Jewel connects spiritually with surrounding city

  • August 31, 2013

Few of us associate Scarborough with Florence. But next door to the Scarborough Bluffs architect Arthur W. Holmes deposited a little taste of Italy from Florence’s greatest architect.

St. Augustine’s Seminary was modelled after Il Duomo and the Church of San Lorenzo by Filippo Brunelleschi. But Holmes was doing more than just copying a great master of Renaissance architecture. He was putting a Catholic stamp on Protestant Toronto, announcing the presence of a newly confident Catholic community.

“It’s such an amazing building in the city of Toronto,” heritage architect Philip Goldsmith told The Catholic Register. “There won’t be any more like it... I love the way the building is sited. It doesn’t face Kingston Road. It faces the cathedral (St. Michael’s). The spirit of it is that it faces Toronto, it faces the cathedral. I have to imagine that that wasn’t an accident. That was a spiritual connection.”

The bit Holmes borrowed from Florence’s cathedral, Il Duomo, is the dome which dominates the lakeside views of Scarborough.

“I took the curve and proportion of this dome from that of Florence, and spent midnight oil and barrels of sweat upon it,” Holmes wrote to the builder Martin Whelan in September 1912.

The pearl within the oyster of St. Augustine’s is its neo-classical chapel. Right in the centre of the 109-metre-long building, the 220-seat chapel is full of light, under a series of arches that form a coffered ceiling. Compared to most churches of the period, Holmes kept this interior simple.

Holmes wanted all attention focused on the altar. In 1905 the Vatican had issued a decree on “The Daily Reception of Holy Communion” to counter insidious, Jansenist notions that lay Christians are unworthy and therefore barred from the Eucharist. In Holmes’ mind the purpose of this chapel was the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the young men being prepared to offer the Eucharist to a hungry and growing nation.

Holmes was a convert from Anglicanism. He came to Canada in 1885. After a brief run at operating his own office on Adelaide Street, he found work as a draughtsman under Canada’s leading Catholic architect, Joseph Connolly. Working for the Irishman, Holmes became a Catholic. When Connolly died in 1904, Holmes took his place as the first architect called for any big Catholic project.

“He was the Catholic architect for Ontario, as was Connolly before him. He was very significant. There’s a huge heritage and legacy that he’s left behind for us,” said Toronto church architect Roberto Chiotti.

Holmes’ 1944 obituary in The Catholic Register described him as “decidedly English, well-lettered, adequately trained in organ music and skilled in the art of building.”

In Toronto alone he built or made significant alterations to St. Ann’s on Gerrard Street East, Holy Name on the Danforth, St. Helen’s on Dundas Street West, St. Peter’s at Bloor Street West and Markham, Holy Family on King Street West, St. Patrick’s on McCaul Street and the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto. He also designed a long list of schools, hospitals, houses and a brewery.

“Even in his Anglican days he was convinced religion should be housed in a large upper room, well furnished,” said The Register.

Holmes’ chapel at St. Augustine’s has been through a number of modifications over its 100 years. A marble statue of St. Augustine was installed in 1930. Paintings of the Apostles by Guido Nincheri were added to the ceiling in 1933. More marble was added to the altar in 1959 and the statue of St. Augustine replaced by a large, Italian marble crucifix. As the Second Vatican Council contemplated changes to the liturgy in 1964, the chapel went from choir seating (facing the centre aisle) to congregational seating (facing the altar).

For the largely immigrant Catholic population of Toronto in 1913, Holmes’ architecture was a way of claiming continuity with all they had left behind in Europe.

“All of our early Church architecture looks to classic design, particularly European design, for inspiration and the development of our culture in the new world as a continuum of what we had in the old world,” said Goldsmith.

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