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Driving north on Avenue Road in Toronto in
the summer of 1941, an unlikely sign caught my eye. It was affixed to an imposing limestone church, gothic in
style and surmounted by a massive stone bell-tower. The sign read:
FOR SALE OR RENT
INQUIRE: 243 Avenue Rd.
I was in Toronto for a brief visit with my
family after three years on the evangelistic trail. I had travelled most of
Michigan, had ranged across northern New York state to parts of Indiana and
Illionis, even dipped to the Deep South, preaching to congregations of as few
as five and as many as five hundred. I owned two suits, one sufficiently
presentable to preach in, a 1935 Ford Victoria with no window on the driver's
side - the crumpled left door was fastened by a trousers-belt to the steering
column -- and six hundred dollars in savings.
During my travels I had met and married
Constance Orosco, a beautiful Californian of Mexican extraction. she was a
"licenced song-evangelist" in the church of the Nazarene and had a
superb soprano voice. Three years earlier, she had been awarded a starlet
contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but having been raised in a deeply religious
family; she had sought release from it, choosing to sing in a evangelistic
campaigns. We met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was the singer and I was
the evangelist, and were married six weeks later.
I pulled over to the curb, pointed to the
sign and said to Connie, "Let's take a look."
I learned from the rental office across
the street that the building had been vacant since the formation of the United
Church of Canada in 1927, when its congregation amalgamated with the membership
of the St. Paul's Methodist church down the road. The interior was forbidding.
The sanctuary smelled of must and neglect. Many of the lights were burned out
and the walls were streaked and peeling. I trailed my fingers through the dust
on the pews.
But I was intrigued by the possibilities.
The ceiling reared high in a graceful Gothic arches. The great windows were of
leaded glass. On the platform there was a solid oak pulpit and three massive
chairs, and behind them a choir loft and an impressive bank of organ pipes. For
all the dinginess, for all the peeling paint and the dust and debris, it was a
soaring cathedral compared to the consecrated shacks I'd been preaching in.
Could I bring this echoing sanctuary to life again? On the spot I decided to
"The rent's a hundred dollars a
month, "I told Connie." It will take all our savings. Are you game to
She nodded, smiling, happy and wanted very
much to live in one place for longer than the customary fifteen days of a campaign.
I signed a six-month lease, paid six hundred dollars, closing out our bank
account, crossed the street and removed the sign. Three years as an evangelist
had profoundly tested my new- found faith and had introduced me to an entirely
different way of life. I had been converted through the Church of Nazarene,
which did not require high academic standards of its clergy. I was oral
examination by a group of local preachers. They seemed more interested in my
orthodoxy than in my intellect, and one summed it all up: "You'll do fine,
chuck. What you lack in lightnin' you make up for in thunder."
I learned to preach by preaching and by
aping others. In those early years, I traded on my ability to draw, doing
swift, dramatic sketches -"chalk talks," they were called - before
audiences composed mostly of young people. In the circumscribed world of the
Church of the Nazarene, my background as a newspaper cartoonist made me
something of a celebrity, and soon invitations to speak came from farther
afield. I began my career as an evangelist by crossing the
American border with a bus ticket to Lowville, New York and $1.67 in my pocket.
The immigration officer was loath to let me pass. "We got plenty of
unemployed here already," he said. It was 1936.
I preached in tarpaper shacks and
concrete-block basements, on street corners, and at out-of-doors "camp
meetings"; in hamlets marked only by a cluster of buildings at the
intersection of two highways and in grubby, storefront churches in the dying
cores of great cities. I preached in 110-degree heat in Paris, Kentucky, and in
a tiny frame church in northern Ontario, where the only heat came from a
pot-bellied stove at the centre of the meeting hall and a haze rose from the
bundled bodies of the congregation. When we sang an up-tempo hymn, the
exhalations suggested a steam calliope.
