Our History in Ontario
On Oct. 20, 1864, as the first rays of daylight crossed the sky, a noisy locomotive emerged from the darkness into the railyard of Windsor, Ontario. Four Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary disembarked from the train, marking the start of the congregation’s impressive ministry in that city, which continues to the present day. During their first 60 years of ministry in Ontario, Sisters encountered challenges ranging from thorny relationships with some members of the clergy, tensions related to bilingual education and serious difficulties in meeting certification requirements for teachers.
Windsor was settled in the mid-18th century on the south shore of the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair across from Detroit, MI. By the mid-19th century, Catholic schools established by the Jesuits needed new leadership after the departure of two previous religious communities. The arrival of the four SNJM foundresses followed two years of negotiations to bring the Holy Names Sisters to Windsor.
Sister John-Baptist served as superior of the little band. Sister Mary Alphonse, one of the Oregon foundresses, and Sister Mary Mathilde were both experienced teachers who spoke English and French. Sister Mary Thomas, a lay novice, was responsible for the cooking and cleaning. On Oct. 24, 1864 Sisters Mary Alphonse and Mary Mathilde opened the parochial school known as the Catholic Department of the Windsor Public School on Goyeau Street. Three weeks after their arrival, the Sisters moved to the former home of Dr. John Coventry. There was great rejoicing when Sisters Mary Eugene and Mary of Mt. Carmel arrived from Montréal on Nov. 26, just in time to assist in opening the Select School for Girls two days later. The Sisters had great hope for their new institution, known as St. Mary’s Academy.
The Windsor foundresses persevered through early days of trial, including low student enrollment and debt worries. In February 1865, their fortunes began to turn when the Sisters joyfully welcomed the academy’s first boarders. Several families came to the aid of the Sisters as generous benefactors, including the Ouellettes and the Goyeaus. In May, a vote of confidence in the foundation’s solid footing arrived from Montréal when Sister John Baptist was recalled to Hochelaga to serve as Assistant General of the Congregation. Sister Mary Olivier was appointed as the new Superior. Later that month, two more foundresses bid adieu to Windsor when Sisters Mary Alphonse and Mary of Mt. Carmel were sent to found a new mission in Schenectady, NY.
In August 1865, Sister Mary Mathilde left St. Mary’s Academy for the congregation’s newest mission in Amherstburg, a village located 18 miles away on the shores of the Detroit River. Although warmly welcomed by the local citizens, the Amherstburg foundresses soon found themselves in dire financial straights. The Sisters appealed to St. Joseph to send pupils so that they could settle their debts. Relationships among the parishioners had been troubled for some time prior to the Sisters’ arrival, adding to the climate of tension. Yet despite these early challenges the foundation of Amherstburg gave rise to a long and distinguished record of service for the Holy Names Sisters.
The 1860s also gave rise to new trials for the Ontario Sisters. At the request of the Bishop of Alton, IL, the congregation agreed to open a new mission in Decatur, IL. Their first year witnessed the enrollment of over 100 students at the two schools staffed by the Sisters. Nearly 40 students registered for musical instruction. However, difficulties ensued with the parish pastor, Fr. Anthony Vogt. He allowed the Sisters little autonomy in the running of their convent, demanded that they never appear at the front of the house and ordered them to keep their window shutters closed at all times. On one occasion, the priest arrived unannounced at the convent and appropriated all the money the Sisters possessed to pay for paintings for his church. When he insisted that the convent be paid off in full in 1867 in violation of the three-year payment plan he had approved prior to the Sisters’ arrival, the congregation decided to withdraw from Decatur after two years of service.
Undeterred by such disappointments, the Ontario Sisters found satisfaction in the unqualified success of St. Mary’s Academy. A momentous event in the history of the school occurred in 1867 when the new St. Mary’s Academy building was completed after two years of construction. Later that same year the school was plunged into grief when Sister Mary Martine, a 35-year-old lay Sister, died at St. Mary’s, the first Holy Names Sister to die in Ontario.
During the 1870s, the Catholic community of Windsor thrived. In 1873, the impressive St. Alphonsus Church was completed. Just six weeks later, it was the scene of an unforgettable event for the local Catholic community as on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, seven Holy Names Sisters professed their final vows. It was the first time local residents had witnessed a religious profession.
This decade brought many successes for the Ontario Sisters, particularly in Amherstburg where student enrollment set records. St. Rose School opened in 1879, distinguished from most other Holy Names’ institutions for its acceptance of boys under the age of 12. Most students demonstrated a genuine appreciation for their Catholic education but none more so than the first graduate of St. Rose School, Julie LaFerte. Twice each day she walked a distance of four miles to attend school, undeterred by rain, snow or intense heat.
