Past and present students at St. Joseph’s College School’s 170th anniversary celebration on April 20 at the school on Wellesley Street in downtown Toronto. Photo from St. Joseph’s College School

170 years, and St. Joe’s still building for the future

  • May 9, 2024

Past and present intersected at St. Joseph’s College School on Wellesley Street in Toronto on April 20. 

The 170th anniversary celebration for the all-girls educational institution originally known as St. Joseph’s Academy for Young Ladies provided a forum for Grade 12 students, such as Maria Sophia Acenas and Lisa Li, to meet 106-year-old Lucille Ellins, who preceded them at St. Joe’s as a member of the 1937 graduating class. 

“In preparing for tomorrow, I have been telling all the students, ‘try to see if you can meet her,’ ” said St. Joseph’s teacher Margaret Darmanin Kaiser, herself a 1983 graduate. ‘“See if you can have a moment to chat with her. You could learn some neat things. Ask (Lucille) and others what they’ve done, what they do and see how you can connect.’ ”

Li and Acenas said their class crafted and signed a card in appreciation of Ruben, and “looked forward to presenting it to her” during the “Brown & Gold Tea” that followed a commemorative Mass at St. Basil’s Church. Accompanying Ellins at the tea was her daughter Susan Veitch, a St. Joseph’s graduate in 1973.

Kinga Szendi, who graduated in 1985 and returned in 1993 to teach, said the 170th anniversary tribute “is a wonderful” way to celebrate the school’s legacy before she retires in June. She looked forward to reconnecting with friends  she hadn’tt seen for a long time. 

Szendi also cherished the opportunity to honour the Sisters of St. Joseph. the congregation that founded the school in 1854.

“There is something that our principal (Anna Patejczuk) mentioned that made me pause,” said Szendi. “We don’t know how long the Sisters will be around. This may be one of our final opportunities to truly celebrate them and for us to show our gratitude towards the infinite amount of work they did in this community. They started with four Sisters in the 1850s, and if you look at the sum total of their legacy… it’s mind-blowing.” 

Srs. Delphine Fontbonne, Alphonsus Margerum, Martha Bunning and Mary Bernard Dinan arrived in Toronto in 1851 at the behest of Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel as the orphanage on Nelson Street (now Jarvis) was overwhelmed and needed to be put back in order.

After generating financial support from the local Catholic community, the Sisters of St. Joseph purchased a property on Power Street large enough for their motherhouse and a school. However, within a decade, a new building had to be constructed near St. Alban’s Street to accommodate the motherhouse, novitiate and academy. In 1927, the academy was renamed St. Joseph’s College School and had its own building. In 1960, the school moved to its current location at 74 Wellesley St. W.

The Sisters legacy is everywhere to be seen in Toronto, with social service and health-care ministries created over the past 170 years, such as St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Fontbonne Ministries, Nazareth House and the Daily Bread Food Bank.

Darmanin Kaiser spoke fondly about being taught directly by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Now, as a teacher, she and her colleagues continue the congregation’s mission of “teaching immigrant children and never turning anybody away.”

The rich tradition established by the Sisters awed Giuseppe Pisani when he walked into St. Joseph’s College School to begin his teaching career.

“You definitely feel that sense of history and community,” said Pisani. “We want to learn from all who came before us and embrace (that history). I always say it is the best school in the city.”

Acenas, Darmanin Kaiser, Li, Pisani and Szendi concurred that a key to ensuring St. Joseph’s College School remains vibrant for another 170 years is remaining reverent and faithful to the Sisters’ values. 

Li is confident about St. Joseph’s College School being vibrant in the future as many younger girls are already expressing a desire to enrol. Her sister “really wants to come to St. Joseph’s after attending some of our recruitment events because she loves the school as much as I do, and she loves the community.” Li looks forward to helping “grow this community and nurturing environment.”

Acenas said St. Joseph’s is poised to remain strong because “the teachers always try to promote the lessons and values of the Sisters, and this has become ingrained in their teaching styles.”

“The future generations are in good hands,” said Li.

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