I preached from a wrestling ring parked in
a softball stadium in Sudbury, Ontario; in an outdoor "tabernacle" in
Clarksville, Tennessee, where the summer insects attracted by the platform lights
were sometimes inhaled; in a church basement in Lapeer, Michigan, where the
pastor and his family lived in quarters back of the platform and you could
smell what they'd had for dinner each night; in an unfinished shed in
Carbondale, Illinois, where all the young mothers sat in the front row
breast-feeding their babies; in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where my bed swarmed
with bedbugs and the chicken I saw
expiring in the driveway when I arrived was served for dinner that evening; in
Pontiac, Michigan, where the church building was adjacent to the shunting-yard
of the railway terminus and I lost my
voice competing with it; and I preached on the subject of "God's Perfect
Love" in Minden, Louisiana, as a tornado touched down, disintegrating the
segregated African Methodist church across the street and killing eight members of the congregation, including the
There was a notion in the 1930s that the
skies would soon be filled with light aircraft, that we would fly as casually as
we drove a car. I decided that, as I was living on the road, I should learn to
fly. Conducting a campaign in Chicago, I went to a flying school in Harvey,
Illinois, a suburb south of the city. The airport was no more than a mown
pasture. The hangar was a refurbished barn. Navigation aids were limited to a
tattered windsock and a single flag at each of what served as a runway. The
Harvey Flying school equipment consisted of one early Piper Cub with a sixty
horsepower Lycoming engine.
The instructor was a gargantuan man who
ate pistachio nuts and spat shells. He wore khaki coveralls and a Chicago Cubs
baseball cap and cursed with an incredible inventiveness. I decided not to tell
him that I was a preacher - if I was doing something foolish at the controls, I
wanted to be told so in language that would brand it on my brain.
"How much to learn to fly?" I
"Ten dollars an hour. If you're any
good, you'll solo after eight hours, and that's the minimum."
The first seven and a half hours were
without incident. I did all the mandatory manoeuvres - circuits, landings and
takeoffs, power-on and power-off stalls, figure eights on pylons (trees),
forward-slips and side-slips and two hours of cross-country. On occasion, he
cursed me fervently: "Pile her in if you like, you stupid bugger; she's
insured. But not with my ass aboard, for Chrissake!"
The day I was scheduled to solo there were
strong, gusting winds. "I don't know", he said, frowning, hesitant,
standing at the middle of the field, his coveralls flapping, "it's pretty
roller-coaster up there."
I was apprehensive, but said, "Look,
I leave for Charleston, West Virginia, tomorrow. It's mountain country, and if
I don't solo with you, it'll cost me twenty bucks to get checked out down
He got in and we did a couple of circuits.
It was very bumpy. As he heaved his bulk out of the front seat, he said,
"Okay. Go around once. But take it easy."
I taxied into position, did a
cockpit-check (there were precious few instruments to check), and gave the
engine full throttle. To my horror, the tiny plane was airborne almost
immediately. The nose came up and I was climbing at what seemed a dangerous
speed. The first lesson drummed into a fledgling's head is not to climb too
swiftly after takeoff. When the aircraft has only passed landing speed, raising
the nose puts the plane in immediate danger of a stall and a certain crash.
I was gaining altitude at a frightening
rate. The nose of the aircraft wanted to come up and I had to push forward hard
on the stick. The plane still insisted on climbing. I shouted above the roar of
the engine, "Think! You know what to do. Do it! Think!"
It broke on me: I had become airborne
quickly because, without my instructor, the aircraft was three hundred pounds
lighter. And there was a stiff wind, producing lift. The nose was rearing
because my instructor hadn't reminded me to trim the aircraft to compensate for
his weight. I reached down beside the seat, cranked the trim-handle, made a
left-hand turn, made a circuit fighting the gusts, and bounced into a
He came out to meet me. "I'm
the dumb sonofabitch this time, " he said. "Go 'round
I logged thirty-four hours before I quit
for lack of money. And it was beginning to be obvious that the day when everyone
owned his own auto-plane was far off. I
temporarily lost my faith in a hamlet in Michigan. It was no more than a
cluster of houses and stores at a crossroads, yet it had three competing
churches. There was little to do during the day, and it was impossible to
establish a relationship with the pastor. He was a neurotically shy, shrivel-souled, skinny little man, a secret
smoker who reeked of tobacco and whose fingers had a mahogany hue. When
anyone spoke to him his face would flush and the
acne he was cursed with would flame. But
he had an extensive and eclectic library. It lined the walls of what he called
his study butwas actually the dining room. I spent most of my days in it, reading omnivorously.
