Ontario Heritage Act
St. Stephen’s was designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act on the recommendation of the Toronto Historical Board in 1977:
“The church is recommended for historical and architectural reasons… The outstanding west facade and covered bell-cote is significant not only as the one surviving design in the city of Fuller and Jones (Thomas Fuller was subsequently commissioned as architect for the original Parliament Buildings in Ottawa), but also as a fine example of the Early English parish church style. Rebuilt after a fire in 1865, the remainder was skillfully enlarged by the prominent architectural firm of Gundry and Langley. In March 1927 under the direction of Canon J.E. Ward the parish pioneered regular church service radio broadcasting.”
St. Stephen’s was built in 1857 by Robert Brittain Denison, member of a prominent Toronto family, on his property and at his own expense, the first Anglican Church to be built west of Spadina Avenue in the City of Toronto.
…providing a suitable place of worship in a locality where distance from any place devoted to devotional purposes was inconvenient.”
— The Colonist and Gazette, November 28, 1858
Denison engaged the renowned architect Thomas Fuller and master builder John Worthington to design and build the original structure. Formally, the church is under the dedication of St. Stephen, the First Martyr (“Church of the Holy Martyr, St. Stephen”). It is more popularly described as “in the fields” since, when it was built, College Street did not extend west beyond the University of Toronto. A footpath led from University Avenue to the church, which was quite literally situated in the middle of fields, and across from military parade grounds.
…Its constituency is not a wealthy one, but the work it is doing is better work, perhaps, on that account, because it brings the blessings of the Gospel to the poor. Both the rector and the assistant clergy labour self-sacrificingly and lovingly with a spirit of humility and consecration that is very commendable. Indeed, voluntary work is characteristic of the parish, and its aim is to directly interest its membership not only in acts of worship, but in practical service.
— from the Toronto Evening Telegram, 1904
The cornerstone of the new church was placed by the Honourable and Right Reverend John Strachan, the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, on July 1, 1858 and the first service was held on Advent Sunday, November 28th, 1858. The first incumbent was the Reverend James Henry McCollum, who was forced to leave after a clash with the founder and warden, Robert B. Denison (The Rev. McCollum went on to become the first rector of St. Thomas). The other Warden was the famous Toronto architect and civil engineer, Frederic William Cumberland.
In 1861, The Rev. Abraham Broughall took over as Rector until his retirement in 1911, 50 years later. His incumbency saw tremendous changes. In 1860, the population of the city was just 45,000. The church burned to the ground in 1865, and was completely rebuilt. Fenian raids were a very real threat to the city in 1866, and the warden, Col. Denison, was in charge of the garrison in Toronto. In 1867, Confederation…a nation is born largely in response to raids from south of the border. The church was the centre of Victorian social life, and weekly attendance at St. Stephen’s regularly exceeded 600, with 650 children on the roll. The church was renovated and extended in 1878.
In 1882, Bellevue Avenue was paved with cedar blocks and wood curbs. A sidewalk of wooden slats was laid the following year. In 1884, Georgina Broughall, his wife, was instrumental in the establishment of the Order of St. John the Divine. In 1890, the church was substantially enlarged again. In 1896, a major depression hit, and people died of starvation in the streets until boom times returned in 1902. In 1904, 20 acres of downtown Toronto burned in the Great Fire, and 1905, electricity was installed in the church. The organ was installed in 1906. In 1908, Georgina Broughall established Georgina House, a woman’s refuge. By 1911, at The Rev. Broughall’s retirement, the population of Toronto was over 210,000.
Through World War I, the complexion of the neighbourhood changed forever as European refugees moved into the Kensington area. The Rector, The Rev. Thomas Wallace, served overseas as chaplain, and the parish lost an astonishing 50 members who died overseas in battle.
In 1927, in the midst of the Great Depression and at the very beginning of the Age of Radio, The Rev. James Edward Ward pioneered radio broadcasting of religious services on CFRB and short-wave station VE9GW from St. Stephens. It was the first Canadian church to broadcast by direct wave across the ocean and attracted a huge international following. Broadcasts continued until Canon’s Ward’s death in 1958.
His radio work led Canon Ward to write 75 religious plays for radio, many in collaboration with Earle Grey, as well as poetry and music. Canon Ward wrote a weekly religious drama series for the CBC called “The Way of the Spirit”, which received an American award for outstanding spiritual and dramatic quality. From time to time his plays were presented live in the church by a cast of professionals including founders of the Canadian theatre scene such as Dora Mavor Moore, Mavor Moore, and the Earle Grey Players. This historical connection with the arts continues today through our association with the Dora Award-winning company Theatre Gargantua. Read more on St. Stephen’s connections with radio and theatre history.
Earle Grey was a dominant figure in early Canadian theatre. Originally from Dublin, he appeared with the Abbey Players, at Stratford-Upon-Avon, and at Oxford Playhouse. He lived in Canada for several years, and was the founder of RATS [Radio Actors of Toronto Society], which became ACRA [Association for Canadian Radio Actors], and finally ACTRA. ACTRA presents the Earle Grey Award annually for outstanding performance.
St. Stephen’s Community House
In 1960, under the leadership of Canon Guy Marshall, the parish established St. Stephen’s Community House, which later incorporated as an independant organization. In the 1970’s, The Rev. Cam Russell established STOP 103, now an independent food bank and social service organization known at THE STOP.
In the early 1980’s the St. Stephen’s financial situation was desperate and drastic measures were called for to generate enough money to repair a rapidly deteriorating building. All of the property surrounding the church (including the parish hall and rectory) was sold, and the interior gutted and divided in order to create 4,000 square feet of rentable space for a clinic for Doctor’s Hospital.
The combination of proceeds from the sale and rental revenue allowed the parish to repair the structure and meet operating costs for a time. Unfortunately, Doctors’ Hospital eventually vacated the building and a replacement tenant was not found. One half of the building is the Sanctuary, in which worship is conducted. The other half is now used as a parish hall, and is rented from time to time for other community uses.
In its history, the original parish of Saint Stephen’s-in-the-Fields was sub-divided many times to create new parishes, including St. Philip, St. Matthias, St. Barnabas, St. Thomas, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Cyprian, and St. Anne. Saint Stephen’s is a mother church and many thousands of people have drawn to it as a source of inspiration and help.