The changing face of worship

Windsor Mosque, Windsor


Laura Hatcher

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date:10 Sep 2009

Photo: Windsor Mosque, Windsor

The architectural style, massing, materials and date stones of a place of worship offer clues about the congregation’s history and values. Likewise, the building’s size and its positioning within a community tell a great deal about its congregation’s influence and prominence. Many of the early Anglican churches built in Ontario were dignified in design and located at the centre of town. In contrast, the modest yet proud architecture of other early Ontario Christian places of worship tells of struggling but dedicated faith groups who rallied to make a place for themselves.

Stepping back to look at places of worship across the province, a larger story unfolds. As we scan Ontario’s landscape, what do religious buildings tell us about our history and our current culture? Although many churches, synagogues and meeting houses continue to thrive, century-old places of worship sit vacant in rural areas, and in our cities grand old religious buildings are slated for demolition. These sights may imply that religion is in decline here, but a look at more recent architecture reveals that faith continues to play an important role in Ontario’s society.

Canada has experienced a slow but steady decline in organized worship, starting in the 1940s and 1950s. The mid-20th century, however, also marked the onset of more liberal immigration policies, gradually admitting Jewish and Slavic immigrants. In 1951, Canada admitted a small “immigrant quota” from Asian countries in the British Commonwealth, such as India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The 1950s and 1960s saw an influx of Italians, Greeks and Portuguese to Ontario, and the late 1960s saw more people of Asian and southeast Asian descent settling in the province. Many of these immigrants could not find places of worship that welcomed them or met their linguistic or spiritual needs. As a result, there were several decades of relatively “low-profile” worship in the province. Older congregations were not expanding, and many new Ontarians who lacked resources or an established community held their religious gatherings in homes, rented storefronts or warehouses.

As these groups become more established, we are seeing a renaissance of purpose-built religious architecture. The fastest growing religions in Ontario today – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Christianity – reflect immigration patterns over the last few decades.

The Nihsan Sahib, a Sikh holy flag, flies high above the Ontario Khalsa Darbar (Photo: Ian Muttoo)

The history of Islam in Ontario is relatively recent, and the history of Ontario mosques even more so. The Windsor Mosque, built in 1969 and one of the province’s earliest purpose-built mosques, combines a modern esthetic and materials typical of North American buildings, but with traditional Islamic architectural elements, such as a minaret, a dome and an entrance flanked by pointed segmental arches. Situated in a residential suburb, it is in striking contrast to its surroundings. Large and surrounded on all sides by a parking lot, the mosque was not designed as a neighbourhood place of worship; it serves Muslims from across the region.

The Ontario Khalsa Darbar is also supported by a far reaching community. Located in Mississauga, it is a thriving Sikh gurdwara, open year-round, that welcomes tens of thousands of people through its doors on holy days. Founded in 1979, it had humble beginnings – the original gurdwara was in a trailer. But by 1989, the Sikh community had purchased land to erect its first purpose-built gurdwara in an area that was primarily industrial, but close to two major highways, allowing it to serve Sikhs from across the Greater Toronto Area. By the 1990s, a massive addition was completed. The gurdwara’s architecture is a mix of the new and the traditional – elliptic domes sit atop a concrete building with clean lines and modern finishes. A Nishan Sahib, a Sikh holy flag that signals the presence of a sacred place, flies high above the gurdwara on a tall flagpole as a beacon to the faithful.

Opened in 2007, Toronto’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a spectacular addition to Ontario’s religious architecture. Built according to the principles of the ancient Indian Shilpa Shastras – religious texts that outline standards for Hindu sculpture and architecture – the Mandir contains no structural steel, instead relying on load-bearing stone. The building is composed of 24,000 pieces of marble, limestone and Indian pink stone, which were intricately hand-carved in India and assembled on site by craftspeople from India and over 400 volunteers.

Like the Windsor Mosque and the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, the financial, material, and community resources that went into the creation of the BAPS Mandir tell the familiar story of a community that is dedicated to honouring its traditions, while at the same time making its mark in Ontario.

Inside the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Photo courtesy of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir)

Photo: Inside the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Photo courtesy of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir)

Inside the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Photo courtesy of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir)

Photo: Inside the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Photo courtesy of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir)