Spirituality, education and justice have been at the heart of the Loretto Sisters, and can be seen in the schools they founded in Toronto, among them Loretto College where, above, students take part in the Special Olympics. Michael Swan

For 175 years, Loretto Sisters are women of their time

  • April 15, 2023

“Women in time to come will do much,” Mary Ward said 400 years ago, and for 175 years in Toronto, the Loretto Sisters have proved their founder a prophet.

Since arriving in Toronto in the middle of a cholera epidemic, with the city shut down and public health in peril, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IVBM), as the Loretto Sisters are formally named, have founded and run schools, taught everything from kindergarten to graduate level theology, been the engine behind many social justice campaigns and provided essential aid in parishes.

But the era of new foundations and active management of institutions has come to a close, and as the sisters spend this year celebrating and being celebrated, they are also handing on their legacy to the city and Church they have loved for 175 years.

The most visible sign of the Lorettos letting go will be the handover of their Loretto College women’s residence at the University of Toronto to St. Michael’s College on May 1. Management of the 63-year-old women’s residence will devolve to the university where almost all of the students are studying.

It will still be known as the Loretto College Residence and it will still be home to the Mary Ward Centre — a hub in Toronto for Catholic activism and encounters on social justice issues from human trafficking to environmental justice to poverty and immigration. With help from St. Michael’s, Regis College and the Sisters of St. Joseph, the four sisters still resident at Loretto College will continue to guide programming at the Centre.

“It’s recognizing reality,” Loretto Sr. Evanne Hunter told The Catholic Register. “Like all religious orders, our numbers are down. We’re diminishing and we’re aging. We can no longer do it. And in a certain sense, we’re no longer needed to do it the way we were in the past.”

The Lorettos have been associated with the University of St. Michael’s College for over 100 years and their place on the northern edge of the campus feels like home.

“We’ll stay here as long as we can amongst the girls,” said Hunter. “We intend to, as long as we can, continue to operate Mary Ward Centre — which is the centre for spirituality, education and justice. We will continue to do that as long as we can.”

The Loretto’s dedication to education has a continuing echo in the Loretto Fund of the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s Angel Foundation. Last year $37,450 was distributed from the fund to the kind of immigrant, newcomer students the Lorettos came to serve 175 years ago.

The Lorettos’ Toronto history is precious to Hunter and her Sisters.

“That 175 years has such a ring to it in the fact that Toronto was shut down dead, as it were, when we first arrived from Ireland,” Hunter said. “And they came particularly to work with poor, Irish immigrants. We’re continuing to do that.”

Girls from the two schools the Lorettos founded — Loretto Abbey and Loretto College School — and students and staff from two more schools inspired by the Lorettos and the spirituality of Mary Ward — Mary Ward Catholic Secondary and St. Mother Teresa Catholic Academy — will gather with their many alumna at St. Paul’s Basilica April 30 to celebrate the 175th anniversary.

“We’ve been celebrating all year,” said Hunter.

The Loretto legacy will get its final chance to celebrate 175 years in Toronto in the crypt below St. Michael’s Cathedral with a Mass Sept. 16.

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