Notre Dame Sisters mark 150 years in P.E.I.

By  Doreen Beagan, Catholic Register Special
  • September 6, 2007

{mosimage}CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - A century-and-a-half ago, a small spark was ignited in this tiniest of Canadian provinces on Canada’s east coast.


“Marguerite Bourgeoys was such a spark. She founded the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal, and then she started a stable-school in 1658. Two centuries later, her Sisters who came to teach in this diocese had the same spark. On this weekend and in this Mass they — and we — celebrate with joy and thanksgiving their 150 years of service among us.”

Charlottetown is the second oldest English diocese in Canada. From the very beginning in 1829, its bishops saw education as essential for producing local priests and opening the doors of professional and political life for their people.

The third bishop, Peter MacIntyre, was very aware that ethnic tensions existed among his Scottish, Irish, Acadian and Mi’Kmaq Catholics.

“He worked particularly hard to bond his diverse flock to a specifically Catholic culture, and to elevate that culture to a level of political and intellectual strength,” writes historian Dr. Heidi MacDonald.

He asked the highly regarded Congregation of Notre Dame to send teachers to open an Academy for girls. Four sisters arrived in September 1857 and began teaching in a small wooden house in the east end of Charlottetown. They started with 15 students; soon they had 200, including boarders. Girls continued to come from across the island and Eastern Canada, and a few years later, the present five-storey brick convent was built to accommodate them all.

The basic curriculum was enriched with religious education, homemaking and domestic skills, arts, crafts, music and eventually office training.

“Deportment and respect for people were high on the agenda,” recalled former student Catherine Hennessey.

Soon after settling in, the Sisters opened a second school, St. Joseph’s, for under-privileged children in the west end of town. The first day, 92 pupils greeted the two teachers. In its first 20 years, the school had 1,300 students. It lasted 111 years.

“Some things were different in our schools,” said Sr. Elizabeth Dunn, one of the last principals at St. Joseph’s. “We integrated special needs children, and also taught the children of freed slaves. We taught the children to be compassionate and accepting, and to treat all people with respect.”

Within 20 years of setting foot in the diocese, the Sisters had also opened four schools in rural P.E.I. By 1870, the diocese had a cathedral school, a school for boys, several convent schools and St. Dunstan’s University.

“Island Catholics had access to some of the highest quality education available in Canada at that time,” said MacDonald.

But a century later schools consolidated, convent schools gave way to a public education system and the Sisters’ activities changed.

{sidebar id=2}“Today some work in parish ministry, some visit seniors’ homes, some tutor students, others have a ministry of prayer for the many intentions that come to us by way of phone calls, letters and personal contacts. In these ways we continue to proclaim by our entire life the Good News of a God of love,” said Dunn.

In P.E.I., the Sisters of Notre Dame represent a link between the present generation and the pioneer Catholics who laboured and sacrificed to give Islanders both faith and learning, said Fougere. They played an important role in making Bishop MacIntyre’s dream for his people and their descendants become reality.

“The little spark they ignited in this little diocese on the eastern coast of Canada instilled a great desire for education that has lasted till this day. May that spark never die,” he said.

(Beagan is a freelance writer in Charlottetown, P.E.I.)

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