Toronto's Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is a "mother church for the Chinese community," says Fr. Peter Chin. Photo via Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church/www.jiamo.org

Million-dollar facelift at Toronto Chinese parish

By 
  • November 2, 2007
TORONTO - Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church just got a $1-million facelift. In just under one year art restorer Carlos Nunes and his team has restored the downtown Toronto parish to look as it did in 1908, except for a few new additions reflecting the culture of its Chinese congregation.    

"This is the most comprehensive restoration project I've been involved in," said Nunes.

Before the restoration the ceiling was entirely covered in tin casing, the stained glass windows were scotch-taped together or smashed in and boarded up with cardboard.  

The parishioners were displaced to St. Patrick's parish just behind the church on McCaul Street, while Nunes replaced the pews with scaffold towers to work on the sanctuary, side walls, ceiling and floor.

The parish was decaying until Fr. Peter Chin became pastor five years ago and decided to take action. First he hired workers to lay a new foundation to ward off termites. Then he had the roof fixed, which had remained untouched for more than a century. A new electrical system was soon installed along with other small repairs.

"Nothing was being done here because it was a temporary mentality," said Chin.    

For a century Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been a transient parish for new immigrants. Through the years Italians, Portuguese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese communities have worshipped there. But before then it was the original St. Patrick's parish until it got too small and the Redemptorists built a new church next door, taking with it the name St. Patrick's.

Today Our Lady of Mount Carmel is considered the mother church for the Chinese community. It is mostly made up of immigrants from mainland China. Half the Masses are celebrated in Cantonese, the other half in Mandarin with English Mass twice a month for second-generation Chinese. Throughout the years other waves of Chinese immigrants have come from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Caribbean and Brazil.    

About a year ago Chin wanted to do something special to restore the interior of the parish to commemorate the 40th anniversary since Chinese communities have occupied the parish. He asked art restorer Nunes to clean the murals and add a new coat of paint. That conversation evolved into a comprehensive restoration project.

During the project lost objects were uncovered in a hidden attic: a tabernacle, crucifixes, pictures, icons and two 1.5-metre-long antique rosaries. Furthermore, two two-metre palm fronds in the shape of a cross were recovered after having been buried under the front entrance. These will now be displayed in a glass case.

"There are signs always for a person of faith. It's no longer a coincidence. Our Lady very much wants to lead people to Jesus," said Chin.

Some new additions have been added to acknowledge the Chinese presence in the parish, such as a Chinese-style altar and four Chinese characters etched into the floor tiles. In the front entrance a character symbolizing "blessings" welcomes the congregation inside. In front of a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel lies a symbol for belief, while in front of the tabernacle peace is commemorated and in front of the altar is a symbol of love.

"I chose these symbols because they are their deepest needs," said Chin, an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. "They are what they pray for. They are also symbols in popular Chinese culture." 

In order to raise enough money for the $1-million restoration Chin and volunteers sent out appeal letters and sold gala dinner tickets to former Chinese members of the parish.

The total cost of the project was broken down into individually priced items so individuals, families and groups could sponsor things like the altar, a stained glass window or a mural.  

"This is not a rich church because it's immigrants and retired people," said Chin. "Lots of Chinese have made it in society, but they have moved on to other churches. But there is always an emotional attachment (to Our Lady of Mount Carmel). There is still that sense of community."

A concert commemorating the 140th anniversary and completion of the restoration project was to be held Nov. 17 at the parish. 

Pictures can be seen at the parish site www.ourladyofmountcarmel.ca/gallery/

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