The Russian Orthodox Church
in Toronto

By: Vladimir I. Handera

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 83-85
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The first Russian Orthodox church services in Toronto were celebrated in 1915, and in 1916 a church building was purchased on Royce Avenue (now Dupont Street). The priests at that time were Father Panteleimon Bozyk, Father Michael Kamyakan and Father Joseph Shekaly. The chaos and upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia even affected the church in Toronto, which was thrown into turmoil and the building was lost. The Russian Orthodox community struggled on, holding services in an Anglican chapel. The priest at the time, from 1921-28, was Father K. Bodnarchuk. Some of the Russian Orthodox faithful found themselves attending the Bulgarian Macedonian Church on Trinity Street, which more closely resembled the Orthodox church so familiar to them.

In March 1928 Father Alexander Piza and his wife arrived in Toronto to help reorganise the Russian Orthodox community into a lively parish. The diverse community of Orthodox faithful came not only from Russia proper, but also from Carpatho-Rus' and Bukovina. Under the leadership of Father Alexander Piza, a house church was to be their next place of worship. A chapel with and iconostasis-an icon screen necessary in Russian Orthodox church services-was built with the help of the Carpatho-Rus' offering their labour. It was located on the first floor of the building. The priest' s wife organised the first Russian Orthodox religion, history and language classes on the second floor where she and Father Alexander also lived. The address was 55 Spadina Avenue in the garment district in downtown Toronto. Some of the very first families in the parish were: Gedeonoff, Cocherva (Curtis), Petelka, Zozula, Rodomar, Butko, Osenenko. The Carpatho-Rus' immigrants were: Handera, Duma, Ezay, Kemeny, Prestaya, Kundra and Wakarow.

In the fall of 1930 a new building was purchased for $8,500 at 4 Glen Morris Street about two miles from the old Spadina Avenue location. The new Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral became the hub of Russian Orthodox church life in Toronto-with choirs, dance groups, children's orchestras, youth concerts and youth cultural groups, and sisterhoods-cadets and hussar officers from the Russian Imperial Guard of old Russia held grand balls there. Every Sunday after liturgy, downstairs in the church hall the faithful would congregate around the Russian classical library over "chai" (tea-time) with delicious food like "piroshki", "pelmeni" and "borscht" cooked by the sisterhood. It was a time of joyous fellowship. Lectures and talks with heated discussions on what was going on in Russia were inevitable. The former minister of education to the last tsar, Nicholas II, had become a member of the parish, and on April 6 1933 at 8:30 p.m. Count P.N. Ignatieff and his son Count Nicholas Ignatieff gave a lecture on ''Russia-Yesterday, Russia-Today" at the reference library on the corner of St. George and College Streets. This was the father of Dr. George Ignatieff, the present chancellor of the University of Toronto and Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations. Dr. George Ignatieff and Madame Ignatieff are still faithful parishioners to this day. A theatre at the University of Toronto is named after George Ignatieff.

The sisterhood at Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral held bazaars with folk crafts and Russian foods. Good community relations resulted with the other Christians in Toronto, especially the Anglicans. Anglican Bishop Wilkinson was a great friend to the Russian Orthodox in Toronto. He is fondly remembered.

March 9, 1941 saw the arrival of Father John Diachina-a very personable, strong, loving man who helped everyone, especially newcomers arriving from Europe suffering the scars of world war and of persecution in the Soviet Union because of their Orthodox faith. Father Diachina helped them get settled and find work. He was loved by all, and no one can ever forget Father John coming to bless their home on the holy day of "Yordan"-the feast of Christ' s baptism in the River Jordan.

Easter at Christ the Saviour on Glen Morris was magnificent with throngs of people spilling out onto the streets at midnight when the priests would joyfully shout that ''Christ is risen," and the faithful would respond, "Indeed he is risen." Russian Orthodox farmers from northern Ontario would make their yearly pilgrimage to the church for the blessing of their Easter breads and willow baskets.

In the summer of 1948, the sister of Tsar Nicholas II- Grand-Duchess Olga Alexandrovna-arrived from Denmark. She and her family became members of the parish. Grand Duchess Olga, with her gracious and warm smile, was honoured many times at the annual Toronto Russian Cadets' Ball. Today the Russian children' s school still bears her name. At her funeral in Toronto on November 24, 1960, wreaths were sent by the king and queen of Denmark, the king of Norway and England' s Queen Elizabeth; imperial guardsmen from the 12th Hussars Ahtyrsky Regiment were the pallbearers; the Grand Duchess' friend, Bishop John of San Francisco, sprinkled Russian earth on her grave.

Through the zealous efforts of Father John Diachina, Christ the Saviour parish moved from 4 Glen Morris Street to its present location at 823 Manning Avenue in the summer of 1966. The first liturgy was celebrated on September 24, 1966. The parish has been one of the original pavilions of Metro Caravan, receiving thousands of visitors who have become familiar with the life of the Russian community in Toronto.

