Tales from the Crypt

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures

This past September, a cadre of suitably awed journalists saw the fruits of a 14-year, $128-million renovation of historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, the principal church of Canada’s largest English-speaking Catholic archdiocese, located at 65 Bond Street in the heart of downtown Toronto. Previously, the 169-year old monument, designed by Toronto architect William Thomas, seemed dark, drab and dreary. Now it is light, bright and resplendent.

The cathedral renovations were instigated by the Archdiocese of Toronto and further encouraged by Cardinal Thomas Collins, who arrived in 2007 and had a vision to develop the cathedral as a centre of evangelization. To that end, “the cathedral should be a thing of beauty,” says architect Terrance White of the Toronto office of +VG Architects (formerly the Ventin Group, Architects).

As lead consultant, +VG worked with the archdiocese to create the renovation strategy and hire subcontractors. White was partner-in-charge of the +VG team at the cathedral, and was assisted by David Ecclestone, +VG partner and project architect. +VG is a full-service architectural firm with a staff of 56 in offices in Toronto and Brampton, Ont., offering new design, additions and heritage restorations of cultural, educational, municipal, justice, healthcare, residential and recreational buildings.

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Creeks and Bones

Perhaps the biggest renovation story of the 168-year-old cathedral, and the aspect that seems to most capture the public’s imagination, lies below ground. “We excavated the crypt, where the first Bishop of Toronto, Michael Power, and other important figures in Toronto’s history are buried, and turned it into a formal crypt chapel,” White says. For instance, on the north side is interred John Elmsley, a convert from the Anglican church, a director of the Bank of Upper Canada and a member of the Family Compact, whose father had been Chief Justice of Upper Canada.

“We expect the crypt chapel to become a tourist destination when it officially opens in early 2018,” White says. “The cathedral will link with the Royal Ontario Museum and Ontario Tourism so that tourists will know that they can come to see that what’s buried here is part of the social and cultural history of Canada.”

Indeed, the district was witness to history. Across Bond Street stands a City of Toronto Historic Site, Mackenzie House, the 19th-century row-house museum dedicated to William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and a leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Light and Art

The scope of the work included interior conservation, decorating and embellishing. All the stained-glass windows were restored and new windows and sculptures were commissioned. The rose windows in the south and north transepts were boarded up for a century. Today they display the new stained-glass windows designed and fabricated by John Wilcox and his Toronto-based firm, Vitreous Glassworks.

The original windows were made of quarry-glass, an expedient way to create glass using the yellow pigment that gives the characteristic brown colour to beer bottles. Most of the glass on the tower was quarry glass, except the main window. Leaded-glass windows are vastly more expensive and are typically added later as embellishments by the parishioners, whose names are commemorated at the bottoms of the windows.

New York-based Ecclesiastical Art created the designs for the painted decorations on the interior walls and ceiling of the cathedral. They transformed the ceiling into a canvas depicting the celestial sky with more than 18,000 heavenly stars, some of them gilded, some painted red or blue. (If you’ve ever walked through New York’s Grand Central Terminal and gazed up at the depiction of the constellations, you’ll know how inspiring and uplifting a painted sky can be.)

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Integrating the Beauty

+VG replaced the existing, unsafe balcony, which had been closed to the public since the 1990s. It had been compromised years ago when the organ power was changed from a water-pump system to pneumatic action. To accommodate the air ducts, the beams were cut. The new balcony, seating 230, doubles the original seat count.

The existing organ, installed in 1880, blocked the entire opening of the great west window, which, like the big window at the chancel in the east end, has some of the most beautiful stained glass in North America. +VG removed the organ to open up the view. Opus 3907, the new, $2-million pipe organ built by Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., and de-signed in consultation with +VG, splits the pipe chests so that they flank the walls in front of the window, preserving the view and the daylight. The new instrument will attract international organists who will want to play in the cathedral. Especially notable are the Trompette en Chamade or Festive Trumpet pipes, mounted horizontally and protruding dramatically from the centre of the balcony front.

Every cathedral altar has holy relics. The replacement of the altar revealed these relics, which are located within the newly constructed altar. New sculpture niches beneath the balconies will have glass-fronted reliquary niches installed in the base of the new carved wood ecclesiastical sculptures made at the Demetz Art Studio workshop in Bozen, Italy.

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
A Construction Pilgrimage

In 2002, +VG Architects wrote the master plan for the first phase, investigating the crypt. There was a record of 60 interments but there were only 29 crypt chambers. All were opened to confirm that all burials were within the crypt. +VG assembled a team of 15 consult-ants, including masonry conservators, an archaeologist and mechanical, electrical and structural engineers, to look underground at every element in the campus of buildings, including the vestry and sacristy as well as the cathedral proper.

Between 2004 and 2005 saw the restoration of the foundation walls and solving the problem of ground water infiltrating into the crypt, as well as restoration of all cathedral entrances including the heritage steel fence around the property. 2006 is when repairs to the stained-glass windows began. In 2013, a ceremony marked the first completed phase, the masonry conservation and restoration of the west facade and tower. Restoration of the spire took place none too soon: it was about to fall down. A new statue of St. Michael was installed.

2014 saw completion of the Ryerson Chaplaincy, a small project catering to a ministry that serves Ryerson University, which had no quarters. Ryerson Chaplaincy is attached to the north side of the Bishop’s Palace or Rectory. This was also when construction began on a new atrium for the west side of St. John’s Chapel adjoining the sacristy. The purpose was to fix a longstanding problem: St. John’s Chapel was being used as a corridor linking the Bishop’s Palace to the cathedral, which diminished the chapel’s importance as a worship space.

White conceived of the atrium as a cloister, a path of travel that’s covered and looks out to a meditative garden—in this case, the rectory garden. Built for the Canadian climate, this cloister is an indoor space resembling an orangery, with a wall of French doors overlooking the garden. The terrace, just outside the doors, offers a breathtaking view, looking up at a steep angle to the cathedral. The west wall, along St. John’s Chapel, is illuminated by a long skylight. The stonework of this heritage wall becomes an interior architectural feature animated by daylight.

Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures
Photography by Paul Cormack / Concrete Pictures

The multipurpose cloister or atrium is large enough to accommodate the chrism mass during Easter celebrations, when every priest in the diocese visits the cathedral to receive his year’s supply of holy oil. The atrium will also offer, finally, a place within the cathedral for the priests, who are celebrants of the chrism mass, to vest. Previously, they had to vest across the street at St. Michael’s Choir School. It was amusing to see 300 priests walking across the street to get into the cathedral.

Underneath the atrium addition is the new central HVAC plant and transformer vault for the cathedral, St. John’s Chapel and rectory. The new atrium will face a new public piazza on the north side of the cathedral. In summer, the atrium will act as a reception space for summer barbecues in the piazza.

The cathedral was closed in 2015, for the first time ever, to repair the nave columns, which were in imminent danger of structural failure. But by 2016, the main worship space was finished in time for the Feast of St. Michael’s, a mass that has become a big September tradition. It reopened the following December for weekend masses until early September, 2016, when it was shut again to allow final construction on the nave. Ongoing phases of the restoration, with expected completion dates in 2018, include the restoration of the Bishop’s Palace or Rectory, and completion of the new crypt chapel.

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