I had read widely since childhood, but seldom
any textbooks and always to my own taste. When a biography of Kemal Ataturk,
Turkey's astounding dictator (the only man to my knowledge who, having total
power, voluntarily surrendered it) engrossed me, I went on a binge with the
library's biographies. For a time, George Bernard Shaw fascinated me -
especially the prefaces to his plays - and I read them all, skimming the plays
themselves. Then it was everything I could find by or about Gandhi, who remains
a major influence in my life.
I have always been subject to my
In this dreary Michigan town, I picked up
Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. In a few hours, nearly everything I
knew or believed about the Christian religion was challenged and in large part
demolished. My unsophisticated mind had no defences against the thrust of his
logic or his devastating arguments. In the next ten days I read Francois
Voltaire's The Bible Explained at Last, Bertrand Russell's Why I am
Not a Christian, the speeches of great American atheist, Robert Ingersoll,
including his The Mistakes of Moses, and dipped into David Hume and
Thomas Huxley. I read through the days and into the early morning hours. Each
night, I stumbled lamely through my sermon, drenched in perspiration, desolate
By the end of the two weeks my course
seemed obvious: my faith was disintegrating, I couldn't remain in the ministry,
couldn't possibly continue to preach. I couldn't even pray. I cancelled the few
meetings I had scheduled and returned to Toronto, utterly at a loss. There, I
wandered in the wilderness of my mind for six weeks, fending off the questions
of family and friends, trying to get some bearings. To earn some money, I sold
four political cartoons to the editorial page of the Toronto Telegram. I
was like a boxer who has been stunned and is out on his feet. Then, slowly, I
began to emerge from the grey befuddlement. Only half believing, I
tried again to pray. In hope, I turned again to the New Testament....
The way back was tortuous and slow.
Now, a year later, there I was tearing
down the "for rent" sign on a disused church. Connie and I were about
to try to give it new life. The prospects were not encouraging. In subsequent
months I would say many times: "We had a sanctuary but no members, pews
but no people, aisles but no ushers, an organ but no organist, a choir loft but
no choir and collection plates but no money. "But we did have an
unquenchable optimism and a conviction that we had been called by God to revive
this dead church.
My family and Connie and I and a few
friends went to work. We swept and vacuumed the floors. We polished the pews.
We washed the walls as far as ladders could reach. Mother made a curtain for
the altar rail. I bought a dozen pie tins, painted them brown and glued green
felt to the bottoms - they would be our collection plates. There was a pile of dog-eared
song books in a corner of one of the Sunday School rooms; they would serve as
our hymn books. For three weeks in
advance of the opening Sunday we ran two-column advertisements in the church
pages of the Telegram and Star:
Centre of Evangelism
The advertisement was followed with
others: "Two weeks to go!" "Next week!" "Tomorrow!"
An organist, Fred Payne, telephoned to offer his services and a musician, Bill
McCall, volunteered to direct the choir - when and if we had a choir, On the
eve of the opening, a basket of flowers arrived anonymously. A nearby hardware
merchant donated three dozen light bulbs. The lessee of the service station
across the road offered his premises for free parking. We were as ready as we
I had decided to hold the opening service
on a Sunday night on the assumption that most churchgoers would attend their
own services in the morning. At six-thirty, half an hour before the first
service, our little band knelt at the front pew to ask God to bless this new
venture and to-please! -- send someone through the doors.
One hundred and twelve came. In a
sanctuary seating twelve hundred, they seemed a pitiful few. Strangers, ill at
ease, not knowing what to expect, they sat in the back pews and left a great
gulf between themselves and the pulpit. The congregational singing was ragged.
