Fire in historic Toronto church destroys Group of Seven artworks

St. Anne’s Anglican Church in 1923 commissioned J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ on the building’s interior

A four-alarm fire ripped through St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto on Sunday morning, severely damaging a national historic site and destroying the “priceless” Group of Seven murals inside.

Fire officials said the blaze broke out shortly before 8 a.m., fuming spires of smoke and shooting through the domed roof of the Byzantine-style building, built in 1908. There were no occupants and no injuries at the site in the city’s Little Portugal neighbourhood, officials said.

Early paintings by three Group of Seven members and other prominent Canadian artists were installed along the interior in the 1920s. The murals decorated the chancel and the dome, which was destroyed by the blaze.

Father Don Beyers, rector of St. Anne’s, said the “invaluable” works were lost to the flames.

“The artwork was priceless. It was murals, beautiful murals,” he told reporters. “They were stunning. This was the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven. And I’m sorry to say that’s been lost, from what I can see.”

Toronto Fire Services spokesman Deepak Chagger confirmed the loss.

“There’s no indication that anything was saved at this point,” he said in a phone interview.

As flames began to shoot through the roof, firefighters pulled out due to the risk it would collapse, he said.

Crews extinguished the main body of the fire by mid-morning, officials said. They have not yet determined a cause.

The St. Anne’s website said the church in 1923 commissioned founding Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ on the building’s interior. MacDonald then signed on nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley.

The three men formed part of the school of landscape painters known as the Group of Seven, renowned for their bright depictions of windswept forests and boreal ruggedness that helped forge a romanticized sense of Canadian vitality and independence.

“This is an extraordinary loss,” Beyers said a block from the building — also known as the Group of Seven church. “Not only was the art important, but the church itself was important architecturally. It was one of the rare Anglican churches that was in the Byzantine style, an Eastern Christian style.”

Councillor Alejandra Bravo, who represents the ward where the building sits, said residents are expressing “tremendous” grief over the destruction of a space that offered critical community support.

“This is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, a home, love, brought people from the community together … and provided the spiritual support that people so desperately need in times when they’ve fallen on hard times,” she said. “It’s something that we cannot replace in Canada and in the world.”

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