In the lobby of the Cecil Street Community Centre, just steps from Chinatown, there are two grand marble tablets carved in Hebrew lettering, surrounded by Chinese placards on all walls. The juxtaposition hints at the building's evolving life and reflects the changing character of the surrounding neighbourhood.
The Church of Christ (Disciples) opened the building in March 1891, the Protestant sect's first permanent and purpose-built church in Toronto. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by Knox & Elliott, the asymmetrical white brick building featured large gables on the south and west sides with stained-glass windows, and was dominated by a 29-metre steeple.
In the 1910s, a massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe transformed the previously Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood. Church of Christ historian Reuben Butchart complained: “[W]e had discovered in Cecil St. that we were a mere island, surrounded by a sea of European faiths and tongues.”
The Disciples abandoned Cecil Street by 1922, when it was purchased by a congregation of Polish immigrants, and renovated into the Ostrovtzer Synagogue. The steeple was replaced by a modest dome.
The synagogue thrived for three decades until, by the 1950s, the congregation followed much of the city's Jewish community's relocation northward and outward.
The building was next acquired by the Catholic diocese, in the mid-1960s, to become the Chinese Catholic Centre amid what had become a bustling Chinatown. In the early 1970s, the building was converted into a municipally operated community centre.
By Kevin Plummer