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St. Michael's Cathedral (Toronto)

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St. Michael's Cathedral (Toronto)

St. Michael's Cathedral
Location 200 Church Street Garden District
Toronto, Ontario
Country Canada
Denomination Roman Catholic
Website Official website
Founder(s) Bishop Michael Power
Status Active
Functional status Cathedral
Architect(s) William Thomas
Architectural type English Gothic
Archdiocese Toronto
Archbishop Thomas Christopher Collins
Rector Rev. Michael Busch
Organist(s) William O’Meara
St. Michael's Cathedral at Sunset

St. Michael's Cathedral is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, Canada, and one of the oldest churches in the city. It is located at 200 Church Street in Toronto's Garden District. St. Michael's was designed by William Thomas, designer of eight other churches in the city, and was primarily financed by Irish immigrants who resided in the area. The Cathedral has a capacity of 1600.[1]


  • Artistic qualities 1
  • History 2
    • Diocese 2.1
  • Context and description 3
  • Significance 4
  • Exterior 5
  • Interior 6
    • Stained-glass windows 6.1
    • Architectural style 6.2
  • Major renovations 7
  • Today[ 8]
  • Notable burials 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Artistic qualities

St. Michael’s Cathedral is special because of its ability to take harsh linear lines of an exterior and warm the viewer as they enter the cathedral. The exterior profile of the cathedral is very jagged and planar with the harsh lines and geometric perfection. The outside is organized and linear, which makes the cathedral seem harsher than it truly is within. The interior profile allows for many different shapes to coincide. These shapes include the curves of the barrel vaults, along the trusses, lines created by the trusses in the middle of the ceiling, which lead one's eye from the top down the pillars and up the aisle. Evidently, there are more curved, organic shapes created within the cathedral compared to the ugly, rectangular shapes created on the exterior. As explained above there is a bond between many different shapes that are repeated to create the perfect geometric relationship. Moreover, their colours used throughout the cathedral vary within their use.


On April 7, 1845, construction began on St. Michael's Cathedral (Toronto) and the Bishop's Palace, a three story rectory adjacent to the Neo-Gothic Cathedral. Both buildings were designed by William Thomas 1799-1860. On May 8, 1845, Bishop Michael Power laid the cornerstone for his Cathedral in the four-year-old diocese.[2] On September 29, 1848 the Cathedral was consecrated. The Cathedral to dedicated on August 29, 1848 to St. Michael the Archangel. The seventy nine meter bell tower, which contains two bells, was consecrated in 1866.[2]

The city had a population of 13,000 with 3,000 Catholics. Some fragments of a stone pillar from the old Norman-style York Minster Cathedral in England and some small pieces of the oak roof of that same cathedral were sealed within St. Michael's cornerstone. St. Michael's is a 19th-century interpretation of the Minster's 14th century English Gothic style. The connection with York Minster is appropriate as Toronto was known as the town of York from its settlement in 1793 until it was incorporated in 1834 and the name was changed back. The sanctuary was consecrated September 29, 1848 after substantial work by the Honourable John Elmsley and his friend Samuel G. Lynn to retire the debt incurred for construction.[3]

The cathedral played an instrumental role in the founding of nearby St. Michael's Hospital when members of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who came to Toronto at the request of the Second Bishop of Toronto, the Most Reverend Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel to operate an orphanage and settlement house, responded to the need for care during a diphtheria epidemic in 1892.[4]

In 1937, the cathedral established St. Michael's Choir School to train choir boys. The school continues to be operate jointly under authority of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and the Toronto Catholic District School Board.[5]


The cathedral is home to Canada's largest English-speaking Catholic diocese. The current archbishop is Cardinal Thomas Christopher Collins, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI on 16 December 2006. He replaced Cardinal Aloysius Matthew Ambrozic, who retired after 16 years as Archbishop of Toronto.

