Church of St. Mary Magdalene

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene is an Anglo-Catholic parish of the Anglican Church of Canada located in Toronto. It is famous for its association with composer Healey Willan and was part of the composite Robertson Davies used to form "St. Aidan's" in his novel The Cunning Man. Robertson Davies attended Mass there while still a Presbyterian and a student at Upper Canada College. The church is also mentioned in Marian Engel's "The Glassy Sea".

The church, nicknamed "SMM" or "St. Mary Mag", was founded in 1888 by a group from the nearby Church of St. Matthias led by the Rev'd Charles Darling. The Church's somewhat unusual choice for a patron was probably an homage to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington, England, where Charles Darling had served as Assistant. The church building was originally designed by the Rector's brother—noted Toronto architect Frank Darling. However, his ambitious plans were tempered by the always modest financial resources of the parish. The exterior of the church building was begun in 1888, added to in 1896 and completed in 1908. The Choir loft was added in the 1920s. The sanctuary was extensively remodeled in 1963 by Rambush & Company, NY. In 1993 a substantial addition to the building added additional spaces for instruction, meeting, and church administration. In 2008, another removation to the liturgical space opened up windows that had been closed up in the 1920s.

As an Anglo-Catholic Parish, SMM has always celebrated the Eucharist as the central act of worship. This has historically been done at SMM in a liturgical style reflecting the convergence of Roman Catholic and Anglican influences. In 1919, the Church shifted more towards Roman-style parish life: the Rev'd H. Griffin Hiscocks began hearing private confession. This period also ushered in the use of incense and the installation of a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary (now in the south aisle of the church). Newspaper accounts of the time reveal how controversial the installation was. A chip in the statue's toe shows evidence of a hammer attack made by those hostile to SMM's Catholic-leaning spirituality.

The rector is the Reverend David Harrison, who became rector on June 1, 2010 after a nine-year incumbency at the parish of St. Thomas', Brooklin.

Founding and development

Over the years SMM has accumulated other pieces of sacred art. A magnificent Rood Cross hangs from the chancel arch to commemorate the parish war dead of World War I. It was designed by William Rae, modelled by Frances Loring and originally painted by Frank Johnston (one of the Group of Seven). Sylvia Hahn painted a pastoral scene of a young Jesus in the north aisle. Sylvia Hahn also painted the triptych behind the Lady Altar in the south aisle. Devotional stations with statues of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalene and others are spread throughout the church. A modern painting by Lynn Donoghue hanging near the baptismal font explores the challenges of faith in the modern age.


St. Mary Magdalene's is particularly well known for excellence in sacred music. In 1940 the magazine Saturday Night reported that there were only two things worth doing in Toronto: seeing the Chinese Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum and listening to the SMM choirs. This owes much to the legacy of Healey Willan, who came to the parish in 1921 and remained as the organist and choirmaster until his death in 1968. Willan composed music for SMM liturgies that have lasting influence and usage. He was also an accomplished organist famous for his improvisational skill. He once remarked, "You have a sense of home, absolute completion... doing the work you want to do and the work you feel you can do."

This legacy of excellence in sacred music is demonstrated by the fact that the musical services of Tenebrae celebrated in Holy Week are the best attended services of the year. One distinctive characteristic of the music tradition at SMM is the division of the choir into a "Gallery Choir" which sings polyphonic music from a balcony in the west end of the church and a "Ritual Choir" that specializes in performing Gregorian Chant from choir stalls in the chancel.

Variety of worship

A variety of worship takes place at SMM: daily Masses, Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer, as well as Solemn Masses on Sundays and important feasts of the Christian calendar. Far from being limited to traditional language liturgies, however, the parish also celebrates contemporary language liturgies based on the Canadian Book of Alternative Services. SMM's role in the development of liturgy in the Anglican Church of Canada can also be seen in claim that the "reordered" 1962 Eucharistic Rite contained in the BAS was partially inspired by developments at SMM. For some time the parish had experimented by literally cutting and pasting pages of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer into the Anglican Missal. The resulting "reordered Rite" combined the sequence of Roman usage, Canadian BCP prayers, and supplemental liturgical material (e.g. minor propers) from more ancient sources.

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator
  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference and added a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via