1850-1899 - New Horizons and New Challenges

Canada: from Sea to Sea

In 1867 the regions of Canada at last took on a more lasting form of constitutional relationship. In that year the British North America Act united the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario to create the Dominion of Canada. The motto of the country that still exists today was drawn from Psalm 72: “May he have dominion from sea to sea.” Manitoba and the North West Territories, from which the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta would be formed in 1905, were added to the union in 1870, British Columbia in 1871 and Prince Edward Island in 1873. With the exception of Newfoundland, the Canada we know today took shape.

This was the era in which the great railroads were built to link the country from coast to coast. It was also time of continued immigration especially to the West, of increasing industrialization and, in central Canada, of the movement of rural population into the growing cities. The union of 1867 did not bring to an end tensions among the three “founding peoples”, the Native Peoples, the French and the English. In some cases it exacerbated them. This is evidenced in the dispute known as the Manitoba School Question and in two armed rebellions involving the Métis in western Canada. Building the country continued to demand leaders capable of reconciling differences and educators capable of teaching their students how to get along with one another.

Pages taken from the rules for boarders of the Our Lady of the Angels Convent

Pages taken from the rules for boarders of the Our Lady of the Angels Convent

Tignish, Prince Edward Island, [ca. 1870].

Expansion of the Congregation in North America

Between 1855 and 1900 the Congregation opened 90 new missions, 44 of them outside the Province of Quebec. By the eve of the 20th century, 1,157 sisters were teaching, administering and playing other roles in schools in Canada and in the United States from Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine and Prince Edward Island in the east to Kankakee in the state of Illinois in the west.

The sisters usually established missions at the invitation of local pastors and bishops, sometimes where there was already a French-speaking population, but always in the service of Catholic families.

Expansion into so many different places was a considerable challenge. The British North America Act had made education a provincial responsibility so that the sisters had to adapt to the requirements of each of the different provinces in which they went to teach. The areas in which their schools were located and, consequently, the needs of their pupils, varied widely, from the fishing and mining villages of the east coast to the growing industrial towns of New England and the burgeoning cities on the islands of Manhattan and of Montreal. Some of the schools were private, others were parochial schools or schools operated by the civil authorities. While most of the pupils taught were girls, there were also boys according to local custom or rule. There was one distant destination the sisters did not reach: in the 1850s Cardinal Wiseman asked the Congregation to open a school in the diocese of Westminster in England but Bishop Bourget did not permit them to accept the invitation.

The fact that they were now working in so many different dioceses had another very important consequence for the Congregation: at the end of the 1860s it became a pontifical rather than a diocesan institute with the Superior General in Montreal responsible for the various areas of the community.

Deed of incorporation of Saint Joseph Seminary

Deed of incorporation of Saint Joseph Seminary

Kankakee, Illinois, United States, 1874.

New Milestones for Women

Although opportunities for higher education for men were expanding at this time in both Europe and North America, there was much reluctance about offering the same opportunities to women. The first Catholic college for women in North America was Mount Saint Bernard College affiliated with Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Mount Saint Bernard grew from the foundation made by the Congregation in Antigonish in 1883. In great part because of the support of Bishop John Cameron, Chancellor of the University and his co-workers, four women received their bachelor of arts degrees in 1897.

In Montreal, the École Normale Jacques-Cartier, a Catholic institution for the education of teachers, was founded in 1857 but was open to men only. Women were allowed to take the examinations of the bureaux d’examinateurs but very few of them were qualified to teach beyond the most elementary level. This situation changed in 1899 with the opening of the École Normale Jacques-Cartier pour filles under the direction of the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame and located in the Mother House in Old Montreal.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the sisters of the Congregation also undertook another activity of great importance to the teaching profession. This was the writing of textbooks on a variety of subjects for use in their own and in other schools.

First women to graduate from Mount Saint Bernard College in the Bachelor of Arts program

First women to graduate from Mount Saint Bernard College in the Bachelor of Arts program

Antigonish, Nova Scotia, 1897.

To the Mountain and Back

As Montreal grew and its neighbourhoods changed in character the Congregation, like many of the older institutions, found it necessary to re-locate. In 1854 the community had acquired the mountain property known as Monklands. The boarding school moved there from the Mother House into what had been the residence of the Governor General when Montreal had been the capital of Canada. From now on, the school would be named Villa Maria. When it became obvious that the Mother House itself must leave Old Montreal a new Mother House was built and the community moved into it in 1880. This building was to have a very short life for it was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1893. The material loss to the Congregation was immense but there was also other irreparable damage for one of the firemen died in the flames. Once more too, the Congregation lost its precious archives. The community returned to Old Montreal where its buildings were still the home of the sisters who travelled to teach in the various schools of the city.

Fifth Mother House

Fifth Mother House

Montreal, Quebec, [188-].