Brescia students in 1970 with their Ursuline teacher. Photos courtesy Brescia University College

Brescia celebrates a century of inspiring women

  • February 25, 2019

Looking back to 1919 and the place of women in society, the world was a much different place. 

Women had only earned the right to vote federally two years prior. Even then the vote was limited. In a time of war, women had to be British subjects and the wives, mothers or sisters of soldiers serving in the First World War who could vote on behalf of their male relatives.

Feminism as we know it was years away from becoming a political and social force. For decades to come, women were still expected to keep the house and raise the kids as their husbands trudged off to work to bring home the bacon.

Yet a century ago in London, Ont., change was afoot. The Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, outside of London, took the lead in establishing an institute that would be the first of its kind in Canada: a women’s university based in the Catholic faith. With the blessing of London Bishop Michael Fallon, the Ursulines launched Brescia University College, which has survived to this day as the world has ebbed and flowed around it, staying committed to the founding mission of the Ursulines and providing a holistic, student-centred education and inspiring female students to lead with wisdom, justice and compassion in a changing world.

Canada could boast four women’s colleges in 1919, including Brescia, said principal Susan Mumm. But Brescia is the only one that remains, an accomplishment Brescia proudly wears as it refers to itself as “Canada’s women’s university.”

“What the Ursulines did was create a dynamic institution that kept women’s leadership at the forefront,” said Mumm.

Mumm knows she follows in the footsteps of so many who have enabled Brescia to not only survive for a century, but to thrive. To honour that legacy, the goal is that “in 99 years people will be asking themselves how are  we going to celebrate Brescia’s 200th anniversary,” she said.

“We really see this as something that has the capacity to endure into the foreseeable future.”

And why shouldn’t it? After all, Brescia didn’t get to this point by resting on its laurels. As society changed, it changed along with it. “The Ursulines were never afraid of change,” said Mumm. “Brescia never fossilized.”

The Ursulines changed, Brescia changed and women changed over the ensuing century. But one thing about Brescia didn’t.

“What didn’t change was the way that from the day this place opened its doors the message, both subliminal and overt, was this is a special place for women because we value women and what they can contribute to the world,” said Mumm.

The school’s original building was a converted house opposite Victoria Park in downtown London. Its first class focused on a liberal arts education emphasizing English, French, Spanish, philosophy, history, classics and religious knowledge. In 1925, the school moved to its new quarters, Ursuline Hall. 

In establishing Brescia, Bishop Fallon and the Ursulines — a teaching order founded by St. Angela Merici in Brescia, Italy, in 1535 — were responding to the growing demand for a Catholic education for women that wasn’t available anywhere else.

From its opening class of seven young women, Brescia now offers a liberal arts education to 1,500 women on a campus federated with Western University. It maintains its Catholic identity and students still find common cause in social justice initiatives, following in the steps of the Ursulines.

“What we were convinced about for Brescia was that women had to have a space where their needs for education and how they learned was kept as a priority and was allowed to be a focus,” said Sr. Noreen Allossery-Walsh of the Ursulines of Chatham leadership team who also sits on Brescia’s Board of Trustees.

The Ursulines who came before her, Allossery-Walsh said, were invested wholehearted at every level of Brescia to ensure its success.

“The sheer time and energy that was committed to Brescia day in and day out, to me has had to make the difference,” she said. “It also communicated a whole sense of vision and mission to the staff and faculty that left an imprint.”

While no Ursulines are on faculty today, the order’s presence is all around. Allossery-Walsh is one of three Ursulines on the Board of Trustees and they maintain the Ursuline Centre which keeps the sisters’ story alive.

“We’re still very much in it together. We’re still the canonical sponsors for Brescia and we believe in the mission they’re doing,” she said.

Laure Eldik credits the Ursuline influence for making life at Brescia so comfortable, especially for an outsider like her. Eldik was an immigrant from Lebanon, a 21-year-old mother of three, when she arrived in Canada in 2001. She always knew she wanted to further her education, a daunting task given her circumstance. At Brescia, she found a welcoming community. 

“You get that connection. You’re not a number, you’re a person,” said Eldik, who graduated in 2007 and is now president of Brescia’s alumnae association. “It’s a special community, a special connection.”

When she was a student, the Ursulines were everywhere on campus, and many still taught. The sisters offered the leadership that empowered women to be the best they can be and to believe in themselves, she said.

“They were all around, they all knew my story, that I have kids and that it’s busy and it’s hard to keep up with all the work,” said Eldik, who parlayed her education into a role with the City of London’s Neighbourhood, Children and Fire Services. “So they come and they speak with you, give you a hug.”

Mumm, principal since the summer of 2016, senses that comfort level and recognizes the sisters’ vision when speaking with students. 

“What I love about Brescia … is here I can talk to the students about the kind of women they want to be,” she said. “We can engage with them about the totality of what their dreams are, the woman they dream of being. That’s a profoundly Catholic or Christian way of approaching higher education.”

That vision is “a beauty” of Brescia, said Allossery-Walsh. “It’s proven itself in terms of how strong it is.” 

Brescia marked the beginning of year-long anniversary celebrations with a centennial Mass on Jan. 27 and a Centennial Art Exhibition. The featured work is a painting of Ursuline Hall by Group of Seven artist A.J. Casson,  donated by the Pigott family. 

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