Friday 22 August 2014

Island Living: St. Rita's Mission Church

The Toronto Islands have been a summer recreation destination since they came under the City’s jurisdiction in 1867.  By the late 1800s, the Islands boasted resort hotels, amusement areas and Toronto’s first cottage community.  Many of Toronto’s wealthiest families built large Victorian summer homes here.

The Islands are considered part of the parish of St. Michael’s Cathedral.  At first, Catholic summer residents were ferried back to the mainland to fulfill their Sunday obligation. Following WWI, there were almost 200 Catholics summering here, which justified the building of a local mission church.  The cornerstone was laid in 1921 and Mass was held in a cottage while the church was completed.

The rustic building was designed by architect James P. Hynes in the half-timbered style of exposing the wood frame.  The interior woodwork was of British Columbia pine and the walls were not originally plastered. The oak pews came from St. Michael’s Cathedral.

This is the earliest photograph we have of St. Rita-on-the-Island, published in the Toronto Evening Telegram on 15 July 1922, the date before its dedication.  The building was surrounded by trees and boasted British Columbia cedar shingles.
The church of St. Rita-on-the-Island was dedicated by Archbishop Neil McNeil on July 16, 1922. Thereafter, in the summer months, a priest from the Cathedral would come by ferry each Sunday to celebrate Mass and share brunch with the cottagers.  The women of the parish were very involved in the church’s upkeep, donating flowers in rotation, providing music and running fund-raisers.  In fact, the patron saint of the church was chosen by a Mrs. French, who had obtained a large building donation from the O’Keefe Estate. (The late Eugene O'Keefe, founder of the O'Keefe Brewery Company, was a Catholic philanthropist and benefactor of St. Augustine's Seminary.)

In the late 1950s, the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto decided to make the Islands more accessible to the general public by eliminating private homes (with some exceptions on Algonquin Island and Ward’s Island). Land leases were not renewed, residents were paid compensation, and the summer homes were razed.  As part of this parkland rezoning, the churches of St. Rita’s and St. Andrew by-the-Lake (Anglican) were relocated to another part of the Centre Island.

St. Rita's Mission Church in its new Centre Island location, 23 August 1981
The blue paint is a much later addition.
Photographs Collection, PH0287/1-30CP

By 1968, both churches had fallen into structural disrepair and attendance had dropped. The Toronto Parks Commissioner proposed keeping only one building for both Anglican and Catholic services. In 1983, the Municipality decided to demolish St. Rita's and renovate St. Andrew’s because of its historical significance as the first church on the island. Some of the furnishings from St. Rita's were placed in the restored church, including the traditional oak pews and the Stations of the Cross. The refurbished building was re-dedicated as an interdenominational church, bearing both saints' names, in an ecumenical service on June 24,1984.

This news clipping shows St. Rita's Church prior to demolition and the refurbished St. Andrew on-the-Lake Anglican Parish, which was rededicated as an interdenominational church after the City paid to have it restored.
The Catholic Register, 14 July 1984

Though Catholic services have not been offered since 1995, St. Andrew by-the-Lake is still an active Anglican parish that can be attended today. 

For a complete history of the St. Rita’s and St. Andrew’s churches, please see:
Mallon, Mary Frances. “A Tale of Two Churches.” The York Pioneer Volume 85 (1990): 1-10. 

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