A recent fire in Toronto at a historic church built in 1908 has severely damaged the Canadian heritage site and destroyed religious murals painted by members of the Group of Seven.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church has the unique distinction of being a Byzantine revival style church containing more than 15 artworks by J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Carmichael, Frederick H. Varley and other members of the Group of Seven. The rare works depict scenes from Jesus’ life, a departure from the group’s renowned scenes of nature. The church was designated a national historic site in 1997.

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The four-alarm fire on Sunday, June 9, destroyed most of St. Anne’s, including all of the artistic works, The interior has been gutted and its central dome collapsed. Only the building’s front remains.

According to The Art Newspaper, there were no reports of injuries and police are still trying to determine the cause of the fire.

Alejandra Bravo, the Toronto city councillor for the ward where St. Anne’s is located, told reporters at a press conference on June 10 the works by the members of the Group of Seven were “something we cannot replace in Canada and in the world”.

Reverend Canon Lawrence Skey commissioned the church’s artworks in 1923. The Parks Canada website describes the artworks as “elaborate interior mural decorations” which “cover the walls and ceiling of the apse, the main arches, the pendentives and the central dome. The cycle combines narrative scenes, written texts, as well as decorative plasterwork and detailing accentuating the architectural lines of the building.”

The artistic project was led by MacDonald, a founding member of the Group of Seven. MacDonald brought in fellow members Carmichael and Varley as well as the artists Arthur N. Martin, S. Treviranus, H.S. Palmer, H.S. Stansfield, Neil McKechnie and his son, Thoreau MacDonald.

The result of the collaboration was St. Anne’s Anglican Church bestowed with more than a dozen large murals and paintings, as well as reliefs and medallions of the four apostles John, Peter, Mark and Paul by the sculptors Florence Wyle and Frances Loring.

The Parks Canada website also noted the church’s paintings belong “to the revival of mural decoration that emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century and is a manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to ally architecture with the sister arts of painting and sculpture”

One of the church’s highlights was Varley’s Nativity, featuring a self-portrait of the artist as a young shepherd. The destruction of Nativity was even noted by Varley’s great-granddaughter, Emma Varley, through a post on X (formerly Twitter): “Such a loss.”