Connie's songs and my preaching echoed sepulchrally. The offering was
sixty-seven cents short of the week's rent. There was nothing for the preacher,
but because we were living at my mother's house, I did not need anything. The
following Sunday morning there were only twenty-seven present. I preached as
though the world were on fire, knowing that if these few didn't return the
venture would be dead in the water.
But they did return, and others with them.
Within six months it was impossible to find a seat in the Sunday-night service
unless you were on hand by 6:45. Each week people were turned away at the doors.
Soon there were the beginnings of a Sunday school and Wednesday prayer meetings
and a Saturday-night meeting for young people. Within months we had a
white-robed choir and hymn books and proper collection plates; even a Board of
Elders, some so young as to be almost beardless. There were two services each
Sunday night: one at 7:00 and a Second, called Songfest, at 9:15. It was a
happy, buoyant afterservice designed especially for young people, and they came
from across the city to jam the sanctuary. I had set my salary at eighteen
dollars a week. After six months, the church board raised it to forty
Three years later, I proposed to the board
that we enlarge the church by building a gallery on three sides of the
sanctuary. We had bought the church with a down payment of $4,000 and a
mortgage of $27,000, and there were faint hearts who drew back from the
additional debt that would have to be assumed. I prodded. I pleaded, I cajoled,
but found myself faced with a contretemps. Finally, I made it clear that, if
they were prepared to rest at ease after so short a battle, I would not be
their leader. The issue was resolved, an architect was hired and the work was
begun. For the next seven weeks we would hold our services in the Masonic
Temple at Yonge Street and Davenport.
It is the custom among evangelicals to
pray for the sick. Jesus' three years of ministry were filled with healings,
and when he commissioned the apostles he commanded them to heal. In the New
Testament book of James there is this injunction:
Is any Sick among you? Let him call for
elders of the church and let them pray over him, annointing him with oil in the
name of the Lord and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord
shall raise him up.
I had, when requested, prayed for the sick
many times, never effectually. I never preached on faith healing, seldom
referred to it and was publicly critical of evangelists who majored in it. I
regarded it as peripheral and, in the hands of charlatans, dangerous.
Nevertheless, one Sunday afternoon, I went
to one of those small boxlike frame
houses common to Toronto's east end at the request of a woman who attended the
church. Her infant daughter had been born deformed. The large muscle on the
right side of the neck was attached to the left collar-bone, binding the baby's
head to the left. As I understood it, there was some conjunction of the muscle
and the jugular vein that made it impossible to correct the problem surgically. Once a week the
woman took the infant to the Hospital For Sick Children for muscular
rehabilitation. The baby's head was repeatedly twisted to the right, to stretch
the muscle so that, in later years, she would be able more or less to face the
front. The mother was required to repeat the therapy for ten minutes each day
despite the baby's screams. Finding it unendurable she importuned me to come
and pray that the infant be healed.
I went reluctantly, feeling like a
mountebank. The baby was in the bedroom in its crib. I put some olive oil on my
fingers, kneeled with the mother, put my hands on the infant and prayed. I had
no expectation that the child would be
healed. With the glib words on my tongue, I was thinking about the woman -
about her pain, and about how disheartened she would be when the baby was
unchanged and months of agonizing therapy lay ahead. At the close, we rose to our feet and returned to the living
room. I was questing in my mind for sentiments with which to buoy up her
courage and ease her disappointment. We sat for a few minutes, talking, I in a
chair and she on the chesterfield opposite, I asked, "Wasn't the baby's
head bound to the left?" The baby
was looking to the right and then turned to face me. The woman, and as she
began to slide to the floor, I caught the baby and placed it on the
chesterfield. When the woman revived, she was near hysterics. I told her to
report what had happened to the hospital.
Four years later, New World, a Canadian
imitation of Life magazine, came to me
looking for a story idea. They planned to do a feature in their Easter edition
under the heading, "What My Faith Means To Me." I sent them to the
woman and to the Sick Children's Hospital. They ran the story and a full-page
picture of the mother and child, now a young girl and manifestly normal.
