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Fire destroys historic Toronto church

A historic church in Toronto's west end has been "completely destroyed," says the city's fire chief, as firefighters continue to battle the four-alarm blaze Sunday that has tore through the structure. The 124-year-old church houses early paintings by three Group of Seven artists that were installed in the 1920s.

No reports of injuries at fire inside Toronto church housing Group of Seven artworks

Fire and heavy smoke seen coming out of a church.

A historic church in Toronto's west end has been "completely destroyed," along with the artifacts it housed, says the city's fire chief, as firefighters continue to battle the four-alarm blaze Sunday that tore through the structure.

Toronto Fire said crews received report of a fire inside St. Anne's Anglican Church on Gladstone Avenue near Dundas Street West just before 8 a.m.

Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop said crews are gaining control of the fire — but the damage has been done.

"The building is completely destroyed right now and as are all the artifacts inside," Jessop told reporters at the scene.

"This is a devastating loss for the community."

Gladstone Avenue is closed between College and Dundas streets as crews work to bring the blaze under control. Police are advising motorists and pedestrians to use alternate routes.

Rev. Don Beyers, a parish priest at the church, says the congregation is "greatly devastated," to learn about the fire damage.

"I'm crushed, I feel for my people. You can't imagine what this is like for a church community to come on Sunday morning to find that everything you worked so hard for and done so much for [is] gone in the matter of an hour," Beyers said outside the building Sunday.

"Despite this terrible tragedy and loss, we as a church will continue on," he said.

Residents devastated, artwork destroyed

The church, built in 1907-1908 in the city's Little Portugal neighbourhood, houses early paintings by three Group of Seven artists that were installed in the church in the 1920s. The murals decorated the chancel and the dome, which was

destroyed by the blaze.

Beyers said the "invaluable" works were lost to the flames.

"The artwork was priceless. It was murals, beautiful murals," he said. "They were stunning.

"This was the only church that featured artwork by members of the Group of Seven. And I'm sorry to say that's been lost, from what I can see."

The church was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1996. In 1980, the City of Toronto also designated the church under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The St. Anne's website said the church in 1923 commissioned founding Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald to oversee designs depicting the life of Christ on the building's interior. MacDonald then signed on nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley.

Toronto Fire Services spokesman Deepak Chagger confirmed the loss, saying there's no indication that anything was saved at this point.

​Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who represents the ward where the building sits, said residents are expressing "tremendous" grief over the destruction of a space that offered critical community support.

"This is much more than just a building. This is a place that has provided support, a home, love, brought people from the

community together," she said.

Crews still working to extinguish spot fires

Jessop said the fire was deep-seated when crews first arrived at the scene Sunday morning.

As flames began to shoot through the roof, firefighters pulled out due to the risk it would collapse. Crews extinguished the main body of the fire by mid-morning, Jessop said.

"Nobody was here, the church was locked, secure, all the lights were off," Beyers said, adding that he is often the first person who is there in the mornings. "It's a real mystery to us how this even happened."

A Sunday service was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. at the church in Little Portugal, according to the its website.

Police said they received reports of windows breaking and heavy smoke coming from the building. Water towers and crews were set up for exterior firefighting operations, they said earlier Sunday morning.

Adjoining homes were evacuated as a safety precaution and have been protected from the blaze, Jessop said.

The main body of the fire was knocked down as of 9:55 a.m., with crews continuing to extinguish spot fires.

There are no reports of occupants inside the church or injuries. They have not yet determined a cause. Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal will be notified and an investigation into the cause of the fire is underway.

Do West Fest still on: organizers

The organizers of Do West Fest, a street festival in Little Portugal that stretches from Ossington Avenue to Lansdowne Avenue on Dundas Street West, initially said it will have a delayed start on Sunday due to the fire at St. Annes, just steps away from the festival.

"Our first concern was for the safety of our community and everyone at the festival's devastated, [the church] is such an important community landmark," said festival organizer Kristyn Gelfand.

"We're trying to work out the logistics with police and fire and entire emergency response teams to make sure we give them space to do the work that they need to do."

The festival will still be running until 6 p.m. on Sunday, organizers later said.

Church fire is now at a 4-Alarm. Some adjoining buildings have been evacuated as a safety precaution. Main body of fire knocked down with crews extinguishing spot fires. No injuries. Expect crews and traffic to remain on scene. Avoid the area where possible. ^dc <a href="https://t.co/qiBhLVwOI5">pic.twitter.com/qiBhLVwOI5</a>

&mdash;@Toronto_Fire

With files from The Canadian Press

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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