The Marian Shrine of Gratitude in Toronto. Register file photo/Angie Carboni

A crying shame to lose this Marian Shrine

  • September 8, 2023

Have you ever visited Toronto’s unique and beautiful outdoor Marian Shrine of Gratitude? If you haven’t, you’ve missed a real treasure — and if you have, you know what a jewel it truly is. Either way, the Shrine needs you to help save it!

Located behind the shuttered St. Basil’s High School and priests’ residence at 3100 Weston Rd., North York (just north of the 401), the Shrine had ample parking and was open 24/7/365 to all who wished to pray and reflect, and — of course — give thanks. The stepped refuge was a labour of love created by Ukrainian priest, Fr. Basil Cembalista, after Our Lady cured his eye that had been injured in a yard work accident. Other documented healings helped to keep a steady stream of pilgrims visiting at all hours of the day and night.

Ever since 2005, Torontonians of every stripe (including plenty of non-Catholics) found solace in the cozy garden and statuary with both indoor and outdoor altars for Holy Mass. An overhang allowed the little oratory building to be used in inclement weather. In December, the hill always came alive with Christmas lights for cold, wintry evenings. Maintained entirely by volunteers, there never seemed to be a time when there weren’t at least two or three people taking advantage of the peace and quiet. Silence was encouraged within the perimeter of the shrine proper. Whenever I was anywhere near, I always stopped in and found myself spending way too much time there, lost in the reverie it evokes.

Beyond the loveliness of the Shrine itself, this heavenscape overlooks the Humber Valley Pond, Humber River and Humber River Recreational Trail, with a vast grassy area for picnics and sports. Loads of school kids frequented the Shrine for field trips, retreat days and catechesis. The late auxiliary bishop of Toronto, Pearse Lacey, was a friend of the Shrine and stopped by often; Cardinal Thomas Collins offered Mass there.

Why am I speaking of the Shrine in the past tense? Unfortunately, it was very recently closed. The Ukrainian Basilian Fathers are no longer utilizing the property and decided to sell it. However, not all hope is lost quite yet! A petition filed in 2020 to designate the Shrine area of the property as a Heritage Site so as to be protected by the Ontario Heritage Act will be considered this fall. (You can e-mail or call, 416-392-4666 or the City Clerk’s Office 416-392-8016 to demonstrate the amount of interest in this blessed place.) Why is the location historical? Providentially, this parcel of land is the former Gardiner (yes, that Gardiner) family summer resort. In fact, a portion of the Shrine was built on top of the family’s sunken swimming pool.

Not only are pilgrims and devotees championing to preserve the Shrine, local politicians are also getting involved: Former MP and present publisher of the Corriere Canadese, Joe Volpe; Councilman Anthony Perruzza, MPP Tom Rakocevic and others. The Toronto Catholic District School Board made a unanimous motion that the Shrine should not be torn down. Several entrepreneurs and developers have offered various plans. They see no reason why the Shrine can’t be preserved and kept open to the public with proper egress, while the surrounding area is repurposed according to the new owner’s wishes.

What else can you do? Every evening at  8 p.m., seven days a week, the faithful gather to pray peacefully at the fence that is now preventing entrance to the Shrine. If you can’t make it once or twice a week to be physically present, why not pray the Rosary at home? I’ve set an alarm on my phone. Pray to St. Michael, patron of the Archdiocese of Toronto. A large image of the Archangel watches over the complex. Pray to Our Lady herself! September is a month chock-full of Marian feast days: Sept. 8 (Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Sept. 12 (Presentation of Mary), Sept. 15 (Our Lady of Sorrows).

Every city should have an always-open outdoor Catholic shrine such as the Marian Shrine of Gratitude, and it would be a crying shame for Toronto to lose ours. Please spread the word and do what you can to help save the Marian Shrine of Gratitude!

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Twitter: @srhelenaburns #medianuns)

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