How the mystery of a medieval altar stone found under a lamp in a Toronto church was solved

The discovery of a square marble slab in a Toronto church sparked a hunt for the truth that led church detectives back 100 years to an area in Europe where many Canadian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice.

La Neuve-Église altar stone linked to the First World War, returned to church in Belgium

A marble slab that sat in the office of a rector at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, undisturbed for six decades until it was turned over. (Submitted by Canon Peter Walker)

The mystery began last spring when Canon Peter Walker, rector of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, discovered a square, black marble slab that had been sitting under a lamp in his office.

"So, I'm not very observant, obviously, about my office. Nor do I dust much," he told CBC Toronto, adding it started when his secretary wanted to toss out an old lamp she thought was ugly.

"I thought it was the base of the lamp and she lifted it up, and it wasn't the base. And she said, 'What's this?' And I immediately recognized what it was."

Walker says from the distinctive markings in the centre of the stone and on the corners he could tell it was an altar stone from the Roman Catholic church upon which the sacraments are prepared for the communion ceremony.

Canon Peter Walker, rector of Grace Church on-the-Hill, says the church has many historic connections to the First World War. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

But Grace Church on-the-Hill near Lonsdale and Spadina roads is an Anglican church. He says turning the stone over provided more clues to a deepening mystery.

On the back of the stone, someone had written in purple crayon, "From the altar of La Neuve-Église, Belgium, 1915," and the initials "F.G.S."

A quick search turned up a village in Belgium called La Neuve-Église, also known as Nieuwkerke, about 14 kilometres southwest of Ypres. This area of Flanders was the site of many First World War battles involving Canadian troops.

In 1915, the Belgium town of La Neuve-Église was shelled and its medieval church was destroyed. Canadian troops were among the Commonwealth forces involved in the battle. (Australian War Memorial)

"In 1915, La Neuve-Église was shelled and its medieval church was bombed out and Canadian troops were there, but we couldn't figure out what F.G.S. was," he recalls.

Walker says it was one of his parishioners, Roy MacLaren, a former federal cabinet minister, diplomat and historian, who immediately knew that F.G.S were the initials of Canada Forces chaplain and writer Canon Frederick George Scott.

Canon Frederick George Scott, centre, a Canadian priest, poet and author, known as the Poet of the Laurentians is thought to have picked up the altar stone from the ruins of La Neuve-Église. (Anglican Journal)

'A kind of detective story'

"We know from his memoir, The Great War As I Saw It, he writes about being in La Neuve-Église and the whole experience there, so, we link him with the place with the time with the artifact," says Walker.

The missing piece of the puzzle, he says, is how this altar stone brought from Belgium to Canada by Scott, who was from Montreal, ended up in an Anglican church in Toronto.

Walker's theory is that one of Scott's sons — Rev. Elton Scott — who moved from Quebec to Toronto after he retired and served as a voluntary official at Grace Church, must have given it to the former rector. 

"His father probably gave it to him back in the 1920s or '30s and he said, 'This belonged to my old man. I don't have anything to do with it,"' Walker says. "He put it in the rector's office here, and someone put a lamp on it 60 years ago, and it's been there ever since."

Stained glass at Grace Church on-the-Hill are tributes to the young soldiers from the parish who died in Flanders during the First World War. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Grace Church on-the-Hill is one of the oldest churches in Toronto and happens to have deep ties to the First World War and the battles near La Neuve-Église. Most of the stained glass windows in the church are family tributes to the young parishioners who died in Flanders Fields.

"And so it was a kind of detective story unfolding clue by clue and that was a marvellous experience of discovery, but we felt this doesn't really belong to us, really," he says.

A ceremony held in November at the rebuilt La Neuve-Église. Roy MacLaren, a former federal cabinet minister, diplomat and historian helped piece together the mystery of the altar stone found in Toronto. (Submitted by Peter Walker)

Walker reached out to the church in La Neuve-Église, which had been rebuilt in 1925, and last November, a small delegation travelled to Belgium to be part of events marking 100 years since the end of the First World War.

They also travelled to La Neuve-Église to return the altar stone.

The Neuve-Église altar stone now prominently displayed at the rebuilt church complete with the story of how it was lost, found and finally returned to where it belongs. (Submitted by Peter Walker)

Walker says the ceremony included school kids singing O Canada before the altar stone was put in a place of honour near the church's high chapel. There is also a plaque explaining its story and how it connects Belgium to Canada.

We've built a relationship, an international relationship and it's in its place of honour. It's not hidden under a lamp.-  Peter Walker, rector of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto

"We've built a relationship, an international relationship and it's in its place of honour. It's not hidden under a lamp," says Walker.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.

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