Located in the heart of Pickering Village, the St. Francis Centre is Ajax’s premier destination for arts, culture, and heritage.  Originally constructed in 1871, and retrofitted in 2011, this designated heritage building marries historic architecture with modern design to create a state-of-the-art performance venue for Ajax residents and visitors.

Location

The St. Francis Centre is located in historic Pickering Village in the Town of Ajax

78 Church Street South, just south of Kingston Road West (Highway 2).
Ajax, Ontario
L1S 6B3
905-619-2529, ext. 2787 (ARTS)

 History and Heritage

Originally constructed in 1871 by Henry Langley, the former St. Francis de Sales Church gives meaning to the name of the street on which it is situated (Church Street), and is an important symbol of the Irish immigrants that settled in the Pickering Village area in the 1800’s.

1800’s 

From 1830 to 1840, there was an influx of Irish Catholics to the area due to the potato famine in Ireland. At the time, Catholic families would have to travel to Toronto to attend St. Paul’s Basilica, because there was no Catholic church in the area. Eventually a small wooden frame church, known as St. Wilfrid’s, was built 

in Pickering Township on Notion Road in 1847. The area had no resident priest, so it was still considered a mission.

When the parish of Duffin’s Creek was established in 1860, the first priest, Father Peter Laurent, wanted to build a new permanent church as opposed to using the wooden frame church of St. Wilfrid’s. On December 27, 1859, he wrote a letter to Bishop De Charbonnel saying:

We had a bee to draw stones from Duffin’s Creek for a Church and got enough to put a stone foundation under it and all without a coppers expense.  Only from this poor flat purse, that I had to reduce very much to get some drink for my men otherwise they wouldn’t work.” 

But by 1868, there was still no permanent building for parishioners to worship and though St. Wilfrid’s was falling apart, it was still being used. Finally, St. Wilfrid’s became St. Francis de Sales Parish in 1871 upon the completion of the new church. It was constructed by Father Francis Hayden and the local parishioners who contributed their labour and time towards this new formal place of worship.  The total cost of construction was approximately $8,300.

The building is an excellent example of High Victorian Gothic Church Architecture and is representative of the Picturesque Eclecticism of architectural design in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Unique features of the building include the distinctive octagonal church spire, which is covered with the original polychromatic slate, and the irreplaceable Gothic arched stained glass windows, which bear the names of some of the early founding families who donated them. The steeply pitched roof is marked by three rose coloured window dormers, which are very rare in a church and have the original decorative filigree ironwork at each peak.

St. Francis de Sales ChurchSt. Francis 1911

 

1900’s

The congregation of St. Francis would see a noted decline leading up to the 20th century, and when the rectory was lost to fire in 1913, the church was all but shut down. From 1941 to 1945, when Defence Industries Limited, the wartime ammunitions plant, operated in Ajax, there was an increase in the area’s population and the St. Francis Parish was re-established.

During the late 1990’s, it became apparent that the congregation was outgrowing the building and a much larger site in north Ajax was secured for a new building. A commissioned engineering report concluded that the building was restorable, but needed much repair, and the estimated budget for repairs to the structure, roof and drainage systems would be around $500,000. Within a week of the report being received, the Archdiocese had decided that raising the funds required to repair the church was simply not sensible, when the real need was for funds to build the new church. 

During this time, a group of parishioners who recognized the heritage value of the building, formed the “Friends of St. Francis” and attempted to convince the Archdiocese to restore the church rather than abandon it, but unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. In December 1998, the Advisory Board of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario examined the building and issued a report which disputed the conclusions of the Archdiocese. It concluded that the building was a fine example of Victorian Gothic church architecture, that it was a landmark in the community designed by an architect of great importance, and that it was no doubt worthy of designation under the Ontario Heritage Act and of preservation.

Concerned about the pending abandonment of the church, Heritage Ajax, along with a supporting letter from Henry Langley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Langley, recommended to Ajax Town Council, that the St. Francis building be designated. Despite concerns being raised by the Archdiocese and a few local parishioners, Ajax Council agreed to designate the church for its historical and architectural significance on May 17, 1999.

2000’s 

In 2007, threatened with demolition, the Town of Ajax purchased this key cultural and heritage landmark, to protect and restore the structure. The acquisition of the building is an important one, representing the first publicly owned and accessible heritage facility in Ajax.

With funding from Federal, Provincial and Municipal Infrastructure dollars, the Town launched a very exciting heritage conservation/cultural development project using the facility. The conceptual plan for the adaptive rehabilitation of the former church was developed through an extensive staff and community stakeholder consultation process. Stakeholders, representing a vast cross-section of cultural users and performing groups, local community groups, and residents, were included in the design development process. The building was returned to its historic and majestic beauty through a careful restoration and renovation process, and was then transformed into the St. Francis Centre, a multi-use community arts, cultural and performance venue; the first of its kind in west Durham.

St. Francis Centre      St. Francis Centre

Combining heritage architecture with modern design, the St. Francis Centre features a stage, retractable theatre seating for 150, reception/meeting space, glass atrium, bar, catering kitchen, theatrical light, sound, and audio-visual capabilities. This flexible programming space can accommodate a variety of private and community-based programming including a myriad of arts and cultural programming such as concerts, theatre, films, music and dance recitals, exhibitions, corporate and social receptions, lectures, and workshop space.

St. Francis Centre     St. Francis Centre     St. Francis Centre

2020’s

In 2020, due to numerous leaks and damages caused by those leaks, the St. Francis Centre roof was replaced. In keeping with the original design of building, the rooftop was replaced with EnviroSlate, a composite product that mimics the look of natural slate and is composed of 95% sustainable materials. At the same time, the Town of Ajax launched a multi-year project to repair, clean and restore the facility’s stained glass windows, which will be completed in 2023.

Public Art at the St. Francis Centre 

“A Community Connected” by Corrin Smithson

Dance, music, drama, and celebration merge together in this piece, to illustrate how important the arts are to a vibrant and unified community.

Chosen from several submissions for the opening of the St. Francis Centre in 2011, this series of four paintings has been installed in the crush lobby, situated between two framed reclaimed stained glass windows.  Featured in the paintings are the images of a violinist, a dancer, a married couple, and a dramatic actress, mixed with recreations of some of the building’s historical elements.

St. Francis Centre