Context and description

St. Michael’s Cathedral is located at 200 Church Street in Toronto. The building is oriented on an off-east-west axis aligned perpendicular to church street with its main entrance on its west side located off Bond Street. In adherence with the tradition of medieval churches the cathedral's high altar is in the east end of the building, facing Jerusalem.[1] The general composition of the building resembles that of a 13th or 14th century Gothic cathedral; however, the design is simplified and does not contain elements such as flying buttresses, transepts, or ribbed vaults. Also, because there are no transepts the cathedral itself does not assume the typical cruciform shape of most medieval Gothic cathedrals.[6] Conversely the secondary altars, or side-chapels, divide the cathedral in two down its length providing a slight outcrop visible from the exterior. The building can be further subdivided down its length by the nine bays framed by the buttresses on the exterior of the building.

The cathedral's tower supports a large iron spire located over its west entrance. At its tallest point the tower reaches 260 feet (79 m) or approximately 26 stories above the ground[1] surpassing the height of many of the surrounding buildings. The scale of the cathedral is quite large within the context of its immediate surroundings; however, when examined in context with the surrounding office towers the size of the cathedral shrinks considerably. From the exterior the building maintains a distinctly Gothic appearance characterized by its pointed arches, buttressed walls, stone moulding and sharp iron accents. The building is set-back considerably from the street and features a tall iron fence around its perimeter which further contributes to the buildings sharp appearance.[7] The fence allows the building to maintain a semi-private front yard featuring a stone-paved roundabout on its west side and a garden along its south side. Access from the east side of the building is limited due to the connection with the cathedral's rectory.

St. Michael's Cathedral in the evening


St. Michael’s Cathedral is a major iconic building in the downtown Toronto area. It was originally constructed away from the city’s centre, but over time the city has grown to encompass it. It was constructed to better serve the growing Roman Catholic population of Toronto. It is a prime example of the English Gothic Revival style of architecture. Since it was originally constructed by William Thomas in 1845-1848, the building has undergone two major renovations: the completion of the tower and spire was done by firm Gundry & Langley in 1865-1867, and the addition of dormers was done by Joseph Connolly in 1890. The interior of the church, divided into a large nave and two tall aisles, is lavishly decorated. The tall arcade, supported by graceful colonnettes, gives the interior space a feeling of openness and adds to the grand sense of scale that the building imposes.


The exterior façade of the church is a cream coloured brick that is shaped to appear as stones. Presently the church shows visible signs of aging through darkening and discolouring in various areas. Arguably, the natural aging gives the church character and helps unify the church with its urban context. Teal coloured shingles are present in area in which column degenerate deeper into the church. In regards to shape all of the façades vary considerably. The western façade, the one housing the main entrance and pinnacle tower is arguably the most impressive side of the church. The spire is the tallest point and reaches a height of 260 feet above the ground. The northern façade, in steep contrast, is the easily the least impressive. Much of the façade is hidden behind residential and commercial building. What little of the façade that can be seen is made unpleasant by the fire escape exit that protrudes out the façade. The eastern façade, while not as impressive as the western façade, is, arguably, the most varied.