Not long afterwards, I encountered another
instance of instantaneous healing. My aunt, Ada Poyntz, a graduate nurse and my
mother's youngest sister, was terminally ill with what was described to me as
stomach cancer. Exploratory surgery had discovered that the malignancy was
inoperable. She suffered greatly from adhesions and was bedridden. There was
little point in her remaining in hospital, and, in those days before medicare,
the costs would have been prohibitive. She was sent home to live out the rest
of her days with my mother.
Mother insisted that I come to the house
and pray for Ada. I went again with reluctance and that sense of embarrassment
I invariably felt when asked to pray for healing. I had investigated many
claims of faith healing over the years and had never seen any instance that
seemed to me authentic. I couldn't account for what had happened to the baby's
neck but was by no means convinced that it was as a result of divine
I placed my hands on my aunt's body and
began to pray. The moment was intensely emotional. My mother was praying and
weeping. My aunt was gasping in an agony of hope, "Oh God! Please! Please
God!" As I was praying, I felt something akin to an electrical charge flow
through my arms and out my fingers. I remembered the incident in which the
woman "suffering from an issue of blood" touched the hem of Jesus'
garment and was healed. Jesus stopped and said, "Who touched me?"
Peter remonstrated with him: "What do you mean, who touched you? There's a
crowd pressing us, jostling us." "No," Jesus said,
"somebody touched me; I felt power go out of me!" I wondered if what
I was feeling was what Jesus had spoken of.
Afterwards, there was the usual mutual
encouragement, the "trying to have faith." When I returned home, the
telephone was ringing. It was my aunt, who had not been out of bed for weeks.
"Chuck," she said, half laughing, half in tears but far from
hysteria, "I've been healed. I really have." Mother came on the
phone." "It's absolutely
incredible. She's been walking around. She's been up and down the stairs.
Chuck, she's healed. There's no doubt about it."
There was no return of the malignancy. The
adhesions ended. She outlived the rest of her brothers and died forty-two years
later at the age of eighty-seven.
How do I account for these two instances
of apparently instantaneous healing? I cannot. They certainly didn't happen
because of my faith. Nor do I believe they resulted from divine
intervention. Having investigated faith
healing over many years I have no doubt that, occasionally, men and women are
healed of actual ill nesses. I am not speaking of those illnesses that are
hysteric in nature, symptoms of an underlying psychological problem. Nor of
those "healings" that are undoubtedly remissions; the temporary
subsidence of symptoms or pain. Nor again, am I referring to the so-called
healings seen on television when the ailing victim is anaesthetized by the
intensity of the moment and becomes able, if only for a brief period, to bend a
painful back or walk on a crippled limb.
I am opposed to the public healing
services of contemporary evangelism. Occasionally, a form of cure may be
effected, but the good done is minuscule compared to the harm. Television
healing evangelism is a fraud. The "healers" are often simpletons or
rogues or both, living off the avails of medical bunkum. They knowingly
mislead, leaving behind them emotional wreckage and illnesses often worsened by
neglect. Despite all this, I am convinced that what may loosely be called faith
healing is an area of medicine with unrealized potential.
The contractor had been busy; only seven
weeks had passed and the new gallery of the church was completed. On Saturday
night, March 7,1944, some fifty people, most of them young, gathered with
brooms and mops and dusting cloths to ready the refurbished sanctuary for the
reopening service. It was an hour for elation. At 10:30 I climbed to the
topmost seat in the gallery and sat for a few minutes contemplating the scene,
seeing in my memory that afternoon not many months before when I had walked
tentatively into the gloomy, dust-mantled auditorium. Below, I could see the
workers, resting from their labour, clapping their hands and singing a Negro
Everything was ready. We would rededicate
the church the following evening with the mayor present and some sixteen
hundred people in the pews. (In Truth, there were no pews in the gallery. We
couldn't afford them and had temporarily substituted wooden kitchen chairs.) When
the last of the volunteers had gone, I locked the doors and went warily but
happily home. I called Connie, who was in Detroit on a singing engagement,
arranged to meet her at the airport the
following afternoon, and went to bed.