Since September 15, 1976 Father Nicolas Boldireff has assumed the responsibilities of rector. The present church choir, directed by Serge Boldireff, has been acclaimed for its achievements in Russian liturgical and folk music. The choir has performed in Ottawa, Montreal and New York State, as well as concerts at the University of Toronto. With a look to the future, Father Nicolas Boldireff has, with the aid of Father David Belden, organised the magnificent Orthodox liturgy for an English-language ministry both at the parish cathedral and at the University of Toronto' s Hart House Chapel. Present activities include the cherished sisterhood, the children's Russian language and history school, held every Saturday, Orthodox Sunday school in English on Sundays, an Orthodox bible study class, also in English, and a junior and senior children's dance group.

The newest Russian community arrived in Toronto from displaced persons' camps in Europe. Eleven refugees discovered that in their midst was a humble priest from the same background who was working as a garment worker along with his wife in Toronto's garment district. Father Mathew Andrushenko and his wife Anastasia were asked to help form another Russian parish made up of new immigrants. On November 2, 1949 Archbishop Losaph of Edmonton, representing the synod of bishops of the Russian Orthodox church outside of Russia, appointed Father Mathew as rector of the new parish. Reminiscent of the early days of Christianity, the small community gathered in a rented loft above a laundry on Parliament Street near Queen. Here they brought beautiful icons and began holding services. The very first took place on December 15, 1949 with Father Mathew. Eleven people were present at that service. Some of the pioneer parishioners were: Artuchov, Solowiejw, Panasejka, Bezugly, Kotolubovitch, Grinko, Blagoveschensky, Grigorieff and Taran.

Even though the rent was only $120 a month for the use of the building, the parishioners found it difficult and shortly afterwards moved to a space at the Church of All Nations on Queen Street near Spadina Avenue. Here the rent was only $5 per service. On Saturday evenings the men would construct a portable iconostasis. It would be taken down on Sunday afternoons following the service. The aroma of incense and beeswax candles filled the building. It was here that the first Russian children's school and the sisterhood of Myrrh-Bearing Women began. At this location the parish grew rapidly as more immigrants arrived from Europe and attendance increased from eleven to over a hundred.

Mr. D. Vendely, the elder "Starosta", instigated the idea of building a church. Complaints from the Protestant Christians sharing the Church of All Nations about all that Russian incense also served as an incentive to move. (The Russian Orthodox church is rich in symbolism, and incense represents prayer, symbolizing man's gift of fragrance to God. Father Mathew was known to use incense generously.) Thus, a small church was built by the hands of the first parishioners on Richmond Street just west of Berkeley, in Cabbagetown. It was begun in the autumn of 1952 and was consecrated on September 6, 1953 by Archbishop Vitaly. For the next twelve years Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church grew rapidly. Besides the sisterhood, there were the children's school and the youth organisation of Saint Vladimir, which was started in 1952. Father Sergius Shukin was the founder with Vladimir Grigorieff as president. Every Sunday the St. Vladimir youth group would meet for lively lectures on church history, art, the meaning of the services, discussions on the Gospels and on Russian literature. Preparing youth to become faithful, pious Orthodox Christians has always been a priority at Holy Trinity. In 1982 the community celebrated thirty years of educating children in the Orthodox religion, Russian language, history and culture. Over 200 Russian-speaking children have graduated from the school after completing ten years of study.

There is a yearly children's pilgrimage to the spiritual centre of the Russian church in exile, the Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville, New York. Here Orthodox services, in a setting reminiscent of Holy Russia, are celebrated by the monks where the children experience the rich religious culture of their ancestors. School plays and concerts are held each year in Toronto, and "Yolka" (Grandfather Frost arriving with gifts for the children) is a delight. Circle-dancing around the giant Christmas tree and singing winter songs are also an annual event.

The sisterhood holds a bazaar once a year to help the needy nuns' convents and monasteries in the Holy Land and throughout the free world. Canadians from the neighbourhood come to buy folk crafts and Russian foods. A young energetic priest, Father Vladimir Malchenko, and his gracious wife, Elizaveta, are an inspiration to the growing Holy Trinity community which now numbers over 300 families. Father Vladimir is an assistant to Father Mathew and also the principal at the children's school. Under the initiative of Father Vladimir, a new Russian summer chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Smolensk has been built at the Russian summer colony at Jackson's Point, Lake Simcoe. Also in the planning stages is a senior citizens' residence, which will be dedicated to Our Lady of Smolensk.

Father Mathew Andrushenko, the founding rector, continues to serve his community well and is beloved by all. In the church hall the Canadian flag and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth are prominently displayed as a symbol of thanks for the gift of religious freedom.

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