By Stuart Mann
Long after the service had ended and most of the congregation had headed next door to the reception, the Very Rev. Stephen Vail remained in the entranceway of St. James Cathedral, happily greeting friends and strangers alike.
It was a fitting place for Dean Vail to officially start his new duties as rector of St. James Cathedral and Dean of Toronto – rooted in the historic downtown church but just steps away from the hustle and bustle of Canada’s largest city.
“In the service it says that we welcome all who come through the doors – I also want to welcome those who don’t, and to reach out the arms of the cathedral to embrace the community,” he said.
Dean Vail’s service of installation on Sept. 8 was a joyful occasion, attended by family, friends, three former deans, bishops, clergy and members of the cathedral and St. Bartholomew, Regent Park, where he is also the priest-in-charge.
Reflecting the love and admiration that many had for him, members of three of Dean Vail’s former parishes – All Saints, Whitby, St. John the Evangelist, Port Hope and St. Bride, Clarkson – made the long trip downtown for the event, hugging him afterwards and having their pictures taken with him.
“I was really touched by that,” he said. “All I’ve prayed for is to be a faithful parish priest and to try to touch people with God’s love in some way, and that makes me feel like I guess I did my job.”
The service began with the processional hymn “Tell Out, My Soul,” sung with conviction by the roughly 600 clergy and laity in attendance. It was followed by a land acknowledgement and an Indigenous welcome song, performed by the Rev. Leigh Kern, the diocese’s Coordinator of Indigenous Ministries and Reconciliation Animator. Accompanied by a drum, Ms. Kern’s voice carried through the cathedral, providing a stirring start to the nearly two-hour service.
The first reading, Isaiah 61:9-11, was read by Sarah McDonald, ODT, a member of the cathedral’s parish selection committee, and the second reading, Titus 3:4-7, was read in Mandarin by Qiulei Lin, a young member of the cathedral’s Mandarin Ministry. The gospel reading was Luke 1: 26-33.
The Rev. Geoffrey Sangwine, the incumbent of St. Peter and St. Simon the Apostle on Bloor Street in Toronto and a friend of Dean Vail’s for 30 years, gave the homily. He described his friend as a faithful priest who “delights in people of every walk of life.” He praised Dean Vail’s ability to “listen and to discern, to affirm and to question and to advise – all in a spirit of love and charity. We know his passion for the gospel and his efforts to seek God’s presence in every situation. We know, too, his charm and his quick, wonderful and sometimes over-the-top sense of humour. Stephen, you are a person of many gifts, and what a blessing that is to your family, your friends and to the Church.”
After the homily, Bishop Andrew Asbil, the diocesan bishop, instituted and inducted Dean Vail as the rector of the cathedral, receiving a pledge from the members of the cathedral, representatives of St. Bartholomew’s and all others present that they would share with Dean Vail in his ministry.
Bishop Asbil then installed Dean Vail as Dean of Toronto, asking all present, “People of the Diocese of Toronto, will you support Dean Stephen in this new ministry and work with him in our life together as a diocese?”
With one voice, they answered, “We will.”
Bishop Asbil then escorted Dean Vail over to his stall, an ornate wooden chair in the chancel. As Dean Vail sat in it, the assembled clergy and laity gave him a standing ovation.
After communion and as the service was drawing to a close, Dean Vail stood on the chancel steps and thanked all those present, in particular the three former deans in attendance – the Very Rev. Duncan Abraham, the Very Rev. Douglas Stoute and Bishop Asbil – and the congregations of the cathedral and St. Bartholomew. He likened his new role to that of a midwife, helping the congregation “as we faithfully bear the love of Jesus out of these doors and into the world, that others might receive his grace and salvation into their own hands.”
In an interview afterwards, Bishop Asbil said Dean Vail has all the gifts necessary to not only lead the cathedral but also to leave his mark as a leader in the diocese. “He has a deep ability to pay attention to the needs of not just the individual but the group as well. He has a compassionate heart and a real call in his soul to do justice.”
Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Dean Vail, 55, attended university in Halifax and Toronto, receiving his Master of Divinity from Wycliffe College in 1991. He served in two parishes in Nova Scotia before becoming the incumbent of St. Bride, Clarkson from 2001 to 2005, the incumbent of St. John the Evangelist, Port Hope from 2005 to 2013 and the incumbent of All Saints, Whitby from 2013 to 2019. He was the Archdeacon of Trent-Durham from 2016 to 2019. His interests include spending time with family and friends, reading, yoga, music, old buildings, antique Canadian furniture, puzzles, travel and theological conversation. He has two teenage children and his partner is Neil Walker.