St. Gabriel’s Passionist Church

Human-earth relationship guides Canada’s first LEED Gold church

The creation of a liturgical environment

The stairwell connecting the narthex to the underground parking.
by Roberto Chiotti

St-Gabriel’s Passionist Church has been designed to reflect the eco-theology of Passionist Father Thomas Berry and his belief that we must work towards a mutually-enhancing, human-earth relationship. When asked to suggest an appropriate response to this imperative, Berry replied simply: “How will you address the sun?”
In contrast to most churches that are inwardly focused and employ stained glass to create an other-worldly liturgical environment, the entire south facade of the worship space at St. Gabriel’s is glazed with clear glass. This has been done to passively harness the winter sun and to extend the sacred space of the worship area into the sacred space of the world beyond.
The remaining three walls of exposed architectural concrete serve as a canvas for the dynamic play of natural light filtered by the coloured glass panels of the continuous perimeter skylight. In effect, the cosmos shapes the liturgical environment and participates in the ritual of the liturgy. Similarly, seasonal influences on the sun’s intensity and inclination together with the daily diversity of weather conditions ensure that no two masses will experience an identical liturgical environment.
The pews in the new 750 seat worship space, re-claimed and re-furbished from the original church, have been arranged in facing rows to embrace a sacred north-south axis that begins in the garden and terminates at the north wall of the nave with the tabernacle.
A transparent screen, superimposed with etched glass panels depicting images of the Passion that were salvaged from the front doors of the original church, delineates an intimate chapel of reservation at the north end of this sacred axis.
Movement along the axis from south to north is reinforced by the colours of the skylight. Brilliant yellows are situated closest to the sun’s intense light at the south end graduating incrementally to deeper, richly hued crimsons and azure blues at the north end.
The nave is entered from the narthex on the cross-axis through a pair of 4.5m high paneled doors This central ceremonial aisle ends across from the presider’s chair located in the front row of pews amongst the worshipping community.
Distinct from most suburban churches that are corralled by huge asphalt parking lots, St. Gabriel’s accommodates the majority of its parking underground. This unprecedented investment ensures that a large portion of the ground plane remains as garden, landscaped to recall pre-settlement indigenous ecosystems and providing wildlife habitat throughout the seasons.
Preferential parking spaces are provided for those who carpool and those who drive hybrid or alternate-fuel vehicles. The church is located close to transit making it easy for many parishioners to leave their cars at home.
Approaching the building through the garden, parishioners arrive at a generous piazza, flanked by the front wall of the narthex, a recessed arcade of fossil rich Manitoba limestone. Within the narthex a sky-lit living wall serves to purify the interior air and moderate temperature and humidity. The water trickling over the roots is a symbol of its sacred role in sustaining the world - a role we continue to ignore and abuse.
St Gabriel’s LEED Gold status reflects a comprehensive approach to the design of building and site. Maximizing insulation values; specifying highly efficient mechanical systems incorporating heat recovery methodologies; the supplemental use of passive solar heating along with utilizing the thermal mass of the building to store and retain heat; purchasing power from a renewable energy provider; maximizing natural ventilation and daylighting; use of room occupancy and daylight sensors to control electrical lighting; use of carbon dioxide sensors to alert the building’s mechanical systems when fresh air is needed, are all strategies that have been used to reduce dependency on non-renewable energy resources.
Minimizing finishes beyond those provided by the building’s concrete structure; re-directing construction waste from landfill to re-cycling opportunities; maximizing use of locally obtained materials; use of re-cycled steel and substituting a percentage of the cement with slag, represent good stewardship of precious earth resources.
Use of low or zero VOC materials and finishes; carpets with a percentage of their fibres made from beets and corn stalks; formaldehyde-free wheat strawboard in all millwork; GreenGuard™ certified office and meeting room furnishings that meet strict environmental guidelines in their production, all contribute to creating a healthier environment for staff and parishioners alike.

Roberto Chiotti, OAA is a principal at Larkin Architect Limited, Toronto.



  • Architect: Larkin Architect Limited, Toronto
  • Design consultant: Weissbau Inc., Toronto
  • Structural engineer: Carruthers & Wallace Limited, Toronto
  • mechanical/electronical engineer: Keen Engineering Co. Ltd. [now Stantec], Toronto
  • Construction: Buttcon Limited, Markham, ON
  • Landscape architect: Ian Gray and Associates Ltd., Toronto
  • Storm water management consultant : Feherty and Associates Ltd., Newmarket, ON
  • Photos: Steven Evans, Toronto; photo2-Roberto Chiotti


  • Poured concrete with open-web steel trusses, concrete access floors by Camino/TecCrete by Haworth, heat mirror glazing by Eco Insulating Glass in aluminum curtain walls, stucco, copper and Tindall stone exterior, gypsum board with recycled content by CGC, exposed and sealed concrete floors and InterfaceFLOR carpet tile, Living Wall by Air Quality Control, direct digital building controls by Walker Technologies and installed by Empire Controls Ltd.
  • Global Contract and SCI Interiors Ltd. provided GreenGUARD-rated: EVOLVE workstations, VICEVERSA tables, DESCOR VERSAILLES casegoods, and LUX seating and filing; ICI Dulux Lifemaster low-VOC interior latex paint; Modernfold Acousti-Seal 933 Operable Panels supplied by Lawrence-Paine & Associates Ltd; Heatlok 0240 spray-applied polyurethane cellular plastic insulation by Demilec.

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