Col. Robert Brittain Denison (1821-1900) builds the church near the old Bellevue Homestead. At that time it was in a field which extended to University College. On July 1, the First Bishop of Toronto lays the cornerstone of the foundation.
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, using a specially crafted silver trowel. He also placed a bottle containing coins and a scroll inscribed with the church’s name in an orifice in the stone. A large group of people gathered in the parkland across the street from the garrison parade grounds on College Street to watch.
The first service at Saint Stephen’s is held on Advent Sunday, November 28th 1858. The first morning’s collection (in the days before dollars and cents) was £4 13s. 2 1/2d, and the evening’s was £2 8s. 0d. Saint Stephen’s is one of the first churches in the city to have free sittings. The first rector is The Rev. James Henry McCollum of Ireland.
On July 8, 1860, Bishop John Strachan confirms 15 candidates at Saint Stephen’s for the first time — ten girls and five boys. The total population of the city of Toronto is 44,821.
St. Stephen’s opens a parochial school in the building that later becomes the parish hall. The Rev. McCollum leaves in April under pressure from the founder, Col. Denison. The Rev. Broughall of Trinity College, Toronto, becomes the second rector and remains for fifty years.
The church is consecrated on the Sunday after Ascension Day. Urban development begins to surround the church, and the city pushes westward toward the town of Weston. The Church of Ste. Anne’s opens, the first parish of many formed from the original parish of Saint Stephen’s-in-the Fields.
On the morning of October 26, 1865, smoke was seen issuing from the vestry, the whole building was in flames before help could be enlisted. Since the fire started in the vestry, it was supposed that thieves had broken in and had accidentally ignited the vestry. Possibly they knocked over a lamp or candle while attempting to open the safe.
The damage would not have been so extensive if better fire-fighting equipment were nearby. There were only two wells from which to draw water, and the willing arms of parishioners with their buckets. By the time the smoke cleared, only the exterior walls were left standing. The church and rectory were destroyed.
The congregation met in Col. F. Cumberland’s home and decided to rebuild. Col. Cumberland, a warden of Saint Stephen’s and a notable architect and civil engineer in his own right (he designed Osgoode Hall, St. James Cathedral, and University College), was put in charge of rebuilding. The architectural firm used was Gundry & Langley. During re-construction, the congregation held one service each Sunday in a University College lecture room. By March 1866, the work was complete and normal activities resumed. The restored building was the image of the original.
In March, the rebuilt Church is re-opened, exactly like the original. The threat of Fenian raids hangs over the city, and Col. Denison is in charge of the Garrison at Toronto. Every Sunday evening near 8PM, Col. Denison leaves the Evensong service to inspect the guard. Rumours fly that Col. Denison disapproves of the sermons. The population of the city of Toronto approaches 56,000.
Confederation. Upper Canada and Lower Canada join with the Maritimes to form a nation.
The church building is extended to accommodate a large congregation. Side aisles are added, and a door on the north east of the nave closed. Architect: R. C. Windeyer.
The population of Toronto is over 86,000. Bellevue Avenue is paved with cedar blocks and wood curbs. A sidewalk of wooden slats is laid the following year.
The church is substantially enlarged. The old chancel is torn down and enlarged to its present size. The chapel is added, as well as an organ chamber and a clergyman’s vestry to the south. The nave is extended eastward. Architect: Eden Smith & Sons.
Depression. Many people die of starvation in the streets of Toronto.
Boom-time returns. The population of the city is now over 208,000, up from 144,000 in 1890.
Early interiors of the church show gas lighting. A report on the Men’s Gymnasium Building (College Street) states that the church is changed from gas to electricity in 1905-06.
Organ installed in the church.
Rev. Broughall retires, and the Rev. Wallace from Ireland becomes rector. Many parishioners leave the parish for northern areas of the city, and gloomy predictions of decline and mounting debt for St. Stephen’s prevail. A strong petition is made to Synod to keep St. Stephen’s open, and it wins.
The Rev. Wallace becomes a chaplain to Canadian Forces overseas. Fifty parishioners die in military service during the war. St. Stephen’s is dubbed “The Engineer’s Church”, possibly because many men of the parish join the Engineers.
A parish hall and school house are constructed on the property. After the war, the parish complexion changes as European refugees and immigrants of other faiths move into the neighbourhood.
Some question whether the church should remain open. The Rev. James Edward Ward returns to Canada from England and becomes Rector.
The Great Depression and the Age of Radio. Rev. Ward pioneers radio broadcasting of religious services on CFRB and short-wave station VE9GW from St. Stephens. It is the first Canadian church to broadcast by direct wave across the ocean and attracts a huge international following.
1927 – 1958
Performances of plays written by Canon Ward and acted and/or directed by luminaries of early Canada theatre such as Dora Mavor Moore and Earle Grey. Many of Canon Wards plays, short stories, and hymns are broadcast by CBC Radio as part of their religious program, The Way of the Spirit.
Canon Ward is struck by a car shortly before his planned retirement, and dies nearly two years later in April 1958. He listens to the last radio broadcast from St. Stephen’s, the induction of Canon Guy Marshall, from his hospital bed a few days before his death. Meanwhile, there are gloomy predictions of decline and mounting debt at St. Stephen’s, reminiscent of the difficulties of 1912.
St. Stephen’s opens a new community centre on church property (St. Stephen’s Community House), two doors south of the rectory. Its primary purpose is to serve a community of new Canadians, helping in many ways to meet their problems of adjustment.
The rectory at St. Stephen’s became known for its generosity in helping out the hungry and homeless, and a food bank is started which was the forerunner for STOP 103.
The church is rededicated after renovations, and the old rectory is sold and consequently demolished.
1990 – present
An informal breakfast after an early service emerges into a major work of Christianity in action, serving 7,000 meals annually to needy people in the community. St. Stephen’s becomes known for its unique liturgy, attracting seekers as well as disenfranchised Christians from a variety of denominations.