I’m spending a few days in Toronto with our Canadian Passionists, who minister at St. Gabriel Church, a new church built in 2006 which reflects the eco-theology of Fr. Thomas Berry, a Passionist who died a few years ago. He believed we need to foster a life enhancing relationship with the earth and the whole cosmos.
The church is located in a booming area along Sheppard Avenue in North York where high-rise condos and a new subway line are recent additions to this growing prosperous Canadian city. It’s a showplace for human technology and building skills. What better place for a reminder of things beyond the human?
The church and its surroundings are almost swallowed up by the great buildings around it; a modest sign along busy Sheppard Avenus beckons you into St. Gabriels.
It’s not a church you would expect. No steeple skyward, no shrines of saints outside. A solitary statue of Christ stands on the roadway toward it. The entire south facade of the church is clear glass welcoming sunlight into the worship space within and a garden where the story of creation is retold from its beginning. Rocks, flowers, trees and grasses face the glass wall that dominates the new building, A large tree trunk cut from a land development nearby stands at the edge of the outdoor garden, signed with a green cross. It signifies the Passion of the Earth, which the human community, recklessly exploiting the earth’s resources, has inflicted on the natural world.
Looming beyond the garden are the tall buildings of our modern human world.
Sunlight through its expansive southern window and upper windows plays through the interior space of the church by day and over the seasons. This is not a church cut off from the world outside but in harmony with it.
The church pews, salvaged from an earlier church, are arranged antiphonally facing the baptismal fount near the southern glass wall, the ambo where the gospel is proclaimed, and the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated. A chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved is situated in the northern part of the worship space. The Word who made the universe; the Savior sent to redeem us is present here in this church.
The baptismal fount, also from the earlier church, has water flowing from it; a rainspout on the outside southern wall delivers rainwater to a simple river bed below. The two remind us of our dependence on water as well as light.
The church seats 750 people; the present parish membership comes from all the continents and many nations. A parallel narthex provides a meeting place for these “living stones” who form the church today.
The church was built to be energy efficient. Most of its parking area is located beneath the church. Parishioners ascending from the underground parking face a large bank of plants, which serve to purify the air as well as remind them of the importance of the rain forests for the earth.
”Imaginative and creative,” Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, Archbishop of Toronto, Canada, called the new Passionist church of St. Gabriel, when he dedicated it on Sunday, November 19, 2006. The Jesuit magazine AMERICA featured the church in a recent issue on church architecture.
The parish website is http://stgabrielsparish.ca/
A Youtube video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GasOYiK1l68