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The Toronto Chinese United Church was a presence on Chestnut Street between 1955 and 1988 when it was sold and later demolished. (Mary-Esther Lee)
The Toronto Chinese United Church was a presence on Chestnut Street between 1955 and 1988 when it was sold and later demolished. (Mary-Esther Lee)

Former Chinese Church site in Toronto has ties to African-American history Add to ...

Growing up in the 1960s in Chinatown in a flat above her parents’ silk shop, Jennie Norman had no idea about the buried history beneath the Toronto Chinese United Church (TCUC), on Chestnut Street south of Dundas, where she and her friends spent their free time at youth groups and fundraising bazaars.

The TCUC congregation, which served older Cantonese-speaking immigrants as well as second- or third-generation Chinese Canadians such as Ms. Norman, operated out of the church between 1955 and 1988, when the building was sold and demolished to make way for a parking lot.

Last year, however, the TCUC’s well-preserved foundations resurfaced during a massive archeological dig on the site, which is slated to become a $500-million provincial courthouse developed by Infrastructure Ontario (IO).

As archeologists have since revealed, the church traces its origins to a tiny wood-frame chapel founded on the site in the 1840s by five African-American men, some refugees from slavery. Named the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 and rebuilt twice, it became the leading place of worship for Toronto’s black community. When the BME’s membership dwindled in the 1950s, the property was sold to the United Church to establish the city’s first Chinese congregation.

The TCUC, recalls Ms. Norman, a 66-year-old retired IT consultant, “certainly was a very important cultural centre for the Chinese population.” But, she adds, “I doubt if anyone in the congregation knew enough about the history.”

Over the next several weeks, project archeologist Holly Martelle says heritage masons will remove and preserve the church’s brick-and-limestone foundation, parts of which may be incorporated as a commemorative heritage display linked to the new courthouse.

It’s the latest phase of an extensive dig that began in July, 2015, when Ms. Martelle’s team removed hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back to the 19th and early 20th-century history of “the Ward,” the former dense immigrant enclave between Yonge and University, north of Queen. The archeologists also found an arrowhead that predates European colonization.

The artifacts – including clothing, tools and toys – have been taken to a London, Ont., storage facility, where they are being cleaned and catalogued.

The BME congregation grew rapidly in the 1850s and 1860s with the surge of refugees fleeing to Canada along the Underground Railroad. The church became a hub of abolitionist political organizing, as well as a base for self-help groups serving Toronto’s black community, many of whose members lived in the streets nearby.

To accommodate growing demand, the BME’s trustees expanded the structure, in the 1870s and again in the late 1890s.

When the TCUC took over in the mid-1950s, the congregation included elderly Chinese residents who lived in Chinatown and spoke no English, but also younger Chinese-Canadian families who commuted in from the suburbs for services.

Wenh-In Ng, a professor emeritus of divinity at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College whose husband served as minister in the 1960s, recalls that the church had a sloping, high-ceilinged sanctuary but no stained-glass windows. “It was like a theatre,” she says, adding that a simultaneous-translation system was installed so everyone could participate in services.

IO’s executive vice-president John McKendrick says the two development consortia bidding on the courthouse project will be asked to propose ideas to commemorate or preserve elements of the site’s heritage.

Meetings between the bidders and a heritage stakeholders group will take place in December. “They will use what they hear to influence and shape the design,” Mr. McKendrick says, adding that IO has completed other courthouse projects incorporating heritage elements.

In addition, the agency will soon erect hoarding around the site displaying stories, art and archival photos of the Ward.

Mr. McKendrick adds that the agency is also working with City of Toronto officials on a project to display a selection of the thousands of artifacts from the site in a Ward exhibit, to be installed in City Hall next year.

“That’s all part of the program,” he says. “It’s going to be fascinating.”

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