Eastminster United Church began life as a Methodist mission in what was then the village of Chester in the early days of the last century. Danforth Methodist became Danforth United in 1925 when the Methodist Church, Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, and 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Church in Canada entered into an organic union to become the United Church of Canada. Danforth United changed its name to Eastminster United after amalgamating with North Broadview United Church in the 1966. A further amalgamation occurred in 1984 when the congregation of Donlands United joined us in worship.
For a fuller story of our colourful 105-year history, or read on.
The Eastminster church building you see today sits on land severed from the Playter farm in the early part of the last century -- but our roots in the community go even deeper. The history of Eastminster reflects the history of this entire area.
The Playter family arrived here as Empire Loyalists in the 1790s. Asa Danforth cut his road from York to Kingston past their property in 1799. The Playters began selling off frontage on Danforth in the 1860s, and the village of Chester was born.
It was here that Eastminster began life as a humble Methodist mission. Riverdale was divided into building lots in the 1880s, but even after 1900, Chester was a rural, farming village. Regular meetings of the mission began to be held in a wood frame structure at the corner of present day Ellerbeck and Danforth Avenues in 1907.
The success of these services soon led to the purchase of the lot next door to the enterprising Playters, who allowed the complete subdivision of the old family estate by 1910. The matriarch, Mary Jackman Playter, had once prophesied that if the family could keep the property intact, one day it would be worth over $100 per acre. In 1915, the last vacant acre of their land sold for $9,000.
Construction of our first permanent brick church began in 1910. One can still see traces of that original sanctuary in our back auditorium. But even before the Danforth Methodist Church building was done, a boom was on in tiny Chester. In fact, the surrounding village grew so rapidly that the building had to be expanded just four years after completion. In 1914, a second floor and a gallery were added. The stone commemorating this addition can be seen by the rear doors at the corner of Jackman and Hurndale. But a bigger boom in the neighbourhood was yet to come. The completion of the Prince Edward Viaduct in 1919 joined the Village Chester to the City of Toronto and caused unprecedented growth in the area of “Playter Estates”. In 1921, yet another building committee was struck by the church. The congregation mounted a remarkably successful fundraising campaign and pledges covering the entire cost of the extension were raised on a single Sunday-- $140,000, over $3,000,000 today.
Though grand in scale, the new sanctuary reflected an understated elegance. With concert hall acoustics and seating for 1,200, it was completed the following spring. Beneath it, a gymnasium and bowling alley, which, the building committee cautioned, were intended strictly for the recreation of the youth of the congregation, and not their amusement. Also included was an auditorium, offices, meeting rooms, and classrooms everywhere for the nation’s largest Methodist Sunday school.
In 1925, the Methodist Church joined with a number of other Protestant denominations in a union that created the United Church of Canada. The newly dubbed Danforth United Church reflected the spiritual beliefs of a great many in its surrounding (largely British) neighbourhood. Almost at capacity, the church was immediately a hub of important community and social activities, and home to a vibrant orchestra, literary circle, and debating society.
Through the Depression years, evening services were added, and although the capacity was 1,200, it was necessary to arrive early to obtain a seat. During this time, Danforth United Church benefited from many distinguished ministries, including that of Dr. Gordon A. Sisco (1935-1937), who later served as General Secretary for the United Church of Canada.
Music was an important part of Danforth’s church life. In the mid-1950s, Danforth United was the proud recipient of one of only two Moller pipe organs in Canada. The mammoth instrument with its electronic action and 1,714 pipes was brought from Maryland in nine trucks, providing much for the neighbours to discuss.
Danforth United’s membership at mid-century exceeded 1,700, with over 600 children enrolled in its Sunday school. But in the post-World War II era, the neighbourhood demographic began to radically change. As the automobile took hold of Toronto, a generation abandoned the old neighbourhood for the suburbs. In their place came European immigrants, notably the Greek community. Danforth United did its best to adapt. A point of pride in 1958 was a Thursday evening language school with over 100 New Canadian students present.
As times changed, the Eastminster congregation of today actually owes its eventual survival to two other churches, each with their own proud history: North Broadview United (formerly Presbyterian) and Donlands United (formerly Methodist).
Sixty years earlier, in 1889, a canny real estate developer and future Mayor of Toronto, E.A. McDonald, looked at sleepy Chester and claimed “no intelligent citizen would establish a home in a community where no church was readily accessible.” To rectify this, he established one virtually at his own expense. As Mr. McDonald was Presbyterian, the new North Broadview Presbyterian was born.
Despite its location across the Don from a growing Toronto, the sleepy hamlet of Chester didn’t take off as Mr. McDonald hoped, and it was a few of years before North Broadview’s fledgling congregation could afford a minister. In the interval, students at Knox College undertook pastoral duty at the little church for next to no pay. What they lacked in remuneration, the students made up in title. Throughout their tenure, a student preacher there was known as the “Bishop of Chester”.
In the early days of the 20th century, Toronto spread up from Gerrard Street, then the northernmost bridge across the Don River. Many families were of Scottish Presbyterian background and by 1911 North Broadview required a larger building. A new church was constructed at the corner of Broadview and Dearbourne.
North Broadview’s master plan had been to construct two buildings, a church and a school, but by the early 1920s the union of the United Church of Canada was on the horizon. In consideration of the enormous Danforth Methodist church and school only blocks away, it was decided to forgo the second phase of the project.
After the union, North Broadview United flourished for three decades, with its own proud musical tradition. There, organist, Mr. Thompson, would count among his music students a future internationally renowned conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan.
North Broadview United Church celebrated its golden jubilee on the eve of the Second World War. But by 1966, the ethno-cultural makeup of Riverdale had shifted, and the declining membership of North Broadview could no longer justify maintaining a separate church.
In 1966, Danforth and North Broadview United Churches amalgamated. Stained glass windows from North Broadview were installed in the sanctuary, and North Broadview furnishings were placed in a memorial chapel above the Narthex. To mark a new congregation, a new name was chosen by ballot: “Eastminster United”.
The building that once housed North Broadview United was demolished in 1970, making way for the construction of the Chester Village Seniors’ Residence.
Less than two decades later, Donlands United Church, which had begun as an offshoot of Danforth Methodist in 1914, held its 69th anniversary service on November 6, 1983, with the Very Rev. Dr. Wilbur K. Howard, former moderator of the United Church in the pulpit. Their membership was much reduced from a one-time high of over 1,400 in 1963. Donlands, like many inner-city churches, had to assess its position in a changing community and a changing time.
The congregation amalgamated with Eastminster in a service on June 10, 1984, at which artefacts and historic rolls were transferred. The congregational wish that Donland’s building remain a church presence in the community was met by the sale of the property to a neighbourhood Greek Orthodox Church. A beloved stained glass window from Donlands completes the set of three adorning the east side of the Eastminster sanctuary.
Today, Eastminster Church remains a vibrant part of Toronto’s faith community and of the United Church of Canada. Throughout the Riverdale/Danforth area, Eastminster is appreciated as an inclusive and compassionate community center for the whole neighbourhood, as Eastminster has opened its doors to social justice organizations, other faiths, support groups, and cultural, educational and recreational activities.
In the 21st century, Eastminster proudly continues to serve – and make history -- in the community we have called home for well over one hundred years.