Toronto’s St. James Cathedral, razed twice in fires, offers hope and advice to Notre-Dame

The leaders of Toronto’s oldest church are sharing a message of hope and solidarity following this week’s devastating fire at France’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.

“Cathedrals which have been devastated through fire or war, through any kind of devastation, will rise again,” said Louise Peters, the vicar and priest in charge at St. James’s Anglican Church in downtown Toronto.

St. James’s massive Gothic Revival cathedral has been a fixture in downtown Toronto for more than 160 years, but its early history was turbulent and riddled with major disasters.

Originally founded in 1797, St. James built its first neoclassical stone church in 1833, but that structure was razed in a fire just six years later in 1839.

The congregation recovered and erected its first cathedral less than a year following the fire, but a similar fate awaited the new building.

That structure burned during the first Great Fire of Toronto in 1849. The church tower, which also housed Toronto’s fire bell, collapsed during the blaze. The heat was so intense that the bronze bells are said to have melted on the stone steps of the building.

Once again, the church went back to work and rebuilt. Its third, and current structure opened its doors in 1853.

“We are a living testimony that the community will gather and rally,” Peters said.

Notre-Dame ‘a symbol of the world’

Like many around the world, people at St. James watched in disbelief as plumes of smoke and fire rose from Notre-Dame on Monday afternoon.

“Notre-Dame is a symbol of the world,” said Nancy Mallett, the archivist at St. James.

“I associated it with the cathedral here,” she explained. “Our layers of history are not nearly as lengthy, but they are incredibly rich.

Peters said the St. James community has been praying for their “sister cathedral” in Paris, and that the history of their own church could be a source of hope for people mourning the damage at Notre-Dame.

“We know that out of this tragedy will come something astounding in their faith as a city,” Peters said.

Church updates fire protocols

Considering the pair of destructive fires in its early history, St. James has since taken great care to ensure that its cathedral and artifacts are protected.

St. James recently built what it calls a “fire-proof facility” that contains the church’s most precious artifacts.

“We should have facilities to store it, or it shouldn’t be here,” Mallett said.

The protective facility was built following a scare in 2009 when the church recorded the third, but least destructive fire in its history.

A piece of cloth caught fire inside the church, but the building’s sprinkler system put out the flames before firefighters even arrived.

St. James said it has no plans to review or update its fire protocols in the wake of the Notre-Dame fire.

“We know that what we have in place is doing its exact job that it needs to do to make sure that we are safe,” Peters said.

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