I was awakened by the persistent ringing
of the telephone. It was 3:15 a.m. A woman's voice shouted, "Mr.
Templeton, you'd better come. Your
Church is on fire."
Nearing the crest of the hill on Avenue
Road south of St. Clair, I saw the flames roaring into the night sky a hundred
feet above the church, streamers of sparks racing even higher. As I pulled up
by a welter of hoses and fire-fighting equipment, the roof of the main
sanctuary collapsed in a roiling fury of flame. I had left a new suit,
purchased for the opening service, in my office and ventured a dash to rescue
it. Coming out, I was collared by a policeman who took me for a looter.
Now, in every section of the building, the
roof was ablaze. Windows sagged and crumpled as the leaded glass melted. A
slate shingle skimmed down and gashed a fireman's face. Water poured in
torrents from the open doorways, cascading in a series of waterfalls down the
stone steps. Mocking me was the sign at the front of the church: GREAT
REPORTING SERVICE - Sunday 7 p.m.
When we bought the building, we had
assumed a mortgage of $27,000. Fortunately, it had been protected with an
insurance policy. But we still had to settle with the contractor who had built
the gallery, and all that would be left would be the walls and a heap of
smoking debris. We would have no place to worship, debts and no funds. Some
members of the board arrived and, as dawn broke, we repaired to an apartment
across the street. I drafted an advertisement on the spot and delivered it
personally to both the Star and the Telegram, talking them into
opening the church pages so that it could be included:
OUR BEAUTIFUL CHURCH IS BURNED
"All Things work together for good
to them that love God."
Hear the story of the fire.
SUNDAY 7 P.M. - THE MASONIC TEMPLE
The temperature dropped overnight. When I
returned to the church later that day to appraise the damage, the debris had
frozen into a solid mass. Every part of the building had been destroyed or
damaged. The basement was untouched by fire, but the ceiling was dripping everywhere.
Hundreds of icicles suggested stalactites in a low, dark cave. The floor was
inches deep in water; the surface covered with a skim of ice. A photographer
from one of the newspapers took a picture of me standing in what remained of
the pulpit, surrounded by a surreal tangle of charred beams and rafters, the
snow falling around me inside the church....
Then, an astounding reversal of our
fortunes. Hundreds were turned away from the Masonic Temple. In place of a sermon,
I had and then described the disaster. I put before them our financial dilemma
and our intention to persevere and asked for pledges. Seventeen thousand dollars was committed.
J.V.McAree, the respected columnist for
the Globe and Mail, wrote a column the Monday following the fire.
THIS CHURCH MUST NOT DIE
If we know anything about the spirit which
forms the Avenue Road Church of the Nazarene, the devastating fire will be no
more than a goad to stronger effort and a milestone on the way to still greater
accomplishment. What has happened there in the last couple of years since the
church was taken over by Charles B. Templeton might be regarded as a miracle.
The minister and his young wife, whom many might
regard as no more than boy and girl, have built up a congregation which for
earnestness and determination to live the Christian life is not surpassed
anywhere, even by churches that can trace a continuous existence for more than
a century. In fact, it has set an example that had amazed many much more
fashionable and prosperous churches; and, as we have predicted, its recovery
from the fire may amaze them still more.
An advertising agency owned by my uncle,
Alford Poyntz, reprinted the Mcaree column in quarter-page display ads in the
three Toronto papers. Included was a candid photograph of me watching the fire,
dismay on my face, the top of my pyjamas peeking through my upturned overcoat
collar. In response, contributions came in the mail from a number of cities.
I had announced on the Sunday that,
granted a thaw, we would begin the clean-up the following Friday night.
Strangers came from all over the city, some with dump trucks, others with
shovels and axes and wheelbarrows. There were almost too many to organize. We
backed the trucks to the doors of the church and set the men to work in gangs.
Some pried and ripped apart the debris. Others filled barrows and trundled them
on a path of planks to the trucks. The
trucks rumbled off and returned. Soon we were black as coal miners. We up-ended
the organ pipes and spilled out the ice that filled them. A great mound of
icicles, each the exact shape of one of the pipes, was stacked in a bizarre
heap. But it was a vain task; all the
pipe seams had split as water froze.
