St. Ann's Academy

Postcard of St. Ann's Academy, c. 1914

For over one hundred years the Sisters of St. Ann created a nurturing, yet structured environment for thousands of school-aged girls from Victoria and the Pacific northwest. St. Ann's Academy was variously a convent school, an orphanage, a residence and a sanctuary. It was maintained by the Roman Catholic church and managed by Roman Catholic nuns, but many Protestants attended the school. Indeed, all pupils who attended the academy were loved, nurtured and accepted in an environment free of racial or religious discrimination.

Classes were first held in June 1858 in a small log-cabin on Humboldt Street. The cabin had been purchased by Bishop Modest Demers in 1855 from Leon Morell, a Canadien employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. Morell's wife, Adelaide, a Stikine woman, had died shortly before the sale. His Metis daughter, Emilie, was the first orphan placed under the Sisters' care.

The school's mission, Bishop Demers noted in a prospectus in December 1858, was to "impart to young ladies the benefit of a good moral and domestic education, accompanied with the knowledge of the various branches of elementary training, together with those which constitute the higher departments of a finished education." "Such is the object to which the Sisters are devoted by profession, and which they will leave nothing undone to carry through, it is hoped to the satisfaction of all parents or guardians who may feel disposed to trust their children to their care and guardianship."

Dr. J. S. Helmcken was one of many parents who appreciated the high calibre of education. His daughter Dolly attended the school for eight years and left at age 17, planning to go to England for further studies. Dr. Helmcken thought it prudent that first she should spend a year being "finished" in Ottawa, to compensate for any gaps left by her pioneer school education in Victoria. But the Ottawa plan was dropped when, after half the year, Dolly took top honours and wrote to her father that she was wasting her time!

As the school grew and flourished, the need to move to a larger, more suitable building was clear. In 1871, construction began on what was to become the centre section of the building that stands today at 835 Humbolt Street. The building was designed by Father Joseph Michaud and built by local contractor Charles Vereydhen. It was the first four story masonry building in Victoria.

In 1886, John Teague, a prominent Victoria architect, designed an addition which became the "east block" of the Academy. Teague's design harmonized with the original designs of the centre block. The third and final section of the main building was designed and completed in 1910 by Victoria architect Thomas Hooper.

Facilities on the school site continued to evolve, however. An auditorium was added in 1910. A separate building for a primary school was erected in 1929. (From 1888 to 1898, the Sisters had operated a kindergarten and primary school on View Street in Victoria.) A new wing, called the Centennial Annex was added to the primary school in 1958. Another wing was added in 1966, when the primary school became St. Ann's Secondary School.

The academic program at St. Ann's was initially based on a curriculum devised for students in Quebec and Ontario, but in 1904 the school adopted the British Columbia programme of studies for public schools. In 1892 the school added a highly-regarded commercial department which provided students with vocational and clerical training.

During the early years of the school, the Sisters maintained a routine that was reminiscent of a workday on a Quebec farm.

At 4:50 a.m, the Sisters would rise with half an hour to wash, dress and clean their rooms. The Sisters would then have a half an hour of meditation and then a short break before Mass. After Mass, breakfast was eaten in silence and then the school day began. If the Sisters were not teaching classes or assisting other teachers, they were involved in chores in some other part of Convent life for most of the day, which included tending the garden and orchards, cooking and cleaning. A quiet lunch and tea break was taken in the afternoon, and after classes were finished, the Sisters went to the Chapel for Rosary. �Dinner was eaten at 5:30 P.M. The teachers would then do their class preparation and corrections and supervise the boarder's study period. The Sisters were in bed by 9:00, after which there was a 'grand silence', and the lights were put out.

St. Ann's Academy closed in 1973, by which time more than 36,000 pupils (mostly girls) had passed through the school. The decision to close St. Ann's was made because of high operating costs, declining enrollments, and the advanced age of many of the nuns. News of the closure was received with sadness by many former students. Ursula Vavrik, who attended St. Ann's in the early 1960s, expressed the sentiments of many: "I learned not only more at St. Ann's Academy in two years than during all the years of my education, but I learned "the love of learning" from the best teachers in the world."

The provincial government purchased the buildings and grounds of St. Ann's in 1974. The facility was acquired by the Provincial Capital Commission in 1982 and in 1984 was designated as a Provincial Heritage site. In the mid-1990s the Provincial Capital Commission embarked on a multi-million dollar restoration program. The first stage of the program was completed in 1997.

Today, the newly restored St. Ann's Academy is the centre for the Ministry of Advanced Education, yet the history of St. Ann's has been preserved in the Interpretive Centre and in gardens and orchard in the school grounds. The chapel has been restored and is available for weddings, and the auditorium is available for public meetings. Traditions are still fondly remembered and a sense of history is strongly evident at St. Ann's Academy today.

Researched & written by Angela Oh, History 355, University of Victoria, August 2000

Author's acknowledgements
My heartfelt thanks goes to Sister Margaret Cantwell, S.S.A, who took the time out of her very hectic schedule to meet with me and provide me with not only documents form St. Ann's Academy, but also allowed me to place the history written above with a Sister who opened her heart to me with both her time and charity. This allowed myself, as a student, the opportunity of qualifying my work to a woman who demonstrated the philosophy behind St. Ann's Academy.