Fr. Jimmy Zammit blesses the 148-year-old stations of the cross newly installed in St. Francis of Assisi Parish. The stations from a Belgian convent no longer in use form part of a massive renovation of the 1906 church. Photo by Michael Swan

Antique stations from Belgium bring new life to historic Toronto parish

By 
  • March 22, 2018

For almost half a century nothing has defined the historic parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Toronto’s Little Italy as much as the annual Good Friday procession which attracts 70,000 people every year.

The centrality of this dramatic devotion simply had to be reflected in the current renovation of the 1906 church, said long-time parishioner Ricardo Aleixo.

As a lover of old Church architecture and liturgy — he is the head sacristan at St. Michael’s Cathedral — Aleixo had his eye out for a set of stations of the cross suited to the neo-gothic architecture of the little stone church in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy. The idea was to replace stations of the cross which had been commissioned in the 1970s. They were modern and “quite nice” but didn’t “harmonize with the building,” said Aleixo.

 Then an email from a church salvage specialist in Europe landed in  Aleixo’s inbox at just the right time.

“I saw a set (of stations) there and said, ‘Wow, talk about divine providence,’” he said. 

Recovered from an old Franciscan convent in Belgium, the terracotta relief panels on offer in the email were from the 1870s and matched almost precisely paintings of stations of the cross that St. Francis of Assisi had prior to the 1970s. 

“The frames and the silhouettes are exactly what we had,” Aleixo said.

Station 5 Jesus

View all stations of the cross


With scaffolding still surrounding the congregation, the stations of the cross purchased and transported from Belgium were blessed on March 18, marking one more milestone in a process that will see the parish soon reclaim its church from construction crews.

“I’ve renovated this church more than my own home,” said Rose Nasso, a St. Francis parishioner for all of her 54 years who has seen two previous renovations.

She described the blessing of the new stations of the cross as, “the start of celebrating what we have now.”

The renovation has been a long and stressful process, but satisfying in its thoroughness, said St. Francis of Assisi pastor Fr. Jimmy Zammit.

“It’s more than a lick of paint,” he said.

With Good Friday just over the horizon, Zammit is looking forward to welcoming the flood of Italian Catholics who come back to their home parish every year to experience the stations of the cross out on the street and then pray them again inside the church. Last year the pilgrim crowds had to make do with a screen hung outside the church.

“Now we’ll have our church back,” Zammit said.

For parishioner Peter Pasceri the renovation is a welcome sign of the vitality and the staying power of his church.

“It’s nice to see some of the old artwork coming out,” he said.

Aleixo pointed out there’s more to this than just the harmonizing of church furnishings with period architecture. The stations of the cross in many ways define the parish.

“It’s a devotion that speaks to one of our most popular processions in the city, which is the Good Friday procession,” he said.

“It’s rightful that something of this beauty is put in a church that is known for its Good Friday procession. 

“It’s quite a prayerful devotion for Lent and it’s nice that we have them now. And we conclude Holy Week by going to the streets and having a procession in honour of our Lord.”

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