Dolores White, who from 1960-74 ran the one-room school in Kearney, Ont. (Photo by Lorraine Williams)

Start of the school year brings back memories of one-room schoolhouse

By  Lorraine O'Donnell Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • September 7, 2011

KEARNEY, ONT. - With the start of a new school year, the sight of school buses picking up students in the small (pop. 837) town of Kearney, Ont., brings back precious memories to retired Catholic teacher Dolores White.

White, now 82, is among a dwindling group of Ontario educators who taught in one-room schoolhouses. She recalls fondly the days of teaching Grades 1-8 in a classroom of up to 30 students.

One-room schoolhouses were once common in Northern Ontario. Some were housed in railway cars — a school on wheels — that would travel between communities. Part of the train was the classroom, the other the travelling teacher’s residence.

White’s teaching space was more stable. She taught in a large room, complete with desks, blackboards and heating, that had been the original St. Patrick’s Catholic pioneer church. In 1910 the church became the Kearney Separate School. Kearney is about 250 km north of Toronto.

“I had to be well organized to make sure I covered the curriculum for each grade,” said White. She also relied on student tutors. “If I was busy teaching someone, and someone else needed help, I’d tell them, ‘Take your work to one of the older classmates.’ And the older ones responded.”


She ran the school from 1960 until it closed in 1974.

“We were down to about five students by that time, so I was transferred to the public school board along with my remaining students. It was then I realized that our Catholic schools were markedly  different. The children at St. Pat’s had formed a family, a community, because they had their Catholicity in common,” said White.

White said the children had a close connection with the church and its pastors. At Christmas, they looked forward to setting up the Nativity scene and performing a Christmas pageant. And she chuckles at the memory of Fr. John Maskey and his big, black Labrador retriever.

Because the community was so small, White said it took a lot of commitment from the parents to keep the school viable. One town resident told her she wouldn’t send her children to the Catholic one-room school because “it was no good.” But White says many of her graduates went on to become nurses, social workers, teachers and managers of national and international companies.

White, who retired in 1984, remains active in Kearney’s civic and Church community. Next July there’ll be an alumni reunion. She expects lots of laughs as her former students recall precious days in the one-room schoolhouse.

(Williams is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont., and author of Memories of the Beach: Reflections of a Toronto Childhood.)

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