A historic Greek Orthodox church in the heart of the Ryerson campus wants to open its doors to students from other Christian denominations.
Saint George’s Church mainly serves Greek Orthodox students on campus, but president Grigoris Karakoulas wants to see students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds walk through the church’s doors.
“We would like to actually go beyond the Greek association and to actually see other Christian students see this as their chapel,” he said.
If St. George’s did begin welcoming different denominations, Ryerson students would gain a new chapel where they can pray and reflect. Karakoulas said this could be beneficial, as during the week, the church conducts service only on certain days, which frees up a lot of time for students who are seeking a quiet space. There are also only two multi-faith rooms currently associated with Ryerson — one located inside Oakham House and the other at 111 Gerrard St.
“Usually the church offices are open,” Karakoulas said. “It’s an ideal place for someone to meditate and pray, so we welcome all students that would like to come.”
George Gekas, a professor at the Ted Rogers school of management, said in Greek that since attending mass at St. George’s for the last three years, he has become emotionally connected to the temple and its congregation. He recommends making the church more inclusive to students of different faiths.
“I would like to see it become an official chapel at Ryerson. It can be our church every Sunday, but during the week, it can be Ryerson’s chapel.”
Nithin Santosh Kumar, an executive in the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), a Christian group active on campus, said he thinks using St. George’s as a chapel is a great idea and a gracious offer, but he said that he would rather continue praying in settings in which IVCF members already congregate. Members gather to pray in the IVCF office once a week.
“People who are not of Orthodox faith, people who are new to the group, may not feel comfortable going to an Orthodox church,” he said.
Many Greek Orthodox students at Ryerson who have also developed a close spiritual relationship with St. George’s agreed with Gekas.
Debbie Vrysselas, a member of the Hellenic Students’ Association (HSA) at Ryerson, said she started attending the church when she first came to the university.
“Usually, during exam period I will go and light a candle,” she said.
Sometimes she finds the church is locked, but if she knocks they will open the door for her. “They are always just so welcoming and so nice.”
The church works closely with the HSA on a number of projects.
Fotis Karantonis, president of the HSA, said his mother grew up attending the church. He said the student group regularly collaborates with the church for charity events, including one called Skate for Toys. The charity collects toys for less fortunate children during the holidays.
“We co-ordinate with the church, (and) they speak to the organizations which they are going to give the toys to,” Karantonis said.
In spite of the church’s efforts to help the community at large, it’s also dealing with issues such as an aging congregation and a lack of parking to accommodate parishioners.
Karakoulas said the church is going through a transitional phase. Many Greek families have left the downtown core. With an absence of affordable parking in the city, many churchgoers are discouraged from travelling downtown to attend mass when they could simply go to church closer to home.
“The biggest concern that we have is the parking, we went through a period that we were getting tickets every day,” Karakoulas said.
But a deal was recently made with Ryerson that would afford a selected number of parking spots every year to St. George’s during services.
Gekas helped mediate between the two sides.
“It’s a historic church. St. George’s is the first (Greek Orthodox church in Toronto). Emotionally, the Greek community is attached to the church, especially the older generation,” he said.
According to Peter Jeffreys, author of Saint George’s Greek Orthodox Church, it was founded in 1909 by Toronto’s first Greek immigrants, and it is the oldest Greek Orthodox parish in Canada. The building originally served as a synagogue for Toronto’s Jewish community, but in 1937 was acquired by the St. George’s parish. In 1976, the City of Toronto declared the church a heritage property.
Ryerson and St. George’s maintain a good relationship, but using the space as a new chapel could bring the two even closer.
“We are good neighbours with Ryerson. Like it or not, St. George’s is on Ryerson’s campus. We are surrounded by Ryerson,” Gekas said.