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Then and now: Tower site was once home to Toronto’s first black church

Toronto, February 24, 2017

By Emily Holton

Founded by fugitive slaves, the First Baptist Church became a centre for abolitionist activity
Founded by fugitive slaves, the First Baptist Church became a centre for abolitionist activity. (Image from St. Michael’s Hospital Archives)

Did you know that the northeast corner of Queen and Victoria Streets, the site of St. Michael’s new Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower, was once the site of Toronto’s first black church?

Almost 200 years ago in York (now Toronto), twelve fugitive slaves gathered outside to pray together. They had arrived to the city from the American South via the Underground Railroad, and found no church that would welcome them.

The group started their own small, Baptist congregation in 1826. Sunday services were held outside, at each other's homes, and eventually in rented or borrowed spaces. In 1841, the congregation raised the funds to buy a property and build a small church on the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets – where St. Michael’s stands today.

The First Baptist Church remained on this site for 65 years. It became a centre for abolitionist activity, sponsoring anti-slavery lectures and providing food, shelter and other assistance to newcomers.

For several years, we were neighbours. The Sisters of St. Joseph bought a neighbouring Baptist church (32 Bond Street) in 1885, which became St. Michael’s Hospital in 1892.

The First Baptist Church sold the corner property to the Crown Life Insurance Company in 1905 and moved to a new building on University Avenue. Today, at its present location on Huron Street, the First Baptist Church is the oldest black institution and the longest continuing congregation in Toronto. At 190 years old, it’s actually older than Toronto, older than Ontario and older than Canada.

From the First Baptist Church website: “When we sing the hymn “We’ve Come This Far By Faith,” we are acknowledging the sacrifices made by our forefathers, those courageous men and women who prayed and worked diligently to ensure that their children and their children’s children would be assured of a safe and welcoming place to worship in Toronto.”

The corner of Queen and Victoria Streets was occupied by several other businesses before it was sold to St. Michael’s for an expansion in the 1950s. Today, the site continues to be a very busy place as construction nears completion on our 17-storey, state-of-the-art Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower.

This year marks the St. Michael’s 125th anniversary, and Canada’s 150th. We’ll be reflecting more on our community’s history as well as our own, and look forward to sharing more stories with you.

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About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.