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The cathedral Toronto forgot

27 June 2011

When your vision is as grand as the great churches of Europe, taking decades to finish a cathedral might seem like work is progressing at a pretty good clip.

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“We’ve done a lot — I don’t think anything has been held up,” says Helen Roman-Barber, the driving force behind the impressive, yet unfinished, Slovak Cathedral of Transfiguration in Markham. “It takes time.”

How much more time for a cathedral whose construction began in the spring of 1984? Roman-Barber smiles. “Two hundred years?” she says. Then she lets out a shriek as if, to her horror, she might only be half-joking.

Since its massive structure was completed more than 20 years ago, the cathedral has been a towering landmark for anyone driving on Highway 404. It’s the monumental legacy of Roman-Barber’s late father, mining magnate Stephen B. Roman. The cathedral’s three onion domes, plated in 22-karat gold, suggest the grandeur of his obsession.

When Roman died of a heart attack in 1988, at the age of 66, it fell to his daughter and her Slovak Greek Catholic Church Foundation, a charity that owns the cathedral, to finish his work.

An ownership dispute then erupted with the Eparchy for Catholic Slovaks of the Byzantine Rite in Canada, which is attached to the Roman Catholic Church. The eparchy had made the cathedral the seat of its diocese. But in 2006, Bishop John Pazak, who represents all Slovak Catholics in Canada, moved the diocese out and banned priests from saying mass at the cathedral.

It was a dramatic turn of events for a cathedral whose cornerstone was consecrated by the late Pope John Paul II in 1984.

“The cathedral was looked upon as a sign of hope for the church in Slovakia,” Pazak says, referring to the church’s struggle under communism at the time. That makes the falling out, he says, all the sadder. “It has not been a pleasant time.”

The cathedral was last opened to the public in 2008 for a Christmas concert. This week, Roman-Barber agreed to give the Star a guided tour.

On 300 hundred acres of land surrounding the cathedral, the pace of construction is frenetic, as the Roman family completes hundreds of Georgian-style homes. But the grounds immediately adjacent to it look abandoned. The grass is hip-high.

On a chain link fence barring access from Woodbine Avenue is a faded picture of John Paul II. The rest of the sign, which once advertised the time for services, is shredded and flapping in the wind. (Workers began taking down the fence Tuesday afternoon, as the Star visited the site.)

The stairway to the entrance has broken steps. But the cathedral itself, with its granite finish, golden mosaics, copper roof and 14-storey-high bell towers, shines like the $30 million so far spent on its construction.

Twenty cement pillars support a cavernous interior that comfortably seats 1,200 people. Walls and ceiling are painted white, awaiting the mosaics and religious icons that will one day adorn them. Scaffolding occupies much of the nave.

Roman-Barber’s vision, like her dad’s, doesn’t come cheap. Both sought out top artisans, and the results so far are stunning.

The three bronze bells, together weighing 18 tonnes, were forged by the renowned Paccard foundry in France, which has been making church bells since the late 1700s. Depending on whom you believe, they create the biggest or second-biggest peal of bells in the world.

The marble and limestone pattern of the floor was designed by British architect Donald Buttress, who helped restore Westminster Abbey, and planned the Markham cathedral’s interior.

On the apse behind the altar is a 20-metre-high, Venetian-made mosaic, with the Madonna and Jesus Christ at its centre. It was assembled by Italian artisans and is covered in gold leaf. Another mosaic of Jesus adorns the central dome, which is 22 metres in diameter and 27 metres from the floor. It cost $1.2 million and was unveiled in 2009 during a private reception. Huge mosaics are also planned for the two remaining apses.

“The one principle that I follow is that if I’m not 110 per cent sure about something, I won’t do it,” Roman-Barber says, explaining how design differences with the dome mosaic artist, Sviatoslav Makarenko, added many months to what became a 10-year project for that alone.

And just as one big project is finished, “the things you did 10 or 20 years ago start to decay and need to be restored,” says Martin Mahoney, surveyor of the fabric of the cathedral, responsible for its structure and furnishings.

Maintenance is constant. Significant damage was once caused by rain water seeping in through the main bell tower. On another occasion, “rising damp” from ground water caused even more damage.

Ask Roman-Barber about utility bills for a place that is heated with electricity and she puts a finger to her temple and feigns pulling a trigger.

She says her father first came to her with the idea of a cathedral in 1982. “I said, ‘If you’re going to do something like that, don’t count on me because I have enough to do.’ I was a doubting Thomas.”

“I eventually came to realize that this had become the most important thing in his life.”

Roman immigrated to Canada in 1937, from what was then Czechoslovakia, at the age of 16. He eventually set up a 1,000-acre farm in Markham, where he raised and auctioned prized Holsteins. He also built Roman Corp., a multi-billion-dollar company that controlled Canada’s largest uranium mine in Elliott Lake, and had interests in oil and gas. (In 2006, Roman Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection and sold all its assets.)

Roman had a tough reputation. He made sure he towered over business associates by shortening the legs of his office chairs while placing his own on a platform behind his desk, claimed an unflattering biography in 1990 by investigative journalist, Paul McKay.

He built his cathedral on his land, personally financing at least $10 million of its construction costs, Roman-Barber says. When he died, it became the site of his funeral mass.

At about that time, the Slovak Catholic church — representing some 7,500 faithful in Canada, most living in the Toronto area — made the cathedral the home of its diocese. Relations between the family and the diocese were strained in 1995 when a priest administering the cathedral allowed director John Carpenter, for a $10,000 fee, to shoot a scene on site for his horror movie, In the Mouth of Madness. The priest, apparently, didn’t read the script.

It shows actor Sam Neil explaining how the cathedral had become the “black church . . . the seat of an evil older than mankind . . . a place of pain and suffering beyond human comprehension.”

After his death, there were reports that Roman had intended to donate the cathedral to the church — a claim Roman-Barber denies. In any event, nothing was put in writing. By 2000, Pazak said he entered talks with the family to have the title transferred to the diocese.

“We negotiated for about five years and we really didn’t accomplish anything,” says Pazak, noting the diocese was paying huge utility bills.

Pazak moved his diocese to Toronto’s Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God, on Shaw Street, taking with him the tabernacle and the antimension, a decorated cloth that drapes the altar, which had been blessed by Pope John Paul.

“When I left, I said to the priests of my eparchy, ‘No more services at the cathedral until we resolve this question,’” Pazak says, adding he also asked that Roman Catholic priests stay away.

Roman-Barber insists she made clear to Pazak that the foundation was ready to hand over title — at some point.

“I said, ‘Until the cathedral is completed the way my father wanted, the foundation will retain title. And it became a big issue for him.”

She says she thought they had come to a “satisfactory conclusion” when Pazak suddenly “left the cathedral in a flurry.” Roman-Barber and Pazak both say they’re open to talks resuming one day.

In the meantime, there are plans to develop 38 acres attached to the cathedral, recently sold by the charitable foundation. They include making the cathedral the focus of a European-style square with condos, offices, cafes, restaurants and, perhaps, a hotel. The money the development generates will go to finishing the cathedral.

Roman-Barber expects the development to be “substantially under way” within five years. At 64, she’s keen to complete her father’s dream.

“What, I’m going to be 80 and still doing this?” she says, laughing.

Sandro Contento

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