The nativity stained glass window at St. Michael’s Cathedral is more than a century old, but it has been cleaned, restored and practically reconstructed. Photo by Michael Swan

St. Michael's Cathedral getting a Christmas makeover, too

By 
  • December 16, 2016

St. Michael’s Cathedral looks like an old church. But sit down in a confessional and take a deep breath.

Smell those wood shavings? A hint of volatile organic compounds coming up from the glue and grout around the stone? It’s almost a new-car smell.

That’s because, in reality, the restored St. Michael’s Cathedral has become Toronto’s newest church. It just happens to be standing where one of Toronto’s oldest churches has stood since 1848, wearing mostly the same bricks that have draped its elegant form for 170 years.

In the new church, the old Christmas decorations just aren’t going to work.

“You can’t put things where we used to put them before,” explains cathedral rector Fr. Michael Busch.

The tabernacle that used to be on the right is now to the left of the altar. The old side altars are now exits. There’s space for wheelchairs where there used to be pews.

“Our florist has come in and done a whole new, complete floral plan for the cathedral, because the space is totally different. Everything is totally different,” said Busch.

For Busch — a priest who studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design years before he entered the seminary — hauling out a box of Christmas decorations and randomly spewing them across the front of the church just isn’t an option. There is order, design and purpose behind everything the rector presents to St. Michael’s parishioners.

This year’s Christmas decorations — which won’t go up until the last few days before Christmas so that Advent may remain Advent — will in fact be less spectacular than the cathedral decorations of past years.

“In the past, because the building was in such a shabby state, we wanted to draw people’s attention away from that,” Busch said. “So your decorations, your flower arrangements, (in previous years) tended to be over-the-top.”

This year Busch has no intention of distracting anybody away from the cathedral-basilica.

“People will be coming to see the new cathedral. Some have not seen the cathedral since the old time, last year. Last year it was nothing but scaffolding,” he said. “The space now is beautiful in and of itself. So what we’re doing now is doing little counterpoints to bring the beauty out.”

With the focus on the church itself, many will seek out the nativity stained glass window — the same one that’s been there for more than a century. But they will be seeing it cleaned, restored, practically reconstructed. The slightest shaft of sunlight will now cause the window to glow.

One constant will be the nativity statuary Busch was able to purchase 10 years ago thanks to donors who had grown tired of the chipped and much repaired nativity scene of yore. But it won’t be framed by the side altar, as it was in the past.

“The City of Toronto told us we had to have more exits. So, that’s where our nativity scenes used to sit — on those side altars with the nice backdrop,” he said. “Well, I can’t do that anymore. So I had to figure out where am I going to put the nativity scene. And when I put it there, I need something to surround it so people know that’s where the nativity scene is.”

A carpenter is working on a life-sized creche and boxes where trees and other elements of the scene can be elevated and emphasized at different times during the Christmas season.

While a lot has to change, the cathedral staff are trying to re-use as many elements as they can from previous years. Some of the smaller urns are being spray painted so they will fit in with the new colour scheme.

“But we’ve had to buy some new things as well,” Busch said.

Perhaps the most spectacular addition to St. Michael’s Christmas decor will be about 300 more people comfortably ensconced in the new balcony. In past years hundreds of the faithful have been stuck outside listening to Midnight Mass on loudspeakers.

The new, restored St. Michael’s will one day also be able to accommodate extra worshippers in the crypt chapel downstairs and perhaps St. John’s Chapel in the back. For this year, Busch is hoping for a full house with the 300 extras in the balcony and nobody freezing outside.

“But now that they know, I might get 600 (more) people this year. Who knows,” said Busch.

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