Metropolitan United Church has a long history of worship and service that formally began in 1818 in what is now the commercial heart of Toronto, though our roots reach back to 1795. The first building to house the congregation was a small Methodist chapel located on nearby King Street. Membership grew along with city's population, so in 1831 another site was acquired on Adelaide Street. In 1833, the Newgate Methodist Episcopal Church - a Georgian-style building accommodating 1000 people - was opened, but the church continued to grow.
In 1868 the church trustees had a chance to purchase the present square-block property at McGill Square (Queen and Church Streets). The congregation voted to construct a new church, renamed the Metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist Church, which was dedicated in 1872. (Dr. Anson Green recalled this purchase in his autobiography, and we have provided an excerpt below.) Designed by architect Henry Langley in a Gothic style, the new building seated 1800 (2400 when packed for holidays), had a choir of 300 singers, and was soon described as Canada's "cathedral of Methodism." The photograph to the left shows the 1872 church looking towards the lake from Shuter Street.
This grand church had an interior with a central pulpit, side aisles, and balconies on all three sides. The chancel was very large to accommodate the enormous choir. In 1922, a carillon of 22 bells was installed in the bell tower - the largest harmonically tuned carillon in North America (today it has 54 bells). The photograph to the right shows the wonderful painted arches and the general layout of the interior of the church.
After World War I, Metropolitan became involved in social service for its neighbours in downtown Toronto. Long before there was any public welfare, Metropolitan hired a social worker to coordinate programs for the poor. Metropolitan's famous minister Peter Bryce was able to convince the publisher of the Toronto Star newspaper to create a special Christmas program for poor families. The program began with a few hundred dollars in donations; today the Star Santa Claus fund raises over a million dollars every year.
As Canada expanded, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches had trouble finding enough ministers to serve in the many churches which dotted western Canada. To deal with that issue, after many years spent discussing the religious issues of a possible unification, this country's Methodists, Congregationalists and most Presbyterians formed the United Church of Canada in 1925. Toronto's Metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist very quickly became Metropolitan United Church. Metropolitan was chosen as the site of the first General Council of the United Church that same year.
In 1928, a fire that began at six in the morning ultimately destroyed most of the church building. (Only the bell tower was saved because it had no direct connection to the church itself.) For a year, the congregation met in nearby Massey Hall while deciding whether to abandon the downtown site and merge with one of the other United churches in Toronto. The decision was finally taken to build another Gothic church on the foundations of the old one. Metropolitan United was rescued from possible destruction for the first time.
The new church was opened with great fanfare in December, 1929. Only six of the stained glass windows were in place, and the organ wasn't installed until the following year, but the new church was an immediate success. With just a single balcony, Metropolitan could accomodate only 900 people - not nearly enough for the very popular evening services, and so popular at Christmas and Easter that admission was by ticket only.
In 1930, a new organ - the largest in Canada with 7200 pipes - was installed in the rebuilt church. The five-manual instrument has been updated and restored over the years, but the original console has been retained. In 1998 a gallery organ was added. The organ now has 8,233 pipes; the largest 32 feet high, and the smallest the size of a pencil. During the 1930s and 1940s, Metropolitan developed many of the musical programs for which it is now famous - the Silver Band, the concert series, and the outstanding choirs.
Metropolitan United remained a very popular church through the 1950s with some 1200 members and adherents. It was the first church to broadcast Sunday sermons (on CFRB) with a "radio ministry" of many thousands of families. But in the 1960s, church attendance went into a steep decline and Metropolitan saw its membership base shrink very rapidly. In 1970, a report to the Trustees recommended demolishing the church building and selling the land. Put to a vote, the report was rejected by the congregation and Metropolitan was saved from destruction for the second time in its history.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Metropolitan began rebuilding its congregation for a new generation as part of a revitalized downtown Toronto. The congregation of Metropolitan United Church voted to be recognized as Affirming: welcoming all people regardless of their sexual orientation to worship and minister among us (www.affirmunited.ca). In 1988, Dr. Malcolm Sinclair was called to the pulpit and became one of the most popular and charismatic preachers in the history of the church. He was joined in 2002 by Dr. John Joseph Mastandrea as Minister for Pastoral Care.
Metropolitan United Church now serves a unique congregation drawn from throughout the City of Toronto and surrounding communities. Many people come from miles away to attend this church because it is large and historic, but decidedly modern in outlook. The extensive facilities in the main church building serve the spiritual and educational needs of worshippers, and are also used throughout the year for community service programs. These provide assistance and activities to minister to the body, mind and spirit of people in downtown Toronto.
For more, you may read: Firm Foundations: A Chronicle of Toronto's Metropolitan United Church and Her Methodist Origins, 1795-1984, by Judith St. John, published in 1988.
Interested in digging a little deeper? Here's an excerpt from The Life and Times of Anson Green in which Dr. Green recalls the purchase of Met's new property in 1868. Note the members of the council of management, some of the city's most influential leaders at the time.
"As I was walking by McGill Square on 8 September and reflecting upon the manner in which the negotiations between the city and the Montreal Bank, for the Square, had fallen through, a builder of the city came to me saying: Ã Doctor, you should now step in and buy this block for a church. You can sell old Adelaide for $10,000.00 and I will give you $1,000.00 towards a new church. “Thank you," said I, “that is worth thinking about". Before I reached home, another gentleman David Thurston offered me $500.00 for the same object. I immediately went to Dr. Ryerson, my co-Trustee, and reported these facts, “First rate," said he, “let us call a committee and see what can be done." I then went to Morley Punshon, who agreed with us, and seventeen persons met and agreed to purchase the square.
The bank was willing to sell it for $25,000.00 with a down payment of $5,000.00 and they entered a bidding war with the City of Toronto and the Roman Catholic Church. The final purchase price was $26,000.00 for McGill Square. A committee of management was appointed on 15 October 1868 with Mr. Punshon as Chairman and W.T. Mason as Secretary. It was made up of Dr. Egerton Ryerson, Dr. Anson Green, Dr. Lachlin Taylor, William Stephenson, Dr. Enoch Wood, and prominent laymen, including A.W. Lauder, John MacDonald and Dr. W.T. Aitkins. "