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The Church of Syrian Immigrants

This story was initially published in 2003

On May 17, 1940, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church was officially opened. Built in 1939-40, it symbolizes the cultural traditions of the oldest and largest Orthodox Christian community in Canada.

St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church

St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church
© Parks Canada / Rhona Goodspeed

Many Syrians immigrated to Canada from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s, settling primarily in Toronto and Montréal. The latter became the centre of the Antiochian Orthodox community in Canada. At first, these immigrants met in their homes to practise their faith. But in 1905, their desire to form a genuine community of believers prompted them to acquire a factory and convert it into St. Nicholas Syrian Orthodox Church.

After this building was destroyed by fire, the community undertook to build a new church in 1939-40 and named it St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. It stands out as a blend of oriental and western architecture. Its exterior design is typical of the Byzantine tradition with two small domes on the sides and the large central dome. There is a reference to the Quebec tradition as well in its slightly elevated position in relation to the street, its central door, and its side entrances under the twin bell towers. The blending of the two traditions is even more striking in the interior. The decoration of the entire nave and the iconostasis – a partition adorned with pictures – was done in the Orthodox style by the artist Emmanuel Briffa, while the more naturalistic decoration of the vault reflects the western heritage. The presence of both these influences appropriately symbolizes the Syrian Orthodox community’s adaptation to Canadian society.

Interior of the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church

Interior of the St. George
Antiochian Orthodox Church

© Parks Canada / Rhona Goodspeed

Between 1970 and 1990, the St. George Church community grew considerably as a result of the arrival of another wave of immigrants fleeing the civil war in Lebanon. The members of the community proved extremely generous to the newcomers and formed organizations to help them. Today, the Church continues traditions that originated in Syria and that remain at the heart of the Antiochian Orthodox community in Canada.

In 1999, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church was designated a site of national historic significance and a commemorative plaque was erected in its honour two years later.

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