St. Michael's Cathedral floorplan

The interior of the cathedral is laid out to create 5 designated spaces: a foyer, balcony, central aisle, left aisle and right aisle. When entering the church, they foyer creates a gathering space to engage with fellow parish members. Marble stoups that contain holy water emphasized with red trim are located to the sides of the doors. To the far left of the foyer, there is a small gift shop. To the far right of the foyer, a statue of Jesus and the Blessed Mary is set on a marble pedestal. A wooden kneeler apulstered with green leather is rested in front of the stature for the use of prayers. The foyer is arranged to create a horizontal space that causes movement passing through perpendicular to the flow of the main body of the cathedral. Three sets of double-doors mirroring the front entrances allow guests into the cathedral. When entering the sacred space of the cathedral, its mass is arranged linearly based on a vertical axis, with two main arcades of stone create a main vessel that draws focus to the altar. There is a sudden increase in height when entering the cathedral created by the high vaulted ceilings. The ceilings are not to human scale and seem as if they were created for a superior power, this was done intentionally. The two main arcades consists of ivory piers with patterned spandrels of blue and red, however, string courses outline the immensely decorated triforium. The high vaulted ceilings are painted in rich hues of red, blue, gold and emerald with exposed beam work. The first three piers that are closest to the altar are topped with red abacuses to define the sacred space. Above the altar, the focus of the church’s interior is the stained glass window of the crucifixion. The tableau was installed in 1958 by Étienne Thévenot, a French pioneer of the medieval glass revival. Blue, yellow and red are the most prominent colours in the window. The deep blue sky with small blood-red squares of glass leading in the regular grid fall into larger and smaller bands of maroon, plum, and purple enlivened by emerald, viridian and gold. The central panel of the oculus there is a depiction of the Blessed Sacrament symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Underneath the stained glass window is an intricate wooden reredos with gold and green detailing. The altar looks back to a balcony where the organ installed in 1880 by Archbishop Joseph Lynch, is situated. To the right of the altar, there is a wooden monument for the Blessed Sacrament that is the result of a re-design of 1980 directed by Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter. The left and right aisles begin with ribbed vaults and then transition into an exposed beam ceiling. Widely spaced compound piers of wood, with slender colonnettes clustering around their core, make the church seem very open. The walls are lined with wall arcades. Within the arcade arches are stained glass windows that depict the Stations of the Cross. The material of the interior walls is a painted grey stone over plaster. Sixteen cast-iron lanterns hang from the tall aisles that light up the Cathedral. The aisles are lined with a green carpet, which pulls colours from the surrounding paintings and stained-glass windows. Facing the aisles, an etching of a gothic window profile is incrusted on each of the wooden benches. At the back of the Cathedral are lacquered wooden sculptures. De-emphasized in the back corners of the Cathedral there are four wooden confessionals mimicking the arcade arches. The panels of the confessional are decorated with crosses.

The ceiling is colourfully painted with a repeated design used for decoration, adding to the colourful windows. These paintings, murals and vignettes were done in the 1930s. Lightly lit candles flickering in red and blue illuminate the sides of the church, where people quietly pray in gratitude. Classic artwork like The Last Supper, as well as other religious paintings of Jesus, priests, and John the Baptist hang above the sanctuary. Various sculptures of saints sit along the side aisles in front of the stained glass windows and line up with each other across the pews. The St. Michael’s church choir sit in their own special seating on the left side of the altar. Up above the foyer sits a large organ, with pipes reaching the ceiling. It is used during mass, and fills the church with its deep, rich sound. The acoustics in the church are enchanting, as sounds eco throughout the vast walls, ceilings, vaults and arches. Down the nave, the high altar sits facing eastward, oriented toward the holy land. It is made out of white marble showing Christ’s sacrifice. Behind the altar is a large “semi- circular oak reredos[3]” with one large episcopal chair of the Archbishop and six smaller chairs on either side for the clergy members to sit in front of. The priest’s throne is made of a red velvet-like material which links to the church in Rome. It creates a walkway behind it from either side to the work sacristy where the priest gets ready for the ceremony and changes robes. About midway down the aisles, there are two small chapels; the Blessed Virgin chapel on the north behind the baptismal front, and the sacred heart chapel on the south, beautifully decorated with small colourful stone tiles and candles. These chapels sit within two bays and a pointed arch, and line up with each other horizontally across the pews.

Stained-glass windows

Crucifixion of Jesus by Étienne Thévenot

Unlike many of the cathedrals constructed during the Gothic Revival Period St. Michael's retains a rich and colourful interior characteristic of classic Gothic cathedrals. It is interesting to note that the stained-glass in the Cathedral is of the “antique” variety which is hand-blown in typical medieval style resulting in deeper colour when compared to typical machine-rolled glass used in other churches at the time. The largest piece of stained glass, located on the east side of the building was imported from France in 1858 and created by Étienne Thévenot, the same artist who created some of the windows for Notre Dame and various other churches in Paris. The stained-glass windows located on the north and south walls originate from Austria and Bavaria and were installed during the late 1800s and early 1900s replacing the original clear pane. Despite the intentional Gothic style evident in many of the designs of these windows they are actually late-baroque in style.[1]

  • See Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

Architectural style

St. Michael’s Cathedral is built in the Gothic revival style. The exterior of the structure is yellow brick with stone accents. The main entrance of the church faces Bond Street to the west with the building set back from the property line to create a small forecourt. The rectory and school are north of the church and a second school building occupies a site on the west side of Bond Street.

