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Behind the closed doors of Toronto's most stunning sacred spaces

inside St. Anne's Church on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto, which is unique for its Byzantine-style dome and Group of Seven paintings featured throughout the church.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Peter Holmes opens a door at the back of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church near Yonge and St. Clair and immediately turns sideways to squeeze past part of the church's massive pipe organ.

The room is packed from wall to wall, ceiling to floor, with rows of pipes, wooden bellows and electrical switches.

It's the finest organ in Toronto, says the minister, weaving between the 5,000 pipes concealed behind screened openings above the altar. The smallest is the size of a pencil.

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Treasures like these are hidden in holy houses across the city. Though many congregations are dwindling, and more than a few churches have been reincarnated as condominiums, some places of worship have proven to be protective refuges for things very much in the material realm.

Eight years ago, guided by a spiritual and cultural curiosity, Mr. Holmes started the Pilgrimage of Sacred Spaces, a tour that traverses Toronto and its belief systems. It surveys the architecture and historic items that have survived to become part of Toronto's heritage because they are ensconced in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques.

Corey Keeble, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, helps guide the tours.

"Toronto has become rather more aware [of its religious heritage]because our Victorian history has faded," he says. "We now recognize, 'My gosh, these are rarities.' There is so much here that is worthy of preservation."

But appreciating religious riches is not always a case of blowing dust off relics. New architectural triumphs, such as an enormous wooden church in Brampton and the shining Hindu temple near the top of Highway 427, show that the city's divine material wealth is still being compiled.

Group of Seven get religion

Saint Anne's Anglican Church

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270 Gladstone Ave.

If you look closely, you can see a trace of Georgian Bay in the waves and clouds behind Jesus in The Stilling of the Tempest. Beyond that, there is little to associate the paintings adorning the walls of Saint Anne's with the famous landscapes identified with the Group of Seven painters. Three of the group, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Carmichael and Fred Varley, contributed to the huge paintings that enliven the spacious interior of this Byzantine-style church.

Dating from 1923, the paintings are on canvas that's adhered directly to the walls, a fact that puts them at considerable risk as the 102-year-old church ages. Though the slate roof was replaced in the 1990s, moisture coming through the walls remains a threat, as isolated flaking and bubbling present on a depiction of the wise men greeting baby Jesus attests. The parish is currently spending $80,000 on exterior brickwork, but needs another $270,000 to fully restore what was once the place of worship for a working class Protestant neighbourhood that would have included no small number of masons.

Repurposed brutalism

Noor Cultural Centre

123 Wynford Dr.

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No culture has a monopoly on things like proportion and purity. And so the architectural achievements of the former Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre have found new life as the Islamic Noor Cultural Centre. Acclaimed architect Raymond Moriyama's 1963 design was intended to give the Japanese community solace and strength after the internments of the Second World War. When the Islamic community took it over just a few months before 9/11, they decided the design was so conducive to spiritual well-being they hired Dr. Moriyama to do their renovation (he also designed the Ontario Science Centre and the Bata Shoe Museum).

Practical renovations included turning the lower-level judo room into a prayer room with ablution facilities, but the bigger achievement is the way the building expresses "pure proportion," according to Mr. Keeble. "It demonstrates plain simplicity and purity of form, like a Quaker meeting house."

A temple that defies the temporal

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

61 Claireville Dr. (Finch and Highway 427)

Visitors to this Hindu temple could be forgiven for thinking the central question raised here is not how one leads a good life, but whether the temple is more beautiful inside or out.

There is no structural steel used to hold up the domes and pinnacles. Six thousand tonnes of shimmering marble, limestone and sandstone pieces fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Before the 2007 opening, 1,800 craftsmen in India used hammers and chisels to hand carve 24,000 stone pieces, some as small as a fingernail.

Inside, the intricate arches draw the eye and spirit upward. And even those not given to ruminating on reincarnation will have their sense of what can be achieved in a lifetime challenged by a level of craftsmanship unfamiliar to modern eyes.

Church of cedar and fir

St. Elias the Prophet Church

10193 Heritage Rd. (near Bovaird Drive West), Brampton

The mountains are absent, but a pocket of western Brampton has had a decidedly Carpathian look to it since 1995 when the St. Elias Eastern Catholic parish raised a wooden church in classic 17th-century Cossack style.

St. Elias goes beyond mere emulation though, it's twice as big as its Ukrainian forebears. Five cupolas and a double roofline of gently sloping cedar shingles give the outside a soft, textured appearance. Father Roman Galadza helped design the church so older parishioners would feel an immediate connection to home.

Inside, massive timbers remain exposed between large, bright murals that took 10 years to paint. The sanctuary is an open space, free of pews. So the faithful who show up at 5:30 a.m. for Easter service (held next weekend, according to Eastern Catholic tradition) will have lots of room to prostrate during the five-hour service.

54-bell carillon

Metropolitan United Church

56 Queen St. E.

Performing 100 feet above his audience, Gerald Martindale doesn't have to field many set-list requests. For a musician, that's a plus. Bell-ringing might not always be associated with musicianship, but when the bells in question number 54 and are rung by way of mechanical linkages from a keyboard that calls all four limbs into play, well, let's just say Quasimodo wouldn't be up to the task.

The bells, celebrating their 90th anniversary this weekend, are very much a musical instrument, ranging over four octaves and capable of staccato tempos (the bells remain stationary while rung by an iron clapper).

Each Sunday, Mr. Martindale climbs a circular belfry staircase that's less than four feet in diameter to the only church carillon bells in the city. From there he calls worshippers to service for half an hour with cascading classical music. On weekday afternoons his concerts that ring out as far as Yonge Street are less formal, with Bohemian Rhapsody being a crowd favourite, as far as Mr. Martindale knows.

An original light at the centre

Anshei Minsk Synagogue

10 St. Andrew St.

When Kensington Market was the centre of Jewish life in Toronto in the early 1900s, a synagogue (and there were close to 30 in the market at the time) was more than a place to worship. It was also a place for new immigrants to socialize, to learn, even to kibitz.

When it came time to worship upstairs at the Minsk, eyes would have been drawn to the magnificent chandelier suspended above the central platform where rabbis led the Torah chanting. Corey Keeble describes the terraced steel-and-glass fixture as one of the best examples of art deco lighting in the city.

The light hung on its chain during the exodus of Jews from the neighbourhood, and remains in place for what Minsk rabbi Shmuel Spero describes as a cultural renaissance. Rabbi Spero says the synagogue is returning to its place as a community centre for a reinvigorated downtown Jewish population as building booms around Kensington bring an influx of new residents, some of whom are drawn to the light.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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