Our History: A Tale of Two Churches

By Trish O’Reilly

Adapted from an article written for the Pocket Newsletter in 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up and — well, if you’re looking at the church located directly across from Donlands subway station, you’re in for some surprises. First, there are not one but two congregations under the roof. Second, at any point during the service, the priest might suddenly start speaking Japanese. And third, the man up at the front… well, he doesn’t look Japanese. So how does a tall, bearded white guy from Scarborough end up leading a Japanese congregation? And how did the two congregations come together? It’s a long story — or rather a series of stories:

St. David’s

St. David’s Anglican Church began in 1906 as a mission of St. Clement’s parish. The parishioners formed a work party to prepare the site for the church building themselves and then a simple wood-frame church was built on Englewood Avenue — a street south of the Danforth, west off Jones, which today is called Harcourt. The original St. David’s church was on the south side roughly where the houses at 61 to 65 Harcourt stand today.

The congregation grew and in 1912 the parish was split, creating St. David’s as a parish of its own, with boundaries running from Pape to Coxwell and from the railway tracks north to Sammon Ave. In 1921 the congregation moved to a bigger church at the present site on Donlands Avenue. Its original parish hall and tennis courts were torn down in 1985 to make room for St. David’s Tower, a five-storey residence run by a non-profit corporation to provide housing for seniors and single parents. (Due to changes in legislation, the residence is now open to anyone.)

The church suffered from a fire in 1988. Fortunately, the damage was moderate. Ironically, some of the worst damage was caused by firefighters, who had to smash the stained glass windows above the altar to let smoke out. But since then the building has been restored to its former beauty.

Today, if you go into St. David’s, your eyes are in for a feast. The lovely, serene interior has pale walls with stencilled designs in gold and a range of soft, chalky colours that stand in contrast to the high vaulted dark wood ceilings and warm red carpeting. Members of St. David’s represent a range of ages from young families to octogenarians, and come from a variety of backgrounds including European-descended people whose families have been in Ontario for generations side by side with more recent immigrants from places like Africa, Guyana, and the Caribbean.

St. Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s was founded at the end of WWII at a time when Japanese Canadians were being forcibly dispersed through Canada following their internment. Japanese Canadians who ended up in Toronto were no longer able to form tight ethnic communities, but instead dispersed throughout the city. In the 1940s, however, about a dozen people who wanted to worship in Japanese began meeting in a St. George’s chapel inside St. James Cathedral. They began under the leadership of a bishop who had been in Japan and learned a bit of their language. The group quickly outgrew the chapel, however, and over the years they shared space with a number of different Anglican parishes.

In 1996, the congregation finally came to St. David’s. With the exception of a once-monthly service in Japanese, the two congregations share Sunday services, which are largely in English (although several prayers are usually read in both languages). Once a year St. Andrew’s has Shinbokukai, a “get to know you better” gathering, with performances of Japanese folk songs and — instead of the usual post-service tea, coffee, and sandwiches — a feast of Japanese delicacies, such as maki and inari sushi, Japanese-style chow mein, and manju (a Japanese dessert pastry with sweet soybean paste).

Bringing it all together

But what about the tall bearded white guy at the front of the congregation? His name is Warren Wilson, and he grew up in Scarborough and planned to be an accountant — until he realized his life was headed on a different path. In 1978 Wilson volunteered as a missionary in Japan and fell in love with the language and culture.

That’s not all he fell in love with. After three years, Wilson returned to Canada to study for the priesthood, but returned to Japan afterwards to be ordained in the Japanese Anglican Church and marry a woman he had met during his first stay overseas. He and his wife Yoko raised three children while living principally in Kaya, a rural town about 70 km from Kyoto.

When their children entered their teens, Wilson and his wife felt it was time they got to know the other half of their heritage, so the family moved to Canada. And in 2003 Wilson found himself coming full circle — not only back to an area close to where he had grown up, but back to a parish where he could speak Japanese again, and specifically to St. Andrew’s where, as it happens, he had spent a year as a student. (In 2006, when a position at St. David’s opened up, he quite naturally made the transition to serving both parishes.)

So this is some of the people, and some of the history, behind this tale of two churches. Who would have thought that just steps from the bustle of Donlands Avenue, inside this workaday red brick exterior most of us pass every day without noticing, so much was going on and so many different stories were being woven together?


Note: Rev. Warren Wilson left St. David’s and St. Andrew’s in the spring of 2015. He and Yoko now live and work in Japan where they can be closer to their daughter and grandson. 

The new priest for both St. David’s Anglican Church and St. Andrew’s Japanese Congregation is the Rev. Adrienne Clements. St. David’s and St. Andrew’s continue to worship together at 11 am on Sunday and share many joint activities.