Building Green

St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto: A LEED™ Church Building Project - The Details (Part I)

June 26, 2007

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Read Part II of this 2-part article.


Walls of Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic ChurchThe new church for the St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic Parish and the Passionist Community of Canada has been designed to reflect the eco-theology of Passionist, Father Thomas Berry, and his belief that we must work towards establishing a mutually-enhancing, human-earth relationship. In this second article, the design of St. Gabriel’s church will be explored to demonstrate how we can respond to this imperative in a tangible, realistic, and meaningful way.

When asked by his own community to suggest an appropriate response, Thomas Berry replied with this simple question:  “How will you address the sun?”  In contrast to most churches that are inward focused and employ stained glass to create an “other-worldly” liturgical environment, the entire south façade of the worship space at St. Gabriel’s is glazed with clear glass.  This has been done in order to passively harness the winter sun’s energy and to extend the sacred space of the worship area into the sacred space of the world beyond, emphasizing that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation…the primary revelatory experience of the Divine.  The remaining three walls of exposed architectural concrete serve as a constantly changing canvas for the dynamic play of natural light that is filtered by the coloured glass panels of the continuous perimeter skylight and further fractured by wall-mounted dichroic coated reflectors.  In effect, the cosmos shapes the liturgical environment and participates in the ritual action of the liturgy.  Similarly, time also takes on a cosmic dimension as the earth rotates on its axis and travels around the sun.  Seasonal influences on the sun’s intensity and inclination together with the daily diversity of weather conditions ensure that no two masses will experience an identical liturgical environment.

Pews in Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic ChurchThe pews, reclaimed and refurbished from the original church, have been arranged antiphonally in the new 750-seat worship space.  The facing rows embrace a sacred north-south axis that begins in the garden and terminates at the north wall of the nave with the tabernacle.  Immediately adjacent to the south wall of glass, with the garden as backdrop, the original marble font, redesigned to flow with “living water,” emphasizes that when we are baptized into the faith community, our Baptism also consecrates us for the sacred earth community.  The refurbished and transformed marble ambo and altar are also situated along this sacred axis with space enough to allow for processing the Word before it is proclaimed.  Each has its own space defined by a marble platform with just a single step up from the floor needed to facilitate sightlines.  A transparent screen, superimposed with etched glass panels depicting images of the Passion that were salvaged from the front doors of the original church, delineates an intimate chapel of reservation at the north end of this sacred axis.

Movement from the south to the north is reinforced by the colors of the skylight.  Brilliant yellows are situated closest to the sun’s intense light at the south end whereas the deeper, richly hued azure blues at the north end provide a beautifully mysterious and meditative light for the chapel of reservation and the reconciliation room adjacent.  The ceiling of the worship space stops short of the walls on all sides, appearing to hover weightlessly over the congregation, the cosmic coloured light of the perimeter skylights spilling into their midst from an unseen source high above.

Doors into Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic ChurchThe nave is entered from the narthex on the cross-axis through a pair of massive fifteen foot high paneled doors reminding us that Christ is our “gateway” to salvation.  This central ceremonial aisle ends at the sacred axis, facing the presidential chair, which is located in the front row of pews amongst the gathered worshipping community.  The space at the crossing remains void, free to receive the gifts, the bride and groom, and the body of the deceased.  It also serves as a place to identify the liturgical season, allowing the altar to remain unfettered as a primary symbol.

Distinct from most suburban churches that are corralled by huge asphalt parking lots, St. Gabriel’s church accommodates the majority of its parking underground.  This unprecedented investment ensures that a large portion of the ground plane remains devoted to the garden, landscaped to recall pre-settlement indigenous ecosystems and to provide a broad range of color, depth, and wildlife habitat throughout the seasons.

Preferential parking spaces are provided for those who carpool and those who drive hybrid vehicles.  The unique charism of the Canadian Passionists attracts worshipers from well beyond their traditional parish boundaries.  The new church, conveniently located within a few hundred metres of two subway stations, encourages these parishioners to leave their cars at home and arrive via public transit.

Pedestrians who approach the church from Sheppard Avenue are greeted with “stations of our cosmic earth” situated strategically along the path through the garden.  Based upon a series of eight stained glass windows commissioned for the chapel at the Passionist’s Holy Cross Centre for Ecology and Spirituality, the stations depict significant moments in the evolutionary story of the universe and the pilgrim journey of humankind within that story.  [Continue to Part II of this 2-part article.]

Roberto Chiotti, B.E.S., B.Arch., M.T.S., OAA, MRAIC, LEED™AP is a principal of Larkin Architect Limited.  In addition to obtaining his professional architectural degree in 1978, he completed his Master of Theological Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto in 1998 with a specialty in Theology and Ecology obtained through the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Michael’s.


St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto:  A LEED™ Church Building Project - The Details (Part II)

St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto:  A LEED™ Church Building Project - Eco-Theology Considerations (Part I and Part II)

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