Beginnings Early Education in BC

The First 10 Years

The Victoria that the first group of Nuns arrived in was completely different from the one Bishop Demers had left in 1857.  When he left it was a small outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Catholic congregation was made up of the employees of this Fort and children of local Native women and male workers.  What they found when they arrived was a completely different picture due to the Gold Rush and the influx of miners.  However, the desire for spiritual guidance was still there.  The group was greeted by local Catholics and by Dr. and Mrs J.S. Helmcken who had a large meal prepared for the travellers.[1]  After the dinner the Sisters, along with Miss Mandeville, were taken to the small log cabin that was to be their convent and school house in Victoria.  It was located on the west side of Humboldt Street and is now located in Thunderbird Park at the Royal British Columbia Museum. 

                The Sisters were left at the log cabin school house building for their first night with a request to the Saints to protect the women without locked doors and with broken windows.  The next morning they awoke between 4 and 5 am and immediately started planning their first lessons for the Sunday service.  An announcement was made during the Church service that the next morning, Monday, school lessons would start.[2]  In those two days the Sisters worked to set up their small school and home.  Beds were made up on the school room floor at night and moved to the corner during the day for lessons.       

                The first Monday saw a group of twelve girls representing the population of Victoria arrive for their first lessons.  Native, white and mixed children came for their lessons and no difference was made between the girls.  The daughters of Governor James Douglas, Alice, Agnes and Martha, and the Yates family, Emma and Henrietta, sat next to the orphan Emilia Morrell.  In the first year 56 children were registered in the school and were taught in an improvised school house setting.  The desks were made of planks laid on top of packing boxes but they did have slates and pencils along with a blackboard.  These pioneer nuns also cleared the land around the small log cabin and sawed the wood needed for the school.[3]

                One notable event in the first year saw the Governor removing his children from the school.  There was a long standing policy carried over from Quebec that students were not to attend balls or the theatre.  One official event the Douglas family was expected to attend was a ball on a man-of-war.  Hearing of this from the children the Sisters were unsure as to how to proceed.  The choices were either to waive this rule for the Douglas girls or not allow the girls attendance at school if they did attend.  The Governor wrote to the Mother Superior explaining his regard for the rule and that he usually does not allow his daughters to attend balls:

     “His Excellency desires to inform the Reverend Superior, that in general, he         does not permit his dear daughters to frequent dances, but some occasions         occur, as for example, the assembly of last Tuesday, when his position and his     public duty require his presence.  Such occasions do not occur frequently, but     if the Reverend Superior looks upon them as infractions of the Convent                 regulations, His Excellency will be reduced of necessity, though with regret, to     withdraw his daughters from the school.”[4]


                The Mother Superior held to the rule and as consequence lost the Douglas daughters as pupils along with eleven other students.  The event was seen as one that was regrettable and also one that highlighted the difference in society in the West compared to that of Canada. 

                In September 1859 Mother Mary Providence arrived from the convent in Quebec to take over the role of Superior of the Victoria school and convent.  She had tried to come with the first group of nuns a year earlier but was considered too valuable at the time to be sent to Victoria.  This time she was chosen to fill in for another nun who had become sick before the trip.  An English speaking nun was required and Mother Mary Providence was the only English speaking nun the Order.[5]

                One of the first things Mother Providence did was to acquire a new school for the Order in Victoria.  The log cabin on Humboldt Street had become too small for the number of students the nuns had and a building on Broad Street was rented, referred to as the “Broad Street School.”[6]  The opening of the second school would lead to the second scandal for the nuns.

                With two schools it was decided to leave one school with minimal fees and open for all students and the second school, on Broad Street, to be made into a “Select School” with parents paying tuition.  Some parents of African American children wanted to send their children to the Select School but were turned down due to a fear of integration and the students of the Select School being uncomfortable.  Bishop Demers overrode Mother Providence’s decision and opened the school for all.  However, parents of the white children who made up the population of the Select school threatened to remove their children from the school.  This forced Bishop Demers to remove his decree and allow the schools to be set up as originally planned with the Select School being made up of mostly white children.[7]

                The next year saw the opening of a new convent along with a larger school on View Street and in 1863 eight more nuns arrived from Quebec.  With the increase in nuns, the school was able to be organized correctly as a Boarding school with the day students and boarders in separate areas.  That same year the Log Cabin was used as a school for pre-school boys instead of just girls and the first class was held on March 19 1863 with six students.[8]

                In 1864 two events occurred for the nuns, the first death of a nun and the opening of their first school outside of Victoria.  One of the nuns who arrived a year earlier never recovered from her trip and on February 2 Sister Mary Emmerentienne passed away.  The City of Victoria allowed the Sisters of Saint Ann to set aside part of their land for the Log Cabin school to be used for a graveyard.  Her body would be exhumed and re-interred into the present plot on the St. Ann’s Academy grounds later. 

                Bishop Demers had been concerned about the state of education for Aboriginal students particularly in the Cowichan Valley and requested that the Sisters set up their first school outside of Victoria there.  On October 10, 1864 Sister Mary Conception and Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart left Victoria for Cowichan.  The school there was supported fully by the Victoria convent as supplies could only be bought in Victoria and sent north.[9]  The second school outside of Victoria, in New Westminster, was opened in June 1865 with Sister Mary Conception and Mary Mainville.[10] 

                The order continued to grow with the addition of two new Sisters in 1866 and with the order’s first novices taking their ceremony of profession in Victoria in 1867.  The first students of the Sisters of St Ann who entered the order were Cecelia and Agnes McQuade.  They were sent to the mother house in Quebec for their training but Cecelia would eventually become the Provincial Superior of British Columbia.[11]

                Their time in Victoria was not without heartache.  Between the arrival of Mother Mary Providence and the arrival of the eight nuns in 1863, the small group of nuns began to feel cut off from their mother order and overworked.  Their letters to Quebec were going unanswered along with their requests for more help.  Bishop Demers advised the women to request to leave Victoria due to these conditions; however, they would not do so and simply asked for more help.  Due to the American Civil War the mother house was reluctant to send nuns through North America but they finally were able to do so in 1863 relieving the current nuns and improving their lives in Victoria.[12]

[1] Sister Mary Margaret Down, S.S.A., Ph.D., A Century of Service 1858-1958 (Victoria: Moriss Printing Company, 1966), 34.

[2] Down, A Century of Service, 35.

[3] Down, A Century of Service, 36.

[4] Down, A Century of Service, 38.

[5] Sister Marie-Jean-de-Pathmos, S.S.A., A History of the Sisters of Saint Anne Volume One 1850-1900 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 140.

[6] Down, A Century of Service, 49.

[7] Down, A Century of Service, 49-50.

[8] Down, A Century of Service, 51.

[9] Down, A Century of Service, 54-59.

[10] Down, A Century of Service, 60.

[11] Down, A Century of Service, 65.

[12] Pathmos, A History of the Sisters, 142-145.