Each Remembrance Day, Torontonians assemble for services of remembrance at public cenotaphs such as the civic cenotaph at the front steps of Old City Hall, the University of Toronto’s Soldiers’ Tower and at the Cross of Sacrifice in Prospect Cemetery, where hundreds of Great War soldiers are buried. Yet, these public sites of remembrance represent but a small fraction of the memorials to the fallen in Toronto.
As a way to explore the history of other memorials to the fallen, in 2014 I launched the Toronto Church Memorials to Soldiers of the Great War project as an experiential learning initiative. With funding from Ryerson University’s Department of History, I have hired six different undergraduate research assistants on individual short-term contracts. They have conducted all the research and writing for this project, which aims to identify and contextualize the material culture of war memorials to the fallen of the Great War erected in Toronto’s churches. Using textual records this project aims to identify and catalogue all memorials erected in all churches, including those churches that have been repurposed, demolished, or destroyed by fire.
The goal for a future, final phase of the project is to produce an online, mapped database of these memorials. This virtual work will identify the location of each church, its memorial(s) and the individual(s) they memorialize. The database will restore, in a virtual sense, the geography of memory established by Torontonians in the immediate postwar era.
During and after the war regiments, congregations, families, and individuals paid considerable sums for memorials to remember fallen members of their congregation. These memorials took many forms, including: engraved tablets of stone or bronze, stained-glass windows, organs, or sanctuary furniture and furnishings. For that generation of Torontonians, the local church was their sacred and public place where the denominational community met regularly. Certainly, congregations still worship in many of Toronto’s churches that operated during the Great War era, but the concept of a church as a public space has changed.
Today, those who aren’t members of a specific congregation are likely to explore the city’s churches only during events such as Doors Open Toronto. As a result, most church memorials are rarely seen by the general public. Without a database to connect them across denominations, these memorials remain isolated, rather than the place markers of grief and memory they were in Toronto’s postwar geography.
The Toronto City Directory of 1919 lists 246 mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches operating within the city’s boundaries and its suburbs as of 1918. Within these 246 churches, the project has identified 348 Great War memorials erected in 135 churches. Research for the project began with these mainstream churches because they were most likely to contain memorials, plus most of their denominational archives are located in Toronto, making them accessible to my undergraduate researchers. In addition to researching these collections, students conducted keyword searches of the Toronto Star and the Globe digital databases for each of the 356 active churches, synagogues and street missions identified in the 1919 directory.
Social and economic factors played a significant role in the geographical distribution of church memorials. For example, St. Paul’s Anglican Church, located on Bloor Street East at the southern edge of the affluent neighbourhood of Rosedale and at the north end of what was then a wealthy neighbourhood along Jarvis and Sherbourne Streets, was well connected to the military culture of the city’s elite. In 1910, St. Paul’s became the regimental church for the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. After the war, the regiment erected a Cross of Sacrifice on the church grounds to commemorate its fallen members. But this outdoor memorial is just one of 32 Great War memorials erected in the church to remember the 76 men who died from among the some 500 men and seven women of the congregation who served in the war. This is the greatest number of Great War memorials to the fallen erected by any single Toronto congregation, and St. Paul’s was but one of several churches in the neighbourhood. Mapping churches and their memorials will amplify this fact.
A more typical example of church memorials is seen the suburban Anglican church of St. Margaret’s in New Toronto. At St. Margaret’s, various congregants and groups donated stained-glass windows, a pulpit, a lectern bible, and an altar cross in memory of fallen members of the congregation. Though less readily recognized as a soldier memorial than an inscribed tablet or stained-glass window, the altar cross represents significant grief and memory for parishioners William and Mary Jane Millard, who lived just two blocks from St. Margaret’s. They donated the cross in honour of their two sons William and Arthur who, at ages 22 and 20, signed up to the 15th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment) on the same day in September 1914. Each went missing in action at the Second Battle of Ypres sometime between April 24 and 29, 1915. Nearly a year would pass before they were officially reported deceased and their bodies were never discovered. With neither graves nor headstones, William and Arthur Millard are memorialized in Toronto by the altar cross their parents donated to St. Margaret’s and at Ypres, Belgium, among the list of more than 54,000 missing soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Menin Gate.
In some cases, memorials faced an ignoble end, despite the hopes of those who purchased, installed and dedicated them with belief that a church memorial would serve to remember the lost in perpetuity. Ninety-five of the 246 mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches listed in the 1919 city directory have been demolished or were destroyed by accidental fires. Another 58 churches have been repurposed for commercial or residential use or by congregations of other denominations and faiths. In all such cases, this project resurrects the memorials that the churches once contained.
For example, in May 1920, members of Wesley Methodist Church at Dundas Street and Ossington Avenue dedicated a new organ and a tablet inscribed: “ln memory of the heroic dead” to honour the twenty-five men of the church who lost their lives during the war. Among these collective memorials, the organ contained a specific individual memorial in the form of a special saxophone organ stop, the only one in Canada, and perhaps only the second installed in North America. It memorialized Flight Sub-Lieutenant George K. Williams, who served with the Royal Naval Air Service, No. 3 Wing. He was killed in France in June 1916 during a training accident. On the evening of November 22, 1957 fire destroyed the church, just months after Wesley’s dwindling congregation had paid for the restoration of the memorial organ. The congregation did not rebuild.
The ongoing work of the Toronto Church Memorials to the Soldiers of the Great War project showcases the many poignant memorials to the city’s fallen erected within churches. Their significance as place markers needs to be contextualized within Toronto’s Great War geography of grief and memory.
The memorial objects erected in neighbourhood churches inform us about how Torontonians chose to remember family members and fellow congregants in the sacred, yet public, space of their neighbourhood churches. The loss of a church and its memorials challenges us to consider the lost sites of memory for a family, a congregation, a neighbourhood. This project aims to resurrect these lost memorials from research sources and to join them, in a virtual sense, with those in Toronto’s active churches, while identifying their material culture, the individuals they represent, and the memorials’ social and geographic place in their neighbourhood and city.
Ross Fair is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at Ryerson University.