In 1878, Rev. Dennis O’Connor, Superior of Assumption College, persuaded the congregation to send Sisters to Sandwich to teach in the parochial school and direct an orphanage. Sisters Mary Louise and Mary Telesphore, the two foundresses, had a single room in which to educate their pupils. They divided the students between them and taught the younger girls at one end of the room and the seniors at the other. The two Sisters, who lived at St. Mary’s Academy and traveled to Sandwich each day, prepared their noon meal behind a screen while their students ate at their desks. The Sisters’ initial venture in Sandwich was destined to be of short duration as the tension over the language of classroom instruction and teacher certification escalated in Ontario.
The waning years of the 19th century were busy ones for the Ontario Sisters. Once again, they established foundations in the United States. In 1888, the Sisters began teaching at St. Anne’s in Detroit, MI. That same year, Mother Veronica of the Crucifix was appointed Superior of St. Mary’s Academy after Sister Mary of the Seven Dolors fell gravely ill. In 1889 a large celebration took place at the academy to mark the school’s silver jubilee.
By the 1890s, there was growing discontent among the citizens of Ontario concerning the lack of teacher certification and the use of French for classroom instruction. Since there was no easy remedy for these difficulties, the congregation decided to withdraw from two schools. In 1890, the Sisters withdrew from St. Alphonsus School in Windsor and St. Francis School in Sandwich.
In spite of these issues, local Ontario communities continued to ask for Holy Names Sisters. In 1896, three Sisters were missioned to River Canard to teach at St. Joseph’s Separate School. The small community, 12 miles south of Windsor, was one of the oldest European settlements in Canada. Residents were thrilled about the Sisters’ arrival, and the local newspaper was replete with praise not only for their teaching abilities but also for their commitment to providing opportunities for their students to excel in the fine arts, “demonstrating the Sisters’ devotion and zeal beyond the call of duty,” according to one reporter. Fr. Marseille, the local priest, was so inspired by the Sisters’ work in River Canard that he bequeathed $5,000 to them upon his death in 1912.
As the 20th century dawned, the future appeared to hold nothing but promise for the Holy Names Sisters in Ontario. In 1903, St. Mary’s Academy was enlarged to accommodate the ever-growing number of students. The girls were delighted with the comfortable new dormitories, extensive library, elegant parlors and spacious classrooms. That same year, Sisters Catherine Ricci, Mary Jeanne, Mary Joanna, Mary Marcienne and Mary Agapit traveled to Chicago, IL to open St. John the Baptist Academy. The new school met with great success, so much so that the pastor requested three additional teaching Sisters for the second year. In November 1904, two Sisters were assigned to the new Sacred Heart School in Windsor.
Yet despite the very promising start, dark clouds began to appear on the horizon. The traditional challenges associated with the opening of new schools, such as primitive conditions and inadequate financial resources, were overshadowed by ongoing controversy over the certification of teachers and the use of the French language for classroom instruction.
In 1905, these issues came to a head at Our Lady of Lake Huron School in Sarnia. The Sisters had opened the school in 1867; the students flourished and the area had produced many religious over the years. In May 1905, Rev. Joseph Kennedy, the local pastor, complained about the teaching ability of the two Sisters responsible for the middle classrooms. At issue was the school board’s criticism of the Sisters’ lack of Normal Certification and fluency in English. Rev. Kennedy suggested to Superior General Mother Mary of the Rosary that she lacked sufficient qualified teachers to supply his needs and offered “to buy the convent property at a reasonable price with a view of handing it over to another community who would willingly continue the work of Catholic education in the parish.”
Mother Mary of the Rosary was swift and decisive in her response. With the endorsement of the Bishop of London, the Superior General informed Rev. Kennedy that the Holy Names Sisters would withdraw from the Sarnia school at the end of the academic year.
Teacher certification would pose a serious obstacle for the Ontario Sisters for many years. The early decades of the 20th century witnessed the increasing professionalization of teaching in North America. Formal certification of teachers was no longer optional. In 1907 the Privy Council of England required certification of all teachers in Ontario’s Separate and Public schools. Third class certification was relatively easy to obtain because of the short length of the course and the prevalence of Model Schools, which offered the required classes. Second and First degree certificates were much harder to obtain because a lengthy period of study at one of the few Normal Schools was required. Most Sisters possessed years of teaching expertise but lacked formal certification. The Ontario Sisters worked furiously to meet the new requirements. In 1907, 15 Sisters attended summer courses for certification and 10 more attended the following year.
