How do you tell the story of religion in urban North America? Some studies have focused on key events, institutions, or people. Others have delved thickly into the life of a limited number of congregations. Roberto Perin chose a different path. He offers a unified narrative involving practically all houses of worship that operated in a seventeen square-mile section of Toronto over a 160-year period. This book is stunning in its detail and scope.
Roberto Perin and his colleague, Gabriele Scardellato, chose to focus on Toronto’s West End because of its regular reception of immigrants from its development in the 1840s to the present. With the help of many graduate students, they surveyed the religious buildings in this area and assembled a website, Places of Worship in West Toronto which maps existing storefront and purpose-built structures and provides exterior photos and brief notes on them. The appendix to The Many Rooms of This House lists 370 addresses where places of worship were located. While some of these were a congregation’s second or third home, many congregations moved into another congregation’s former building. Thus, the number of communities mentioned in this narrative is roughly four hundred. From this,Perinchose brief significant examples to illustrate larger trends.
I was struck by four contributions of this approach. First, this breadth of scope allows readers to see how major developments in North American religious history played out in one place. Protestant migration to new cities, Irish Catholic immigration, anti-Catholicism, Jewish immigration, the formation of a unified inter-denominational evangelical culture, Anglo-Catholicism, the social gospel, divisions within denominations between older and more recent immigrant groups, Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, ecumenism, secularization, and Asian immigration are all seen playing their role in the changing community of Toronto’s West End. While most of the broad strokes of the history also played out in cities south of Lake Ontario, two distinctive Canadian elements are the larger role of Anglicanism, and the continuation of pre-World War I immigration patterns into the 1920s and beyond. Canada did not impose the same restrictions that US did from the 1920s to 1960s.
A second contribution of this study is to identify major trends in congregational life. The most pronounced of these is the rise and fall of what Perin terms “full-orbed” religion. That is, congregational life that addresses many aspects of human life. From the 1880s through 1960s, many churches and synagogues aspired to a diverse program and physical plant. They sponsored many activities including Sunday schools, temperance societies, credit unions, women’s groups, youth groups, choirs, drama troupes, summer camps, gymnastic teams, and men’s organizations. The only groups resisting this trend were smaller fundamentalist churches and orthodox synagogues. In the West End such associational life survived most strongly among recent immigrants in the post-World War II period, but among the rest it was in severe decline amid a consumer capitalist society where leisure activities become purchasable communities instead of the fruits of community organization.
Third, Perin pays significant attention to general trends in architecture and worship. In particular, he emphasizes the development by the mid-twentieth century of a North American norm for worship that involved formality, prayer books, choirs, and dignified buildings interiors marked by carved wood and stained glass. Perhaps paradoxically to those most familiar with recent trends in American religious life, this formality was seen as a key means of retaining people in urban churches amid suburban growth. Perin also documents the decline of this model, particularly in Roman Catholicism with the changes following the Second Vatican Council, but also in Anglican and Protestant churches, where even a staunchly traditional Anglo-Catholic congregation began a folk mass.
In tracing both these changes to congregational life and worship, this book would benefit by engagement with other major studies that, while they are focused on the US, speak to the same developments in congregational life and worship. The discussion of the relation of architectural changes to social power,by Jeanne Halgren Kilde in When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2002), would have helped Perin strengthen and refine his own arguments. Similarly, Charles D. Cashdollar, in his book A Spiritual Home: Life in British and American Reformed Congregations, 1830-1915 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), could have been a vital dialogue partner on Perin’s central theme of congregational life. These are but two Protestant examples of many works on North American religion. On the other hand, the book is richly grounded in the history of Toronto and works on Canadian religious and social history.
A final contribution to mention is the identification of major trends in immigration history. This is Perin’s primary area of study and one of the most significant aspects of the book. He emphasizes that “Toronto has always been an immigrant town” (6-7). Both Catholics and Jews struggled to instruct successive waves of peasant immigrants in more acceptable and Canadian forms of their religious practice. Once erected, substantial monumental buildings served successive religious groups. For example, the 1906 Covenant Presbyterian later housed a Church of the Nazarene before becoming a Hare Krishna Temple (254). He highlights not only the great optimism Protestants had, after the formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, for the conversion of Catholic and Jewish immigrants to Protestantism, but also their utter disappointment with the results in this area.
The book is aptly illustrated with forty-five photographs of church exteriors, maps, and tables enabling readers to trace the changing positions of religious groups in the neighborhood. The index includes groups, individuals, and congregations. It would be enhanced through the inclusion of topics such as worship, architecture, youth, and temperance. This book will be of the most interest to historians of Toronto but will also be a useful resource for historians of religion in other cities. Among the several congregation-focused histories of North American neighborhoods published in the past decade, Perin’s is notable for historical rather than contemporary orientation. Engagingly written, it can be used in the classroom and read profitably by the general reader.
Perin defines the topic of his book as “religion, its rise and decline” (302). He explains more than analyzes the reasons for its decline. The strength of the book is in depicting the vitality and variety of houses of worship in Toronto. While showing no partiality among the many Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, and Hindu religious groups he studies, Perin does conclude on a wistful note hoping that what religion once promoted might triumph again: “an ethos beyond the self and the here and now, a concern for cultivating the spirit, the quest for a better world, and an awareness of the intangible and enduring aspects of existence. Religion was far from perfect in advancing such ideas, indeed it often shamefacedly betrayed them, but at least it stuck to them” (318).