In Cathedraltown, the cathedral is now empty
Special to The Globe and Mail
Slovak-Canadian parishioners have abandoned the grandest Slovak church in Canada -- and left the growing Markham subdivision of Cathedraltown without the active house of worship that inspired its name.
The Slovak Cathedral of Transfiguration, whose three golden domes soar 20 storeys into the sky, has been closed in an ownership dispute between the Eastern-rite Catholic church and members of the Roman family, who built the massive cathedral.
The only Catholic church in North America to have been personally blessed by a pope, the cathedral is a landmark on Highway 404. Curiously, the church is, in effect, privately owned by the family of Stephen Roman, the uranium mining magnate who financed its construction before his death in 1988. Ownership of the cathedral and 50 acres around it was never formally transferred to the Vatican, although Mr. Roman had expressed his intention to do so.
He died from a heart attack before he could complete his monumental legacy, which was to have included a Slovak-language school, an old-age home and a 10-acre cemetery.
Since then, church officials have been engaged in a protracted dispute over ownership of the cathedral and 50 acres of land in front and back, which are now surrounded by Cathedraltown, a new 1,200-home subdivision being developed by the Roman family.
Neither side wants to discuss the disagreement in detail, but Bishop John Pazak, leader of the Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Canada, says the congregation had faced an increasing number of challenges, including a lack of running water; it was cut off when the priest-administrator's small house on the grounds was closed. The cathedral had to bring in tankers of water for its cistern at $250 a load. As well, the declining congregation was stuck with the upkeep bills, mostly to heat the cavernous interior.
"I didn't see any future in staying and not being able to grow," Bishop Pazak says. "So I withdrew from the cathedral."
He celebrated its final mass last week, after announcing his plans to close the church. The next day, the building's locks were changed. The congregation has been unable to retrieve its liturgy books and vestments since. The eparchy (it is equivalent to a diocese) has moved to St. Mary's Byzantine Slovak Church on Shaw Street in downtown Toronto.
"The whole thing is about ownership," Bishop Pazak said. "We don't have title to the cathedral or the 50 acres that was supposed to be part of it. Stephen Roman didn't expect to die when he did." If he did, Bishop Pazak said, he would have tried to complete the transaction arrangements.
After Mr. Roman died, his daughter, Helen Roman-Barber, took charge of the foundation that owns the cathedral and surrounding land. Bishop Pazak said church officials couldn't work out a proposed ownership transfer.
Immediately after Mr. Roman's death, there were negotiations between Ms. Roman-Barber and the eparchy's first bishop, Michael Rusnak, to transfer the foundation to the eparchy -- and thus to the Vatican. But they broke down.
When Bishop Rusnak died five years ago, Bishop Pazak arrived to take charge. He said he was frustrated by the situation to the point that he decided that "I cannot continue to operate under these circumstances."
For her part, Ms. Roman-Barber admitted: "There are some matters of dispute. I doubt I can talk about it." And she didn't.
Several parishioners said the feud revolves mainly around who should get title to the contentious 50 acres. That piece of property is slated for mixed commercial-residential development as part of the new subdivision, according to T.J. Cieciura, of Design Planning Services, overall planners of the Cathedraltown project. He said the developers were Cathedral Town Ltd., 404 Developments Inc. and Slovak Greek Catholic Church Foundation.
Some of the parishioners have taken the closing hard. Mary Snell was one of scores who put in hundreds of hours of volunteer work doing upkeep on the building and holding fundraisers, such as concerts, to take advantage of the good acoustics. "We were stupid," she said. "We worked hard for the church, then we got locked out."
Choir director Mary Seminsky called the development a disaster. "Here we Slovaks were on top of the world with our cathedral and now we have nothing. "
Pope John Paul II, who created the Slovak Byzantine eparchy (responsible to the Vatican) in 1980, personally consecrated the cathedral on his Toronto visit in 1984, the year construction started. Three bronze bells, together weighing 18 tonnes, were installed to bring about the second biggest peal of bells in the world. About $20-million went into the church before Stephen Roman died four years later. Then, enthusiasm for completing the cathedral's interior diminished, along with the funding from the Roman family and individuals. It remains unfinished.
Now, it is unlikely that the eparchy will return to the cathedral, which means the wondrous church will remain empty. "I'm still willing to talk," Bishop Pazak says. "The ball is in [the Roman family's] court."
A staunch Byzantine Catholic who had grown up poor on a Slovak farm and emigrated to Canada as a teenager, Mr. Roman donated generously to the Vatican and intended the cathedral to be his monument.
Paid for with his uranium holdings -- Mr. Roman's Denison mine at Elliot Lake in the 1950s was the biggest uranium mine in the world -- the church was constructed on his 1,200-acre property near the lavish home he had built for his family. The home was modelled after the estate of a Slovak baron. The entrance centrepiece was the world's biggest chandelier, bought from the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the world's richest man.
Mr. Roman raised prize Holstein-Friesian cattle, received the Order of Canada, and founded the Slovak World Congress, aimed at bringing about Slovakia's independence.
Suitably honoured, he launched his most ambitious project, the Cathedral of Transfiguration. He never lived to see Slovakia freed, nor his church, designed to bring pride to Slovaks, completed. Instead, it may now serve as a namesake backdrop to a subdivision.