Slovak cathedral loses its status

  • October 5, 2006

Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Unionville, OntarioTORONTO - One of Canada's most architecturally impressive and ambitious cathedrals is no longer a cathedral. Eparch John Pazak, spiritual head of Byzantine rite Slovak Catholics in Canada, has removed the blessed sacrament and the antimension, or altar stone, from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, a giant gold-domed church on the edge of Unionville, north of Toronto.

The bishop has also suspended permission for any of his priests to celebrate Mass in the former cathedral and asked the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Toronto not to extend permission to Roman rite priests to celebrate Mass there.

Pazak said he was unable to arrive at a stable, sustainable working relationship with the Slovak Greek Catholic Church Foundation, which owns the property. The foundation is the creation of Stephen Roman, the mining magnate who built the church on his cattle ranch before he died in 1988.

"I saw no way of going on unless we can come to some resolution," Pazak told The Catholic Register. "Maybe we will, still. I haven't closed the door, but I want something comprehensive."

Pazak said the ball is in the foundation's court and he hoped the two sides could work out a permanent solution in the next year. In the meantime the cathedral for the Slovak Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Canada is St. Mary's Byzantine Slovak Church on Shaw Street on Toronto's downtown west side. The modest, wood-frame St. Mary's was the Slovak cathedral before the Cathedral of the Transfiguration opened.

The still unfinished Cathedral of the Transfiguration was Roman's personal obsession in his final years. He began building the 20-storey-high building on his cattle farm in the early 1980s with the intention of passing it on as his legacy to the Slovak Byzantine Rite Catholic Church. Roman's sudden death in 1988 left the cathedral in the hands of his heirs, principally Helen Roman-Barber, who sit on the board of the foundation which owns the church.

The barely completed foundations of the building were blessed by Pope John Paul II while he visited Canada in 1984, making the one-time seat of the eparchy the only cathedral in Canada to be blessed by a pope.

It is also the only Cathedral in Canada not owned by its bishop, or in effect by the diocese it represents.

Since Roman's death the cathedral has become the centrepiece of a 1,200-home subdivision named Cathedraltown, planned by Helen Roman-Barber. Pazak has been seeking ways of extricating the religious function of the cathedral from the Cathedraltown business plan.

Foundation spokesman Ed Shiller said he didn't believe the withdrawal of the bishop changed the Cathedral of the Transfiguration's status as a cathedral.

"The cathedral will continue as a cathedral. Cathedraltown will develop around it," said Shiller. "It was dedicated by Pope John Paul II, and it will continue to be a cathedral."

But no church can be a cathedral if it's not the seat of a bishop, said Pazak.

Roman had a close relationship with the first eparch of the Slovaks in Canada, Eparch Michael Rusnak. Since the elder Roman died and uranium prices sank through the 1990s, progress on finishing the inside of the cathedral has been slow. Shiller claims it will take another 10 years to complete the building.

"It's a rough timetable of course, because there are so many variables," he said. "But there are definitely plans to complete the cathedral."

Shiller would not say why the cathedral can't be transferred to the Slovak eparchy right away.

"There are certain issues that are being worked out. When this is resolved I'm sure that all of Steve Roman's wishes will be fulfilled. It's certainly our intent to do that, to fulfil whatever his wishes were," Shiller said.

Shiller also works in corporate public relations for Dennison Mines Inc. and Roman Corp.

For years the tiny Slovak Catholic community of between 5,000 and 10,000 in all of Canada has struggled to live up to the enormous scale of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration – which features among other things the second largest peel of bells in the world and a mosaic of approximately five million pieces. Though most live in the Greater Toronto Area, few Canadian Slovaks lived anywhere near the giant cathedral and getting there was never easy.

"It's got a beautiful site location and everything, but unfortunately many of our people don't live in this area," said Pazak.

For now, the congregation which had slowly built up at the Cathedral over the last decade is meeting for Mass at St. Volodymyr the Great Ukrainian Catholic Church in Thornhill, or have gone back to the St. Mary's downtown. There are prayer groups that meet at the abandoned cathedral for non-liturgical prayer, and the foundation has hosted concerts in the building.

Pazak said the cathedral was a situation he inherited when he became bishop in 2001.

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