History of First Unitarian Toronto

Our History
Learn more about the history of our denomination from the UUA, and learn more about other Unitarian congregations and notable Unitarians.

The Early Years
The First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto has existed as a religious community since 1845.

Our ancestors were brave pioneers in the era following the 1837 Rebellion, when the Family Compact’s power was diminishing and democracy was just beginning in “Canada West” (which became Ontario).

Most were immigrants from the British Isles who brought their Unitarian faith with them. It was then considered very radical to question the divinity of Jesus, to admire the mysticism of the East, and to give women an equal vote, but they did it despite threats of fire and ostracism!

Unitarian Church, located on the west side of Jarvis Street, above Crookshank Street, which was built in 1854 and designed by David Thomas.

The original fifteen members included the highly respected Dr. Joseph Workman, an immigrant from Northern Ireland. He was the first Chairman of the Toronto Board of Education, Superintendent of the Queen Street Asylum (later, the Queen Street Mental Health Centre), and in essence Canada’s first psychiatrist. Our members are still very involved in the areas of mental health and education.

In seeking Truth, Unitarians have explored science, reason, world religions and spirituality, often all intertwined. In the last century there was a fascination with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Two of our members (Daniel Lamb and Harry Piper) even founded zoos. At the same time many members including our first two ministers, were studying and knowledgeable about Eastern mysticism, especially that of India

Our congregation has long been known for its musical tradition, and such notables as Dr. Luigi von Kunits (the first conductor of the Toronto Symphony) and Edward Fisher (the founder of the Conservatory of Music) graced our doors. Two well known cellists, Boris Hambourg and Paul Hahn, were also active. Another Hahn brother, Emanuel Hahn, was a sculptor and became famous as the designer of Canada’s dime and quarter coins. Noted painter Fred Steiger was a long time member. But the most famous artist of all our members was Arthur Lismer of the renowned Group of Seven.

Involvement in the social issues of the day has been an ongoing characteristic of our members. Well known politicians have frequently joined our ranks: George Bertram, M.P., Sir Francis Hincks (Premier), Alderman Daniel Lamb, Mayor William Dennison, Senator Joan Neiman, and Donald Macdonald and Michael Cassidy, both former leaders of the Ontario NDP. Two notable women activists were Dr. Emily Stowe, the first woman medical doctor recognized in Canada, and her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen. And in 1901 the widely known Dr. Jabez T. Sunderland became our minister. He had spent a sabbatical in India and spoke out eloquently against colonialism. This was a period of great popularity for Unitarianism.

The Twentieth Century
In 1943 the Rev. Bill Jenkins arrived. The Monday newspapers loved to publish his Sunday sermons. Jenkins became a great publicist for Unitarianism not only in Toronto but across Canada. He was also the moving force to have the congregation leave its building at 216 Jarvis Street for the wide open spaces of St. Clair Avenue. Our gothic style building on Jarvis had been designed by William Thomas, the distinguished architect of the St. Lawrence Hall, and it had been our home for nearly 100 years. But the area had deteriorated. By 1943 it had become the “red light district” and Canadian soldiers required special passes to attend services in that location!

In the 1950’s the congregation exploded with many lively activities in the creative arts, adult education, human rights, and children’s education. The Toronto Humanists and the Unitarian Service Committee met regularly in our new building on St. Clair Avenue. Eight Unitarians founded the Elizabeth Fry Society in 1952 following an inspiring address by Agnes McPhail.

In the 1960’s the congregation continued to flourish. John H. Morgan provided eloquent and stimulating Sunday Addresses. Even James Coyne (former Governor of the Bank of Canada) came regularly to services. Membership swelled in 1965 to 873. Prospective members were redirected to the newly founded congregations of Don Heights and South Peel, and to the Northwest and North Toronto Fellowships. The Sunday School had a waiting list. Our Singles Club was the most popular in the city. And the White Cross recreational program of the Canadian Mental Health Association met weekly in our building.

In the 1970’s church-going lost its attractiveness as many other Sunday activities became available in Toronto. We reflected on new directions for our program. Rev. Duke Gray introduced more liturgy and spirituality into our services. Later, the Rev. Chris Raible helped us reorganize our lay leadership structure. The Revs. Donna and Mark Morrison-Reed helped us renovate our building and strengthened our congregation immensely!

And… well, maybe you can help us write the next exciting chapter in our history!