St Ann’s Academy
By Danda Humphreys
More than 36,000 pupils passed through the doors of the school started in 1850 by four nuns in a bustling gold-rush fuelled Victoria.
A postcard showing the north side of St Ann's Academy
IN THE LATE 1850s, when Catholic Bishop Modeste Demers sought assistance for his newly established diocese on the West Coast, he visited the Quebec-based Congregation of the Sisters of St Ann. His request was received with unqualified enthusiasm. By the time he had finished outlining his plans, all 45 of the order’s Sisters had volunteered to help. Demers chose four to accompany him to Vancouver Island.
Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, Sister Mary Lumena, Sister Mary Conception, Sister Mary Angèle and their companion, Mary Mainville, left Montreal on April 14, 1858. They travelled by train and steamer, across the Isthmus of Panama and up the northwest coast, sailing into Victoria’s harbour on the SS Seabird on the afternoon of June 5. Sister Mary Angèle wrote in her diary, “How beautiful it looked to us, with its forest of green trees, grassy slopes and the picturesque rocky coast.”
This peaceful vista changed as they rounded Laurel Point. They had expected a Hudson’s Bay fort and two dozen or so cabins. Instead they found a town, complete with close to 200 houses, stores, a sea of tents, and streets full of people.
If the Sisters were surprised, the Bishop was shocked. The sleepy settlement he had visited the previous year was now a busy burg, transformed by boatloads of prospectors en route from California to the Fraser River gold fields.
Members of the local Catholic community hastened to greet the new arrivals. The Helmckens hosted them at dinner. Then, as day turned into evening, the women were escorted through the bush to a log cabin on the west side of what is now Humboldt Street. The Bishop ushered them inside, blessed the premises, and left.
The next morning the Sisters took stock of their surroundings. “St Ann’s Victoria” was crude, to say the least. Built many years earlier by an HBC employee, its six-by-ten-metre cedar frame surrounded two rooms that were separated by a partition and a double chimney. There was no ceiling, no heat, and no light. The doors had no locks, and some of the windows were broken.
Undaunted, the women applied themselves to the task at hand. They decided to live on one side of the partition and teach on the other. Barely 48 hours after their arrival, they opened the doors to their first students—a total of 12 white, mixed race, and Native children.
St Ann’s wasn’t the first school in the area, but it was the first to have an official curriculum, strict rules regarding attendance, and a seemingly endless supply of pupils. Within a year, 56 children were enrolled and the little schoolroom with board-on-packing-box seats was bursting at the seams.
Fortunately reinforcements were on the way in the form of two more sisters from Quebec. One was Sister Mary Providence, who became the convent’s Mother Superior. Eventually eight more Sisters joined the group. By now, their school was operating out of a brick building on View Street, which housed day-students, boarders and orphans.
In the early 1870s, the Sisters built a four-storey school on their Humboldt Street property, and called it St Ann’s Academy. Over the ensuing decades, two more wings were added. The wooden chapel, once a free-standing church on the other side of Humboldt, was moved across the street on skids, tucked in behind the Academy’s centre section, and sheathed with brick.
By the time high operating costs, declining enrollments, and the advanced age of many of the nuns forced the Academy’s closing in 1973, more than 36,000 pupils had passed through its doors. The building was designated as a Provincial Heritage site in 1984, and now houses government offices.
In years gone by, the Academy stood almost alone in the Humboldt Valley. Today, it is crowded by forget-about-history high-rises. Fortunately, the past is preserved in its Interpretive Centre. And beside the Royal BC Museum, a simple log cabin—relocated from its original site many years ago—serves as a reminder of the four Sisters who gave our pioneer children the first formal schooling they had ever known.
On Thursday, June 5, at 3 p.m., costumed actors including students from Saint Andrews High School Drama Department will re-enact the first Sisters’ arrival. Starting from Ship Point, the group will go past the SS Seabird plaque on the Causeway, visit the schoolhouse in Elliott Street Square, then walk to St Ann’s Chapel. There, they will repeat the same prayer of Thanksgiving offered by the first Sisters who stepped ashore, 150 years ago.
Danda Humphreys is the author of several books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the June 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.