Determined to meet local demands for certified teachers, in 1909 Ontario Sisters established a bilingual Model School at St. Mary’s Academy. After an initial period of great success, the school was closed because of difficulties with the clergy, a lack of support from the congregation’s General Council and the loss of St. Alponsus Academy, where teachers completed their necessary practice teaching, to the Ursuline Sisters. In 1912, a new Model School was established in Sandwich, where many Holy Names Sisters received the required training for certification over the next two decades. The chronicles of the time testify to Sisters’ profound concern over the issue of teacher certification.
As if the challenge of certifying teachers were not enough cause for concern, the Ontario Sisters were drawn into the bilingual school controversy of the early 1900s. Their use of French had caused difficulties as early as 1866 when the parish priest in Decatur forbade the Sisters to communicate in that language. Though smoldering for many years, the controversy ignited in 1912 when the Ontario Department of Education objected to tax-supported Catholic schools largely staffed by French-speaking religious congregations that conducted their classes exclusively in French.
The Department issued “Regulation 17,” which required classroom instruction in English. While the new regulation was extremely distressing to the Sisters and many local priests, Bishop of London Michael Fallon was a staunch advocate of English-only education. The bilingual controversy reached a climax that played out at St. Mary’s Academy in 1916. Bishop Fallon accused several members of the clergy of dissension for signing an unrelated document that contained a clause accusing the Bishop of “forbidding preaching and teaching in the French language.” When the document was submitted to high-ranking officials in Rome, Bishop Fallon was outraged. Several of the priests received suspensions and eventually Rome called for an Ecclesiastical Court. The trial took place at St. Mary’s Academy. After considering all testimony and evidence, the court reinstated the local clergy and simultaneously absolved Bishop Falllon of any wrongdoing. Tensions over bilingual education continued to simmer in Ontario for years. In 1927, Regulation 17 was reversed, once again allowing for instruction in both French and English.
By 1920 Windsor’s fortunes and population were once again on the rise. Once more, St. Mary’s Academy was bursting at the seams, necessitating the construction of a new annex. The school’s location on busy Ouellette Avenue appealed to real estate developers who made repeated offers to buy the prime piece of property from the Sisters. The General Council refused these offers but grew concerned over one section of the property that had been leased to the congregation by the Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese for 999 years. Mother Martin of the Ascension, Provincial Superior, met with Bishop Fallon to review the property contract. To her surprise, Bishop Fallon retained the document instead of returning it to her. He informed the General Council that the property belonged without question to the Diocese. In 1921 he informed the congregation that if the Sisters wished to remain at the academy they “should be prepared to pay a fair rental based on the actual value of the property.” He urged them to find a new location “more appropriate for the education of young ladies” for the academy.
The difficulties with Bishop Fallon escalated when he received reports that Sister Mary Veronica allowed French-Canadian girls to learn the formula for confession in both English and French. While English was still the official language of instruction in the schools as required by law, French instruction continued in largely French-Canadian communities and was used occasionally in other locales.
Things came to a head in 1924 when Superior General Mother Mary of Bon Secours learned that Bishop Fallon had sought property for relocating St. Mary’s Academy without consulting the congregation. Tensions escalated in 1926 when the congregation learned of the proposed Detroit-Windsor Tunnel project. The tunnel, which would provide more convenient access between the two cities, would require the removal of St. Mary’s Academy for the tunnel’s northern terminus. Bishop Fallon knew of the proposed location of the tunnel for at least one year before the Sisters were informed.
In the end, the General Council reluctantly had to agree to the sale of the St. Mary’s property. On July 19, 1929, the Sisters left their beloved academy. As the wrecking ball began to swing on Ouellette Avenue, other workmen rushed to finish construction of the new academy in South Windsor. The school beckoned in joyful anticipation and offered the promise of unparalleled opportunity. The beauty of the structure, distinguished by its stately tower, was not lost on the residents of Windsor, one of whom proclaimed “this magnificent college is a fitting monument to those who first made intellectual, moral and religious training of the young their life task.” The modern and spacious facilities gave the sense of a new era full of potential for growth and achievement. For the first time in its history, the boarding department of St. Mary’s Academy numbered 200 girls.
In April 1930, Holy Mass was celebrated in the chapel for the first time. The opening of the new St. Mary’s Academy proved a harbinger of the future success of the Ontario Province as other schools prospered and grew, larger numbers of Sisters received their certification and vocations flourished among the community’s graduates. In 1930, 158 Sisters were working in 15 schools across the province. The six Ontario foundresses, driven by a spirit of generosity and adventure, paved the way for those who followed them to the province. These Sisters suffered hardship and privation; they grappled with language barriers and increasing demands for formal certification in their field. Rooted in hope, they rose to every occasion, labored long and valiantly and accumulated an impressive record of accomplishment and service.