That evening, when the debris was gone, I
went alone to the shell of the building and walked about, assessing the damage.
The walls remained but the windows were gone. The girders that had borne the
roof were twisted and bent. The internal structure of the gallery remained
intact but the surfaces were burned and disfigured. The floors were scorched
and scarred but still solid - although many of the boards would wrap. The pews
beneath the gallery were salvagable, although we would have to repair and paint
them. The organ appeared to be a write-off. (It would finally cost $102,000 to
rebuild the church.) After my tour of inspection, I went into a corner and sat
with my back to the wall. The enormity of the task before us finally broke on
me, and my head went down.
The first five months of that summer we
held all our services in the basement of the church. We opened up the area
until we could seat about five hundred on rented kitchen-type chairs. There was
one worrisome problem; there was no roof over our heads, only the ceiling. For
weeks, the sanctuary above was open to the weather. When it rained the water
poured through the ceiling and continued to drip long after the rain had ended.
We advertised our basement auditorium as
"Toronto's Submarine Centre" and held two services each Sunday night
one at 6:30 and a second at 8:00. There was a pervasive smell of mildew, and
sometimes a background sound of water dripping. The choir put on their robes in
what had been the kitchen, and walked precariously on planks laid on the floor
to keep their feet dry. I stood on a platform so that I was visible to the
congregation, my head a few inches from the ceiling. Fortunately, it was summer
and there was no need for heat. But in the more than two months before the
sanctuary received its new roof, it didn't rain on a weekend and we didn't miss
a service. We read this as the goodness of God.
I was notified by the Fire Marshall's
office that the church fire had been deliberately started. "Arson,"
was the verdict. "Someone stood at the top of the stairs and poured a
quantity of a flammable substance, probably gasoline, down the stairs, lighted
it and left. Whoever did it knew the
layout; the fire was started at the one place that would cause it to spread to
both wings of the building."
Some weeks later, as I returned from an
out-of-town engagement I was given a message to call the police at the old
Number 5 Division at Davenport Road at Belmont. A sergeant came to see me and
told me a disturbing story. During the regular Saturday night young people's meeting
in the basement auditorium of the church, one of our group, an
eighteen-year-old I will call Eddie Miller, heard a sound from above and
slipped out of the meeting to investigate. Moments later, the young people
heard the sound of running feet, A crash and then silence. They found Eddie on
the floor, unconscious, and called the police. The sergeant now told me that,
when he arrived, Eddie was conscious but still stunned. Eddie told him that
when he went up to the auditorium he saw a man. The intruder was tall, he said,
wearing a topcoat and had his hat pulled low over his face. The man ran, and as
he went, picked up a piece of scrap two-by-four and threw it, striking Eddie on
the head. Nonetheless, he grappled with the man but was knocked unconscious by
a blow to the solar plexus.
As the officer finished the story, I said,
"You seem a little dubious."
"I'm not sure why," he said.
"But there was something odd about the whole business."
"Are you saying that Eddie was
"No. He's got a lump on his head
where he was hit by the two-by-four. It's just there's more to the story than
he's telling. I keep wondering if it could be connected with the
I visited Eddie at his home. He was a
good-looking boy with wide-set, clear blue eyes and blonde hair. He had joined
the church some six months earlier. I'd heard that he had been part of a
teen-age gang in the east end of the city but had quit when he was converted.
Since then he'd been trying to live an exemplary life. He was an officer in the
youth group and a member of the choir.
He was wearing a Band-aid on his brow over
an angry red abrasion. As he told me the story he'd told the policeman, one
thing struck me as odd: he had been knocked unconscious, he said, not by the
blow to the head but by a punch to the solar plexus. I knew that such a blow
could knock a man down, even incapacitate him, but not knock him out. Why was
he lying? Was it possible that he knew the intruder? Perhaps there was some
connection to the fire.
"Eddie," I Said," did you
know the man?"
