Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields is a fine example of a parish church built in 1858 in the Victorian Gothic Revival style. The architects were the newly-formed partnership of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones. A year later the firm was awarded the commission to design the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, and Thomas Fuller went on to become Chief Architect for the newly formed Dominion of Canada.

Fuller seems to have based both the interior and the exterior of St. Stephen’s on St. Michael’s, Long Stanton, the Ecclesiologists’ approved model for small churches overseas, but to have updated it in several important respects. The church was dernier cri in its contrasting exterior of red brick trimmed with grey stone — a version of the newly fashionable ‘structural polychromy’ popularized by G.E. Street and practised by both Butterfield and Dean & Woodward.The church today is not as Fuller designed it. Burned by burglars in 1865, it was rebuilt and enlarged shortly afterwards by Gundry & Langley, and a series of alterations during the next quarter-century all but obliterated Fuller’s interior. The present chancel dates from 1890. Only the general scheme is his — a richly furnished, timer-roofed nave, with a deep and richly adorned chancel. The only original feature of the exterior is the central portion of the west front with its distinctive bell-gable. There is enough remaining, however, to suggest the mannerisms that recur again and again in Fuller’s churches — steeply sloping silhouettes, both in overall form and in details like the weatherings that batter inward by marked steps; angular, boldly relieved forms, as seen in the buttresses; big, irregular chunks of masonry, in the quoins; and tall, narrow windows with unmoulded surrounds, simple Early English plate tracery, and labels terminating in distinctive circular bosses. Though badly in need of cleaning, St. Stephen’s west front — Fuller’s only known remaining work in Toronto — is strikingly beautiful.

Dominion Architecture: Fuller’s Canadian Post Offices 1881-99; Dr. Christopher A. Thomas, 1978

In 1890 considerable enlargements were made to the church. The chancel was replaced with a larger one, and an organ chamber and clergyman’s vestry built to the south. The original chancel and sanctuary was turned 90 degrees and is now the Lady Chapel. The nave was extended eastward; the new portion was intended to be part of a much larger church.

In the 1980’s, financial difficulties forced the sale of the rectory, hall, and adjoining lands. Proceeds were used to make badly needed repairs to the structure, and gut the interior of the church. The interior was divided in two so that one half of the building could be leased and the rental revenue used to keep the church operating in the other half. After seven years, the tenant left, and the space was converted into a hall for church activities and community use. Today, the layout of the church is unconventional but highly functional for a small parish. The main entrance to the worship space is on College Street, and the old traditional entrance on Bellevue Avenue leads to the church hall and meeting rooms.

Hidden Gem

“Toronto’s past as a bastion of moral rectitude filled the streets with churches, and St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, near College and Spadina, is a curious Gothic bauble that exercises a forthright street-level presence. Built in 1858, it was gutted by fire in 1865 and rebuilt by Gundry and Langley. It resembles the top half of a Gothic cathedral, sliced from its foundation and set down at the sidewalk’s edge. The solid buttresses, open bellcote and grimy brick- and stonework make it seem peculiarly antique — a restoration job would probably take away some of its charm.”

eye News, March 8, 2001

Reading List:

  • References to the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields
    • Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, IV, 24-9
    • Mulvany, Toronto Past & Present, p. 157l
    • Arthur, Toronto: No Mean City, 2nd. ed., p. 141
    • Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson, Hallowed Walls: Church Architecture in Upper Canada (Toronto & Vancouver: Clarke Irwin, 1975), p. 159
    • Charles P. DeVolpi, Toronto: A Pictorial Record (Montreal: Dev-Sco, 1965) pl. 42 and caption
    • Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture Volume 1, (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 290

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