The central theme behind Gothic architecture is light penetration. Typical structures found within Gothic Architecture were all built to fulfill this purpose. These structures include pointed arches called ‘ogivals’, flying buttresses, transverse arms, clerestory windows, pinnacles, and ribbed vaults, many of which are displayed in St. Michaels Cathedral. Although Gothic architecture developed from Romanesque architecture, a key difference is that Gothic architecture allows light to penetrate the entire interior. One of the first key themes in a Gothic Church is the regularity of geometry in the design. The purpose of this regularity is to seek a harmonious and proportional result. The geometry in a Gothic building in a sense is the “genetic code” for the building and gives the building their “characteristic organic unity”. Visual logic is another theme that is used in Gothic Cathedrals, including progressive divisibility. An example of this is how the supports of a building are divided into main piers, major shafts, minor shafts and even more minor shafts. Almost every dimension in a Gothic church is related to the core dimension.

Gothic arch


One element that all cathedrals share is the importance of geometry in the design. St. Michael's Cathedral is a good example of a basilica, a large, rectilinear space with a longitudinal axis. The church runs along the same east-west axis, with an extruded portion running north-south, but not nearly as big as the main roof axis. The main axis is represented by the sloped roofs meeting together at the exact middle of the church. All axes are either parallel or perpendicular to each other, so the exterior of church has a very linear and symmetrical feel. On the inside, we can see the main axis represented by the gap in the pews, where people will walk to their seats, and where the processions will happen during the mass. It's very important that the processions remain centralized in the church, because it should be the main focus when they are happening. By putting the main aisle in the centre, this is accomplished by signifying the importance of the processions. The exterior has a very neutral colour scheme, which contrasts the beauty of the interior.

Major renovations

The exterior of the cathedral has remained relatively unchanged over the last 100 years. In 1864, the Toronto firm Gundry and Langley added an enlarged sacristy to the Cathedral. In 1866, the same firm was also responsible for the addition of the tower and spire which adorns the west entrance of the cathedral. In 1880, the current three-manual pipe organ was installed in the Cathedral's gallery. The dormered windows located on the roof were added some time in the 1890s with the intent to improve the Cathedral's appearance; it is believed that architect Joseph Connolly was responsible for their design.[9] The interior of the building has remained the same in terms of its plan; however, since the Second Vatican Council, the original high altar was dismantled and used to create a new tabernacle shrine, now located to the south of the sanctuary, while a new table altar was placed in the centre of the sanctuary. Most of the present paintings that adorn the roof and walls of the cathedral date to 1937, with several smaller ones having been added since, the most recent in 1982.[1] In 2011, restorations are taking place that will include the west facade being cleaned, bringing the bricks back to their original yellow colour.


In addition to worship services, the church sponsors a number of outreach programs for nearby residents. An Ontario Heritage Trust marker at the church notes its importance in the city's history.[10] An additional plaque was installed March 28, 1982, by the Archdiocese of Toronto at the rectory. It was constructed north of the church in 1845 and expanded in 1852, 1891 and again in the early twentieth century. Between 1852 and 1856, the rectory was home to St. Michael's College until it moved to its present location near the University of Toronto.[11]

Notable burials

A list of people interred here:

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Cook, Brian. St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto, a short history and guide. Toronto: Toronto : St. Michael's Cathedral, 1989. Print
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Home." NEW ADVENT: Home. N.p., 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2011.
  7. ^ Arthur, Eric Ross, and T. Ritchie. Iron: cast and wrought iron in Canada from the seventeenth century to the present. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Print.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Arthur, Eric Ross, and Stephen A. Otto. Toronto: no mean city. 3rd ed. Toronto & Buffalo, 1986. Print.
  10. ^
  11. ^

External links

  • Official website
  • A page with some history about the cathedral and its architecture
  • Pictures and commentary on the architecture, objects, and people of the cathedral

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