished the old terrazzo floor, which gave them clues to the original colour scheme for the church. They’ve restored the old baptismal font, but moved it to the back near the entrance of the church. And they’ve repainted in a way that recalls the original conception of St. John’s — a modest church built by a far-from-wealthy immigrant community at what was then the outer edge of the city.

But Nunes’ goal was not simply to turn back the clock. Everything from modern lighting to the current liturgy has changed people’s sense about what makes a prayerful atmosphere, said Nunes.

With lighter colours and brighter lighting, Nunes aimed to create a “bright, hopeful sacred space.”

But the paintings behind the altar, which now look surprisingly contemporary, are an important connection with the heritage of the church, he said.

“These were competent, well-trained artisans. They knew their iconography,” said Nunes.

And Nunes knows exactly who painted them. The Brown family of master church painters was active in and around Toronto for three generations, from the 1890s through the 1980s. They had a hand in the majority of churches built through that long century of Catholic expansion in Toronto.

For Nunes there’s always a delicate, sometimes dangerous, balance between restoring the past and respecting the living community of faith.

“A gentle hand has to be exercised,” he said.

He has no desire to reimpose the 1909 church.

“History at that point would overtake the present,” he said.

But nobody should forget their roots.

“It is an echo to the past, without a doubt,” he said. “This was uncovered and put in balance.”

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