Czechoslovak Baptist Church to be sold in March
The historic Czechoslovak Baptist Church building at the corner of Annette and High Park is to be sold in March after a conditional bid was placed on it this past week. It is the second church, of five on the strip immediately west of Keele, to go on the market in the past year - Victoria-Royce Presbyterian Church just down the street is being renovated into lofts. The church, whose cornerstone dates to 1888, is avoiding the death knell of condofication for now, and will be purchased by an as yet anonymous congregation.
But the Junction is changing fast, and its uncertain how much longer the building will maintain its holy designation. In December, a private inquiry was placed with Toronto building Division to see if the current zoning would allow a dance studio to set up in the building ("private" means the City doesn't have to tell you how they answered).
A shrinking congregation that came from outside the community every Sunday could be blamed for the Baptist church's downfall, but the same claim cannot be made of the Presbyterian-Royce Church. Doug Hain's family attended the Presbyterian Church for five generations. He is currently the Vice President of the West Toronto Junction Historical society, and was involved in the final decision to put the Presbyterian Church on the market. When the congregation declined to only two per cent of its war-time high of 1,500, and faced with heating bills that were breaking $30,000 a year for the mid-sized (by church standards) building, Doug new the church had to go up for sale. "We were down to 30 members and we couldn't begin to pay the bills," he told me by phone this evening. "An old building's very expensive to look after."
Father John Banko at 200 Annette Street told me the same thing. The Czechoslovakian congregation rents the building from the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, but was looking at hundreds of thousands in renovation costs. Like most Baptist churches the building is small (again, by church standards). When Father Banko joined the congregation there were 80 members at mass. The building can fit only 180, but Sunday service now draws only slightly more than 30. Others told me 20. When I went I counted six people.
Father Banko told me the congregation made a mistake when it asked him to continue giving services in only Czech and Slovakian, that a service that wasn't in English was never going to hang on to its young members, and that members of the local community were never going to become involved. Ethnically, the area is on the fringes of a large Ukrainian and Polish demographic in Bloor West village. But the congregation commutes in from Peel and Markham, and Father Banko himself is from Oakville. To his credit, he speaks Russian and German, in addition to his two native languages, and has been picking up Korean from the United congregation kitty corner to his own. But the fact that the church was not really a local church, and its people not really community people, was repeatedly raised during conversations I have had recently. Every Sunday the top of my street (Pacific) is over-run by St. Cecilia's Vietnamese congregation, bussed in from far-off parts of the GTA. Are they next? What about the United Church just across the street from the Czechoslovak Baptist, with its joint congregations of Koreans and Portuguese?
But maybe the church at Annette and High Park is an anomaly, doomed only by a shrinking ethnic population, or perhaps something more vague? Maybe the congregation was bound to end as soon as the Czech Republic and Slovakia parted ways? Doug tells me that St. Cecilia's is more or less self-sustaining at this point, though whether he's referring to its congregation or its finances I can't tell. And the only church on the strip to pass into commercial hands so far has been a British-founded, English-speaking one. So, is it English-speaking pastors who should be pulling their hair and gnashing their teeth?
The building itself is as old as the Junction itself, dating to just four years after the Village of West Toronto Junction was founded at the corner of Dundas and Keele in 1884. David Wencer, a young member of the historical society, sites evidence that the land was purchased for the Baptist Church in
1877 1887. It runs 145 feet along Annette, and 67 feet along High Park. An extension was added in 1920, around the same time that lawns were paved over to widen Annette for larger traffic volumes. Just south of more commercial Dundas West, and with well-to-do engineers and doctors populating the neighbourhoods to the east, west and south, Annette saw a boom of church construction. Today, it is a listed property with Toronto Heritage, a title that grants no protection beyond a public warning when any construction or renovation is to take place. The 9,700 square foot property is going for an asking price of $725,000. Eva, a member of the congregation whom I talked to while she cleared snow from the front walk, told me "they don't care who they sell to. We'll go somewhere."
Historically, Annette has always served as a staging ground for community initiatives, a role that it is forfeiting to Dundas: five churches, a library that abuts a Masonic temple, two schools and, going further back, the old Heintzman house at Laws and Annette, where the community would gather on the lawn in the summer. And this all in the ten blocks between Keele and Runnymede. But it perhaps this romanticized, community era has been ending ever since the Annette Street Baptist Church became the Czechoslovak Baptist Church in 1976. Or maybe it goes further back, to when the lawns were claimed by asphalt.
The good money is on 200 Annette Street transitioning to another, very un-local congregation. "Given that the outgoing group wasn't in the community, it's not as if we're losing anything," David told me yesterday evening. "You might as well be preserving the status quo."
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