Last Sunday I went to the 11:00 a.m. Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica near Queen and Parliament Streets in Toronto. (Full disclosure: I did the music for that Mass around thirty years ago, before its status was elevated from Church to Basilica, and I have a soft spot for it.)
St. Paul’s is the oldest Catholic parish in Toronto, and the church was built long before the advent of what am most charitably be described as modern architecture – thank God! And that’s part of the reason that it is, in my estimation, the most beautiful church I have ever seen in Toronto.
Here are some pictures that I took with my iPhone. The first is taken from the back of the church looking towards the chancel:
This is a closer look at the chancel:
On the wall behind the marble altar is a life-sized painting of the Last Supper, and on the inside of the dome above that is the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On the high vaulted ceiling running the full length of the church are frescoes of scenes from the life of St. Paul.
Here is the pipe organ in the organ loft at the back of the church:
It’s an old tracker organ (for those of you are aware of such distinctions) and it sounds gorgeous. It made me feel like being an organist again.
This is one of the four confessionals:
I suppose that means that the builders anticipated occasions when four priests would hear confession simultaneously – something I have not seen, but that was a different age, and there is something about St. Paul’s that inspires all forms of reverence, including confession. I felt the urge to go in even though I knew there was no priest.
But it is the statue in this picture, near one of the entrances, that hit me the most:
If you look closely, you will see the wound on the figure’s outstretched hand – the beggar is Christ. For me, it is the focal point of the church.
St. Paul’s is located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Toronto. There are lots of beggars and homeless people near Queen and Parliament, and there is much scriptural support for seeing, in them, the face of Christ, including the often quoted passage in Matthew where Jesus says of them, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And while the words of Mother Teresa are not scripture, they certainly echo its sentiment when she says of her work with the poor and the dying, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.”
Along with the wonderful work that St. Paul’s (and the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, across the street) are doing for the poorest of the poor in Toronto, there is a wonderful, almost scriptural irony at work in that beautiful church:
St. Paul’s was built when the demographics of the reighbourhood were different: incomes have fallen (to understate the fact to the point of euphemism), and there has been little in the way of gentrification since then (as there has been in, say, Parkdale). So now, people of the most limited means are worshiping in a church that is one of the most beautiful in the city. If we were talking about housing, it would be like a families on welfare living in palaces.
And so, through changing demographics, at St. Paul’s, the last really have become first; the meek have inherited the earth, at least in terms of their place of worship.
While it is a dangerous enterprise to presume to know the mind of God (which should, but does not, stop some people), I picture Jesus approving of the arrangement, given his love for the poor and for people without pretensions, whom He called “the salt of the Earth”.
I have no idea what the demographics of Heaven will look like, but after a Mass at St. Paul’s, I do have some inkling as to the architecture, and even more importantly, the spirit that will fill it.