Lawrence Voaides, a master stone carver, next to the one-quarter scale model of his custom Pieta for St. Michael’s Cathedral during the cathedral’s recent open house Photo by Evan Boudreau

Inside the ‘hundred-year fix’

  • December 9, 2015

TORONTO -  St. Michael’s Cathedral will soon be filled with Christmas worshippers but in the early days of Advent the empty church is in the care of artists and craftsmen whose skilled hands are restoring the cathedral to it former splendour.

The artists put their unfinished works on display Dec. 7-9 to media and the public. With pews currently absent from the 168- year-old building, craftsmen had a unique space to showcase what cathedral rector Fr. Michael Busch called “the beautification of this building and the sacred art that will go into it.”

He said the empty space allowed visitors to learn “the story behind the art.”

“That is what makes it even more special,” he said. “The art itself is teaching us many things about our faith but these artists have a story as well.”

The cathedral has been closed to the public since June 17 due to safety concerns, but will reopen for Sunday Mass until Jan. 2, as well as remain open for services throughout Christmas week. It will then be re-closed until restorations are completed in the spring.

When the $128 million restoration is finished — which includes converting a crawl space containing 67 graves under the building into a full basement with crypt, chapel and washrooms — thousands of handcrafted works of art will decorate the Archdiocese of Toronto’s mother church. Among the pieces Busch is particularly looking forward to is a custom designed Pietà for the crypt.

The Pietà is being created by Lawrence Voaides, a master stone carver, who is carving the likeness of Mary consoling a dying Jesus out of a 10-ton block of marble.

“It is an amazing feeling, especially since I come from a communist country,” said Voaides, a Christian Orthodox immigrant from Romania. “The communists tried to strangle religion. To see this monumental revival in Canada, the new country, it is amazing.”

A one-quarter scale model of his Pietà was on display for the open house event.

“I’m still working in the studio on the full-sized model and hopefully in a few weeks I will start to carve the big block,” he said.

The actual stone carving is expected to take a couple of months to finish.

Voaides also worked on the exterior restoration of the church, the interior flooring and some mouldings for bronze work.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

With 45 years experience working by hand with stone, Voaides said he is impressed at the quality of the original craftsmanship put into St. Michael’s.

“It is beautiful to see the way they’ve done everything with no machines,” he said. “Now we have some technology and we try to use it, but we still use the kind of tooling by hand. I have two sons and I am trying to teach them, to pass on this trade, because we need to have that in the new generation to continue to maintain all of these beautiful buildings and our heritage.”

Fellow Christian craftsman Dragan Milenic, a wood carver from the former Yugoslavia, was working on the confessionals during the open house. He was also struck by the quality of the existing work.

“There were high quality carvings that were here and we’ve managed to reconstruct them to the same nice quality that existed before,” said Milenic. “I’ve seen many churches in my career and, this one, I was stunned and I was amazed at the quality and seriousness with everyday detail. This project is fantastic.”

Another major artistic element of the cathedral will be the complete restoration of the stained glass windows being done by John Wilcox’s Vitreous Glassworks. In addition to restoring the existing glasswork, Wilcox, a Catholic from Toronto, is custom designing two new windows for the north and south of the church, making this the most significant project of his career.

“We’ve done conservation work on large buildings, cathedrals, before but never such a complete mandate of conservation and new work,” said the fourth-generation church builder.

“This is likely one of the largest stained glass conservation projects in the history of Canada. I’m sure I’m stretching that out but ... most congregations wouldn’t have the means to do it all at once so this is really a unique experience.”

Busch called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.

“We wanted what we call a hundred-year fix,” he said. “We want it to stand for another 100 years.”

For a list of holiday services to be held St. Michael’s Cathedral visit

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