"No, Mr. Templeton. I never saw him
"But how do you know? It was around
9.30. It was dark."
"Yes it was. But not that dark."
I was vaguely disquieted but put it out of
Three weeks later, early on a Sunday
morning, I received a telephone call from a Constable Ross at the East York
police station. Did I know a young man by the name of Eddie Miller? The
constable then explained that, the previous night, Eddie had been beaten up by
a gang of young hoodlums. He hadn't been seriously inured-mostly bumps and
bruises - and had been driven home by the police. Constable Ross told me that
Eddie was worried about attending church Sunday morning, bandaged, and had
asked him to call me to explain what had happened.
Eddie arrived with a Band-aid on one
cheek. His left arm was in a sling. He opened his shirt to show me broad strips
of tape on his chest; two ribs had been cracked, he said. The bandages seemed
awkwardly applied. The doctor had done them too tightly, he explained, and he
had loosened them. He bore the pain well and drew a lot of sympathy from his
The incident nagged at my mind. That
afternoon it occurred to me that Eddie might be in more trouble than he was
admitting to. Was it possible that he hadn't been able to break clear of the
gang and that was why he had been beaten up? Could it be that, angered by his
leaving and by his commitment to the church, they had set the fire? The
questions wouldn't rest.
I called the East York police station. The
duty officer didn't know of a Constable Ross; there was no one on staff by that
name. Nor did he have a report about a young man being beaten up the previous
evening. Nor had be heard of Eddie Miller.
I hung up, my mind racing. Eddie or a
friend must have made the call to me, impersonating the officer. Eddie hadn't
been beaten up. The bandages were loose because he had applied them him- self.
But why? My mind went back to the incident at the young people's meeting and I
remembered my doubts about his being knocked unconscious by a blow to the solar
plexus. I called the sergeant who had investigated the incident.
"I thought I might be hearing from
you again," he said.
A course of action was decided on. I
called Eddie. "You and I need to have a talk. I don't want to disturb your
family by coming to your house, so I'll drive by this afternoon at four and
blow my horn."
He was immediately tentative. "I
can't do that. I...."
"Eddie," I said, "don't make
me come to your house; there'll be a policeman in the car with me. He wants to
ask you some questions. You come out to the car."
There were, as it turned out, two
policemen in the back seat of my car as I blew the horn. Eddie got in the front
seat beside me. I drove slowly about the area.
"Eddie," I said, "I need
some straight answers. You weren't beaten up last night. You weren't taken to
the East York station. You've been lying to me."
He protested earnestly. "Mr.
Templeton, I'm not lying. I was beaten up. I'm telling you the truth."
"You also lied to me about being
knocked out at the church. Why, Eddie? Are you in trouble?"
One of the officers spoke sharply from the
back seat. "Why did you burn down the church, Eddie?"
"Burn down the church...!"
"Why'd you do it, Eddie?"
"Me burn down the church? Are you
"I'll ask the questions - why'd you
burn down the church?"
Eddie appealed to me. "Mr. Templeton, you
know how much I love our church. Tell them."
"The officer cut me off. "We'll
handle this. Now, Miller, let's have no more lying. I'll give you one more
chance. Tell the truth or we'll take you down to the station and book you.
Why'd you burn down the church?"
Eddie was silent, his head down. Then he
slumped side ways on the seat and put his head in my lap, sobbing.*
That night, after the service, I drove
home by way of Davenport Road and paused outside the station where Eddie was
lodged in a cell. It had begun to rain and the night was dark.
The new church was beautiful: brightly
lit, modern, the acoustics greatly improved. The choir-loft accommodated sixty.
The seating capacity of the sanctuary was close to sixteen hundred. On the
night of the reopening, we put the overflow in the Sunday school auditorium and
turned away hundreds. During the next four years, winter and summer, it was
necessary to arrive by 6.30 to be sure of a seat. Policemen were assigned each
Sunday to direct traffic.
(*) Eddie at first pleaded guilty but then changed his mind. At the trial,
he was found guilty and served time. But he never revealed his motive.
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