Just hours after the deadly van rampage that killed 10 people and injured more than a dozen others in North York on April 23, the Church of the Incarnation at Bayview Avenue and Sheppard Avenue East opened its doors for a candlelight vigil.
By the next day, nine more Anglican churches on the Yonge Street corridor between North York and Lake Ontario were open for prayers and pastoral care. Soon churches across the city and elsewhere in the diocese were providing space and special services for those dealing with the shock and grief.
“I think the churches have responded remarkably,” said Bishop Kevin Robertson, the area bishop of York-Scarborough, where the tragedy occurred. “People who were hearing the news were in shock and were looking for comfort and peace and some answers. I think they were looking to be together as well.”
In an interview shortly after the tragedy, he said he had talked to many people in the area, including one person who had seen the van drive by. “I’m hearing stories of Anglicans feeling vulnerable and, in some cases, afraid. But there is a strong sense of getting together with other people to pray. Many Anglicans are trying to make sense of what’s happened over the past couple of days by being together in community and making time for prayer and silence.”
The churches in York Mills Deanery organized a prayer walk on April 30 that followed the start of the van driver’s route. The walk began at the Finch subway station and proceeded down to St. George on Yonge, concluding with a vigil at the church. Anglicans also attended a multi-faith service on April 29 at Mel Lastman Square.
The vigil at the Church of the Incarnation on the night of the tragedy was attended by about 20 people, including Bishop Robertson. “It was very beautiful and comforting” said the Rev. Heather Gwynne-Timothy, incumbent. “Bishop Kevin led us in prayers and there was lots of silence for those who had been affected. The church was very beautiful and we all had a candle to hold.”
The vigil included Taize songs, psalms and prayers for the victims and their families, and also for the driver of the van and his family. “It was very poignant, very moving,” said Ms. Gwynne-Timothy.
She said the clergy in the area were devasted by the tragedy but were focussed on supporting others. “It’s hard to put into words how much this shakes you up, but you have to stay grounded so you can help other people cope.”
The vigil had to be held at the Church of the Incarnation because the church closest to the scene of the rampage, St. George on Yonge, was cordoned off as police shut down that part of Yonge Street. St. George’s is located on Yonge Street just two stoplights south of Finch Avenue, near where the killings began.
“We’re right in the midst of it,” said the Rev. Leonard Leader, the priest-in-charge of St. George’s, in an interview on April 25. He said the van had passed in front of the church and killed a pedestrian nearby.
The police barriers outside St. George’s were taken down on April 24 and the church planned to stay open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for the remainder of the week. The church had received lots of offers of help, especially from clergy. “They’re saying, ‘If I’m needed, please let me know.’ It’s coming from across the diocese.”
Mr. Leader said the church provided space for private prayer, both in the chapel and the main sanctuary. Most people just wanted some time to pray. “Those who have come in so far have been pretty reflective,” he said.
Bishop Robertson visited St. George’s on the following Sunday, joining the church for its two English-speaking services and its Mandarin-speaking service. “It’s an opportunity for us to reclaim the space and try to bring some healing to that community,” he said.
At St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto, the bell tolled for 10 minutes at noon on April 24-25 for those who had died. At the Church of the Redeemer on the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road, people were invited to write prayers and comments in chalk on a wall outside the church. By the end of the day, messages filled the wall and the pavement in front of it.
“A lot of messages were rooted in hope,” said the Rev. David Giffen, incumbent. Hundreds of people visited the church throughout the day, and in the evening, there was a community vigil. Bishop Robertson attended, as did people from some churches in the Yonge Street corridor and elsewhere. “We really just took time to grieve together and to put our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Giffen.
Archbishop Colin Johnson posted a statement on the diocese’s website and social media just hours after the rampage on April 23. “Tragedy has struck our city today,” he wrote. “I weep for those who have died. I join in prayer for those who are physically injured or suffering emotionally from having witnessed such carnage, and for having lost loved ones. It is hard to comprehend such violence.”
He wrote that on the Sunday before the tragedy, many Christian churches had celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, recalling Jesus as the one who cares for all his people in times of anguish. “Psalm 23 was read, which includes the verse ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ In the midst of such trauma, in the fear and confusion, anger and heartache, may we know that God is with us, with mercy and justice, healing and compassion. As the events unfold may we find ways to comfort one another in grief and support each in our resolve to be a community of freedom, unity and peace.” Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, posted a statement as well.
Churches and individuals took to social media soon after the tragedy to express their sorrow and support. The Rev. Chris Harper, the diocese’s Indigenous Native Priest, wrote on Facebook, “With all our prayers ascending, may the peace and love of God our Creator be drawn in to embrace all affected.” Flemingdon Park Ministry, a diocesan outreach in Don Mills, wrote on Facebook: “We are praying today for our fellow Torontonians who have been taken, and those that remain. Today we pray, tomorrow we show the world that our city will not be divided but come together in the face of tragedy.”
Messages of support and encouragement poured in from around the world on social media. Archbishop Francisco de Assis da Silva, Primate of Brazil, said on Twitter: “Prayers raised for consolation and hope to the people of Toronto. Our full solidarity with Canadian brothers and sisters!”