Chimal and Wendy exchange jokes as they knead a batch of English muffins at Toronto’s St. John’s Bakery. Photo by Jean Ko Din

St. John’s Bakery revives an Easter tradition

  • April 2, 2015

TORONTO - At St. John’s Bakery, the spiced, sweet scent of freshly baked hot cross buns fills the air. The bakery revives this popular tradition every year in anticipation of the joy of Jesus’ resurrection. But more than preparing an Easter treat, the hands that make the hot cross buns are symbols of hope and community.

“The fundamental premise for the bakery is that work is not just an economical need, but it’s a fundamental human need,” said Aaron SanFilippo, administrative director. “From a Christian perspective... it’s a form of stewardship.”

St. John’s Bakery is a social enterprise that boasts the best bread in Toronto (two years in a row according to NOW Magazine).

The bakery prides itself on producing high-quality products.

For Easter, the bakery specializes in hot cross buns, a traditional Easter food that dates back to pre-Medieval times in England.

“Hot cross buns are actually a very traditional Good Friday treat,” said Heather Levchuk, bakery manager. “The cross on the top is a representation of the Church.”

Hot cross buns became a popular food for Lent because many Christian traditions fast from dairy products during the Lenten season. English folklore tells of the food’s powerful properties to cure illness and dispel evil. It is said that when hot cross buns are baked on Good Friday, they will remain fresh and mould-free, just as Christ’s body remained whole after His crucifixion.

The buns were deemed to be so sacred that Queen Elizabeth I decreed that the food was only allowed to be sold on Good Friday, Christmas and for burials.

The bakery employs underprivileged members of the community, new immigrants, people with criminal records or a history of substance abuse, and other marginalized people who have trouble finding employment.

“Give us work, not charity is the mantra,” said SanFilippo. “Buy our bread because it’s great bread.”

The bakery produces a variety of artisanal bread for grocery stores, restaurants and other vendors across the city. Skilled bakers work and train  unskilled employees through an informal apprenticeship program. For six to nine months, new employees go through different stations at the bakery, depending on their particular interests.

“Some of our people are not just interested in baking, but also in retail and marketing,” said SanFilippo. “There are opportunities for that as well.”

The bakery currently employs 15 people, but SanFilippo said that not all employees go through the program.

Levchuk said the bakery is looking to develop a more formal apprenticeship program with two different streams of training.

The first will provide training for college students looking for a supplementary program for school credit. The second is for those not registered in a college program, who will receive similar training and spend six months rotating between different stations of the bakery.

The bakery is looking to launch the formal programming in the fall.

“Presently, there really is not an institution to train artisanal bakers,” said SanFilippo. “For St. John’s Bakery to become a sort of training ground is something that we’re interested in looking into.”

The bakery is closely supported by the larger St. John’s Compassionate Mission. The mission is a local neighbourhood collaboration with Social Services in Toronto to create a meaningful place of community.

In many cases, St. John’s Bakery finds employees through the work of St. John’s Mission.

“It’s work is to build community, especially with the poor and marginalized and the needs that people have, not just material needs, but also a need for community,” said SanFilippo.

St. John’s Mission is also closely connected to St. Silouan Orthodox parish. In Orthodox tradition, Easter, or Pascha, is celebrated this year on April 12. As part of the Easter celebration, St. John’s Mission hosts a “Vespers of Love” in the afternoon. After vespers, St. John’s Mission hosts a roast lamb feast that is open to the entire community.

“We always assume that the Church is only for the parishioners. Pascha is for everyone,” said Deacon Theodore Alamanos.

“Because of the joy of Pascha, it’s important that we open our doors to everyone and not exclude anyone because that’s what we do during the week.”

Alamanos said that during these celebrations the diversity of the community is truly emphasized. The communities of St. John’s Mission and St. Silhouan parish consist of people from all cultures and all walks of life.

“We’ve been fasting and complaining that we have to fast... but for some people that come here, that’s their life,” said Alamanos.

“That’s all we do is have a taste of what it’s like to have our stomach growl. For some of these folks, this is the only meal that someone gets.”

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