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St. John's West Toronto

100th Anniversary

at 288 Humbersode Avenue

The Carillon

On Easter Sunday, April 20, 1924, the neighborhood around St. John’s West Toronto was treated to the melodious music of a carillon of 10 bells. The third St. John’s Church included a belltower designed to accommodate a carillon, but funds for the bells were unavailable when the building opened in November 1923. However, in March 1924, thanks to donations from long-time parishioners, Mr. T.W. Chadburn and Dr. A.A. Jackson, the bells were purchased from the famous bell foundry of Gillett and Johnston in Croyden, England. After arriving in Toronto, the bells, ranging from 46 to 127 cm in diameter and the largest weighing 1225 kg, could be seen outside the church on April 6, ready to be installed. On April 7, The Globe newspaper published a photo of the bells. Fast forward 99 years and there was no ringing of bells at St. John’s this Easter as there are no bells in the belltower. Sadly, they were removed in 2005.

The first ringing of St. John’s bells was big news, The Globe on April 21, reporting that members of other churches had conveyed messages of congratulations to St. John’s rector, Rev. Robert MacNamara. A special note of gratitude was also received from “an invalid, who had been taken out on a veranda to hear the bells and had received spiritual refreshment.” It was also emphasized that “the people of St John’s have grown to prize the internal and external beauty of their new church, and the installation of the bells has only increased their admiration.” On the following Sunday, the new bells were officially dedicated in a special service.

The installation of a carillon of bells in North American churches was rare, as was noted in the May 1924 issue of St. John’s Parish Magazine. There were only 3 or 4 church carillons in the U.S., but they were seldom used, “and of the three peals in Canada that the writer knows of only one is used, that at Vancouver, the difficulty of getting a number of men together to learn the art being the drawback.” However, “we almost every day hear of a fresh set being put in in either England, U.S.A. or Canada.” St. John’s seemed to be the only Anglican church in Toronto with a carillon at the time. Thus, from St. John’s “fine example,” it was hoped “that in a city so singularly full of churches we may not be so singularly devoid of the church’s crowning call to worship.” For more about carillon bells and how they were played, see the May 1924 article, “Something About Bells and Bellringers,” which continued an article in the April issue that, unfortunately, has not been found.

St. John’s bells proved to be quite popular, and practical. Hearing them drew people to the new church on Sunday mornings and there were also special bell recitals. St. John’s acquisition of its bells from England also prompted a change in federal tax law. When they arrived from England a $600 duty was charged to the church. However, since “West Toronto is richer for the chime of bells in St. John’s,” the rector and wardens appealed for relief from this duty. St. John’s finances were very tight due to the costs of the new church, but before the bells were even installed, as was reported in The Globe on June 7, 1924, “an announcement was made in the Finance Minister’s Budget that church bells would hereafter be admitted free of duty.” The $600 was thus returned to the church.

The bells were also used to call voters to the polls, as was the case during the October 23, 1924, provincial referendum on the repeal of the “Ontario Temperance Act.” As The Globe reported, “For more than an hour at noon the chimes rang out and reminded the people of their duty to cast their ballots.” Notably, the referendum results narrowly kept the Temperance Act in place until 1927 when the Liquor Licence Act was passed. However, because of a 1904 majority vote in the town of “West Toronto” (before amalgamating with Toronto in 1909) that banned restaurants from serving alcohol, the Junction West Toronto area remained defiantly “dry” from 1904 to 1997. By this time, the music of St. John’s bells had become much less heard, while their condition in the belltower had become less secure. What happened to the bells will be answered in next week’s bulletin.

St. John’s West Toronto Church’s 10-bell carillon remained a distinctive feature of its Humberside home, and of the city, for many years. In 1931, when St. John’s parish celebrated its 50th anniversary, The Globe newspaper's Oct 30, 1931 article noted that its “carillon of ten bells, rung for the first time in 1924, calls the people of St John’s each Sunday to worship and is much appreciated by residents of the whole section.” And as was reported in the Dec 16, 1935 Globe article, St. John’s was among a relatively small group of Toronto churches and notable buildings to have a carillon. They included St. James Cathedral, Metropolitan United Church, Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Soldier’s Tower at the University of Toronto, St. John the Baptist Anglican (Woodbine), St. Anne’s (Gladstone), and St. Michael’s Cathedral. However, by the 1990s, the bells had fallen silent.

The popularity of St. John’s bells reached a peak in 1974. The Bloor West Villager newspaper included a feature, “Bells Are Ringing!” that had a photo of St. John’s belltower with news that “Carillon bells will fill the air as West Toronto’s only carillon will celebrate its anniversary of installation at St. John’s Anglican Church, West Toronto, this September.” Special concerts were scheduled each Sunday at noon during this “Festival of the Bells.”

The popularity of St. John’s bells reached a peak in 1974. The Bloor West Villager newspaper included a feature, “Bells Are Ringing!” that had a photo of St. John’s belltower with news that “Carillon bells will fill the air as West Toronto’s only carillon will celebrate its anniversary of installation at St. John’s Anglican Church, West Toronto, this September.” Special concerts were scheduled each Sunday at noon during this “Festival of the Bells.”

Some 25-years later, St. John’s Vestry Report for 1999 noted that after several years on “the roller-coaster,” the church was in a stable place. However, there were “hidden debts with deferred, unavoidable repairs,” including the organ console, the bells in the tower, the roof, and the painting of the interior and exterior of the church. Five years later, although the interior walls had been given a distinctively colourful makeover, the bells still demanded attention. Their support structure had been deteriorating, with rusting of the mechanism and in the bolts holding the bells in place to the point that one or more of the larger bells could suddenly fall.


During 2004, the Wardens and property committee sought out a safe and cost-effective remedy to the deteriorating bells support structure, calling in North America’s premier bell founder, the Verdun Company, to conduct an analysis. In April 2004, it estimated a cost of $150,000 to restore the bells, which was beyond the means of St. John’s. Otherwise, the firm recommended St. John’s sell the bells. However, the Trusts Committee of the Diocesan Council denied St. John’s motion to sell the bells to an outside party, pointing to their diocesan heritage. In September, the diocese committed to paying for retaining the bells and restoring the tower to a safe condition. However, there was some debate around the idea of securing and storing the bells in place in St. John’s tower. Although an engineering feasibility study was done, which pointed to the costs involved in securing the bells in place, in January 2005, the diocese issued a cheque to St. John’s for $36,882.00 to pay for the bells and to store them in place. But the diocese had not received the engineer’s study, which had emphasized the hazard of delaying action.

Concerned for the safety of all who used the building, especially the daycare, the Wardens urged prompt action by the diocese to facilitate the prompt removal of the bells. Further delay and mounting concerns around safety and liability would force the closure of the belltower and elevator, rendering the church no longer wheelchair accessible. As a temporary measure, the bells were strapped, but a long-term solution was needed. In the meantime, the value of the bells had increased with the exchange rate since the original offer in U.S. funds to buy them was made. Finally, by May 2005, after further negotiations, the diocese agreed to facilitate the removal of the bells for storage elsewhere in anticipation of their potential use by another church, and to provide St. John’s with a final compensation of $39,000.00.

The September 2005 issue of The Anglican newspaper included an article, “Bells Removed From Tower.” As was emphasized by St. John’s Incumbent, Gary van der Meer, the congregation wrestled with the question: “Is removing the bell a success of a failure? Being the church is about so much more than having a pretty building. St. John’s is a beautiful church, but our priority is ministry and commitment to the community” The sale of the bells was a sad, but sound sacrifice that provided St. John’s with boosted financial resources to support its mission.

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