Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen gives communion to Sr. Brigitta Haag, the oldest of the Ursuline order in Saskatchewan at 100 years old, during a Mass to mark the centennial of the order’s arrival in the province. Photo by Alan Hustak

Ursulines mark century of service

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • June 6, 2019

SASKATOON -- In the spring of 1919, three “prophetic women of hope” came from Germany to Saskatchewan to teach in a pocket of devout German-speaking Russian emigrants who had settled beneath the vast expanse of sky and plain at the edge of what are known as the Great Sand Hills.

They were Ursuline nuns, the founders of St. Angela’s Academy of Prelate. For eight decades, until the school closed, five generations in southwestern Saskatchewan were taught by hundreds of dedicated Ursulines.  

Today, as they celebrate 100 years of service in Saskatchewan, about 30 members of the teaching order remain. The youngest is 57, the oldest, Sr. Brigitta Haag, is 100, born the same year the Ursulines arrived on the prairie. She entered the Ursuline order when she was 16 and has been a nun for 84 years. 

“I have no regrets. I taught  elementary grades in country school for 30 years. It was a real loving community experience,” she said.

Five bishops attended a Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon on June 1 to mark the centennial of the Ursulines’ arrival. The nuns were honoured for 10 decades of service, which included their presence in 88 schools, 67 parishes and 11 hospitals. In his homily, Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen described the Ursulines as “fundamentally missionaries dedicated to teaching the arts, the liberal arts,” who opened “innovate and new frontiers,” and made enormous contributions to the rural Catholic communities of Saskatchewan under “the most arduous conditions.”  

The Ursulines, whose mission is “to educate for life,” were founded in Italy in 1535 by St. Angela Merici. Ursulines from France arrived in Canada in 1639 and over the centuries many more communities opened across the continent in cities and towns from coast to coast. 

Originally, nuns from a German convent had been invited by the Catholic Settlement Society to open a school in Western Canada. They arrived in Winnipeg in 1912, but because of anti-German sentiment during the First World War and infighting within the community, they were unable to gain the support of Bishop Arthur Sinnott. Further attempts by the Ursulines to open schools in Grayson and Windthorst, Sask., during the war were similarly rebuffed. As the war dragged on, their motherhouse recalled them to Europe because it no longer “had the personnel nor the means” to sustain such an undertaking in Canada.

Undeterred, a headstrong Oblate priest, Fr. Joseph Riedinger, who had worked unsuccessfully with the Ursulines to establish a convent in Grayson, persuaded the order to allow three nuns, Mother Clementia Graffelderm, Mother Luitgardis Kratochwill and Sr. Thekla Bonus, to follow him to Prelate when he was appointed the town’s first resident pastor in 1915. 

The windswept streets of the isolated hamlet, 125 km from the nearest railroad at Maple Creek and 70 km from the Alberta border, had been laid out by the sodbusters and were named to reflect the Church hierarchy: Cardinal, Bishop, Abbott and Deacon.

Once installed, Riedinger raised money and built a school with living quarters and a chapel for the sisters. In December 1919, the three Ursulines moved into the ground floor unprepared for the isolation and challenges ahead of them. Not only were they welcomed in the district but within a decade they had recruited six postulants and were teaching five grades in one-room country schools at nearby Tramping Lake, Rosenthal and Blumenfeld.

“Life is hard and rough here, but it is also rewarding,” one of the sisters wrote to a niece in Germany. Another sister, who had 45 students in her class, arrived at a country school to find “the children were far below standard. The only textbooks ... reader, speller and arithmetic. There were no textbooks for history, geography or science — for history there was an old Britannica reader in a sparse library.” 

By 1922, the religious community had grown to 16 and St. Angela’s convent became a dependency of the motherhouse in Cologne. Sr. Teresa Baker opened a music school and Sr. Pascal Curley a drama school.

“It evolved over the years. We must have taught hundreds and hundreds of girls who came from around the world. We stressed the arts and music,” said Sr. Magdalen Stengler, the Ursulines’ archivist who has written a history of the academy.

During the Depression, the Ursulines donated their services to teach at 86 rural schools in what was then the Diocese of Gravelbourg. These cultivated women raised cows and chickens, planted gardens and held annual fundraising bazaars. They travelled by horse and buggy to teach. It was not always a dependable mode of transport; some horses dropped dead, buggy shafts broke and harnesses tore. Each morning as the nuns set out on their rounds they recited a simple prayer: “Lord, keep us out of the ditch.”  

By 1946 the convent in Prelate was transformed into an accredited residential high school for girls.

Sr. Bernadette Fiest recalled there was nothing in Prelate but “grasshoppers, crickets and dust.” But a former Academy principal, Dianne Sehn, said the isolation was conducive to learning. 

“I went to school there, I went away and I came back as a nun. Those were the best years of my life.”

Another nun, Sr. Alfreda, told The Register that too much attention has been focused on Prelate. 

“That wasn’t the only place the sisters were,” she said. “We are all over Canada. We have missions in the North. I taught all over.”  

One former student, Edwina Weninger, said the sisters touched lives in ways they never knew.  

“Some of the girls were there by choice, some were not. We are the legacy of these women who gave their lives to God and to their proud record as teachers. They did their best to teach us.”

But time has finally caught up with North America’s oldest order. Like their counterparts in Quebec City, the Ursulines of Prelate moved out of their convent and all but four live in Saskatoon.

Two few and too old to maintain the Academy, and unable to sustain student enrolment in Prelate, they sold the school.

Today it is Alhamdu-Lillah, the Islamic Academy of Saskatchewan, a boarding school for bright young students of Islam. The former chapel is now a mosque.

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