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Women religious on university front lines

  • October 24, 2021

Higher education for Catholic women has been a fight, and it was the sisters on the front lines.

When the Sisters of Charity of Halifax started Mount St. Vincent University for Catholic women in 1873, women in Canada couldn’t vote. In 1884, when the University of Toronto opened its undergraduate programs to women, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Loretto Sisters immediately began preparing their high school students in their girls’ academies to sit for the senior matriculation exams so they could pursue higher education.

“Their graduates did a spectacular job at university,” said University of Toronto emeritus professor Elizabeth Smyth.

When the St. Joe’s, the Ursulines and the Lorettos banded together to try to erect a women’s college at the University of Toronto they got no support from the Ontario bishops or from the Basilian Fathers who ran St. Michael’s College. The Ursulines went on to found Brescia University College at Western University in London, Ont., in 1919.

When the Loretto and St. Joe’s Sisters tried to establish colleges under the wing of St. Michael’s College, “They had to fight against both the Basilians and the Church hierarchy,” the historian Smyth told The Catholic Register.

At one point a Basilian told the women, “The question of higher education for women is not a vital one for the college, nor of interest to the Canadian hierarchy,” according to Anne Rochon, whose 1985 book A Path Not Strewn With Roses documents 100 years of women at the University of Toronto from 1884 to 1984.

In 1937 Sr. Marion Norman and five other women presented themselves to a second-year religious knowledge course at St. Michael’s College. The Basilian teaching the course said, “I don’t teach women.”

“They were not welcoming,” said Smyth.

It was a curious fight, because the women religious weren’t asking for anything from the university. All they wanted to do was give. In the 2000s, the Congregation of St. Joseph gave a decade of Sr. Anne Anderson’s life to St. Michael’s College as the university’s president and vice chancellor and another decade as dean of theology.

At the University of Toronto, the influence of women religious remains.

“The Sisters of St. Joseph have endowed a chair in systematic theology at the St. Mike’s faculty of theology. You have a woman religious (Susan K. Wood of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth) who is the dean of theology at Regis College. You have a woman religious who has just been appointed as chaplain to St. Mike’s (Sonal Castelino of the Xavier Missionaries of Christ Jesus). You have the Loretto Sisters and the Mary Ward Centre doing amazing work with issues of social justice,” said Smyth. “On the campus of the University of Toronto the women’s orders are still very much part of the intellectual fabric.”

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