By Sr. Mary McGuire
Bishop Ryan had a dream that every child in the Diocese of Pembroke would have access to a Catholic education, no matter how small and remote the area might be.
The newly-formed congregation heard the call and responded with a whole-hearted ‘yes’. In the spirit of our charism of active inclusive love, the Bishop’s dream resonated in their hearts and they went forth carrying a deep trust in the abundance of God’s love and the support of the community.
The first mission opened by the Pembroke Congregation was in Chapeau, Quebec. The school and the convent were not built when the Sisters arrived. They resided in Mr. Poupore’s house for one month and then at Father Renaud’s house until the school was completed. In 1967 the Sisters were appointed to take charge of St. Joseph’s School. The Sisters’ music department made a great contribution to the cultural life of the parish. They were closely involved in parish works and activities. Father Renaud’s dream was that the convent should be primarily an educational and cultural centre for the young girls of the district; hence it was built with an area set aside for boarders. The beautiful statue of St. Joseph which stood on the front lawn was a gift from Miss Jane Sauvé, a boarder.
Hardship was par for the course in these years. There was no bridge to connect the Quebec Island and Pembroke, and the train came only as far as Waltham so many were the cold sleigh rides. There was no resident doctor, holidays were few (the girls went home only three times a year, and even then, some remained behind); much physical labour was required to make ends meet on a $12 per month fee for board, lodging and laundry.
In 1956 the long awaited inter-provincial bridge spanning the wider part of the Ottawa River between the Island and Ontario was completed. Previous to this, all communication with Pembroke was by means of a ferry operated by Captain Murphy in the summer, or by crossing the river on the ice by foot, sleigh or car in the winter. Upon its completion there were great shouts of joy on both sides of the river.
The first teachers’ convention held in Pontiac County occurred in 1934 in Chapeau. Its instigator was Father Harrington and the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph hosted this three-day event for some 35 teachers, underscoring the congregation’s intense involvement in the education effort of the area.
St. Joseph’s Convent, Douglas
It was 1910 when the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Douglas. The parish records of St. Michael’s describe the ceremonies of the blessing of the new school by Bishop Lorrain in 1910. The speaker for the occasion was Father Patrick Sylvester Dowdall, the parish priest of Eganville. An excerpt from his address seems appropriate in evidence of his concept of education and timely, inasmuch as reiterating his concept may remind us of the importance of true religious values today:“Nothing is as important as religion which is the sum of our duties to God, you cannot separate religion from education for that knowledge is deficient which does not lead back to God, its author. Take God from the school and all human sciences are imperfectly imported. Religion is the complement of education and absolutely necessary for the formation of character.”
Thus began the journey of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Michael’s parish in Douglas. The Sisters were very soon established, a reputation for excellence in their own lives and in the quality of their teaching.
Among the Sisters who came from Peterborough to Douglas were the colourful personalities: Sisters Helen, Mary of Victory, Callista, Ireneas, Philomena, St. George, Flora, Mary of the Assumption, St. Peter, Bernard, Bonaventure, Anna Marie, Benedict, Cleta and Leona. The last mentioned music teacher indicated to Father J.J. Quilty shortly after her arrival, that she found Douglas a lonesome place. Accustomed as she had been to larger centres, she wondered if she would be able to survive quiet nights with no sound but that of the cows bawling. Father Quilty comforted her by asking her to consider what the cows were saying to her — “Le – o – n – a”
Beginning in 1910 and for about 25 years, the Sisters conducted a boarding school. Every effort was made through the years to maintain academic educational standards second to none in the province.
As the years passed, a great many Sisters gave generously of their lives and talents to the Douglas Convent and school. Other ministries carried out by the Sisters, besides teaching were: sacristans, house keepers, choir directors, organists, music teachers and altar boy directors.
The Sisters undertook every mission with remarkable dedication and commitment and went well beyond the regular classroom as they took on the tasks of caretakers, taught on Saturdays sometimes to fulfill curriculum requirements and stayed late to supervise students who travelled by train. As they brought together through the school many from the area, a strong and vibrant community bond developed among the surrounding village.
At a farewell address in 1975 that celebrated 50 years of service by the Sisters, Mrs. Ringrose spoke on behalf of the CWL: ‘A small community committed to Christ acts as a leaven to a larger community. In many ways the Sisters have elevated our lives by manifesting God’s loving concern for us; as educators they have instilled in us the principles of truth and goodness, and by providing examples of zeal, fortitude and charity they have strengthened our will, magnified our joys and helped reconcile us to our sorrows.’
Assisting the educational work were Sisters homemakers and sacristans whose ministries frequently included visits to disadvantaged persons in the community. Singing was taught in the schools and church choirs were under the direction of Sisters from the school.
Father A. J. Reynolds undertook the building of a convent for the Sisters and with its completion in 1915, they began their ministry in Killaloe and taught there until the 1960s.
In 1923, the Sisters from the Motherhouse began teaching at St. John’s School in Pembroke. The Sisters were involved as principals, teachers and music teachers from 1923 to 1948. As the name of the school changed to Holy Name in 1941, the school became known as the flagship separate school in Pembroke, as its reputation grew under the Sisters’ steady direction.
Within the first 10 years as a new foundation, the Sisters of St. Joseph established missions in four more Valley centres. In 1924 they opened a convent and elementary school in Calabogie. They received a warm welcome and moved into a three-storey house with living quarters for several Sisters and boarders as well as a music department.
In September 1925 the Sisters opened a school in the province of Quebec, in Campbell’s Bay.
Barry’s Bay and Renfrew
Two foundations in 1928, Barry’s Bay and Renfrew, followed a similar pattern. The mission included a large music class at the convent.
Saint Joseph’s Academy (Renfrew) grew from a small enrolment to one providing religious academic and commercial classes. It also gained a distinction in music, choir and drama.
In the 1930s, two further educational missions were opened. At Madawaska, Sister teachers staffed St. Mathew’s elementary school.
In 1936 five Sisters went to Sheenboro where they were engaged as elementary and high school teachers, home makers, sacristans and music instructors. The Sisters were warmly welcomed.
Dr. William Keon, an internationally known heart surgeon, remembers his school days in Sheenboro as he addressed a public gathering: “The religious principles, morality and kindness we learned in our youth will remain with us always.”
In 1942 two Sisters accepted the challenge to teach at Our Lady of Sorrows school in the Village of Petawawa. This mission was served from St. Joseph’s Motherhouse in Pembroke and the Sisters travelled the 10 miles by taxi each day until 1962 when a convent was built.
Three Sisters began teaching in Deep River in 1947. Music lessons began at the convent and were offered to the larger community.
In 1951 the Congregation opened a mission in Quyon, Quebec. There the involvement of the Sisters extended far beyond their elementary school duties and for 29 years they exercised a most effective and rewarding ministry in the village.
At mid-century, the Pembroke Congregation was 30 years old and had more than quintupled its membership. As you can see, the Sisters were employed in the classrooms, in the convent music rooms, kitchens, sacristies and Catholic schools on both sides of the Ottawa River. They didn’t just enter a school to teach. They entered a community to be of service as needed. It must have been strange for these young students to see so many black habits surrounding them.
Sister Lucy tells the story of one young girl standing still and staring at her. She finally said, ‘Sister Lucy you look just like the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The little boy behind her said, ‘you need glasses’.
We were blessed with many Sisters who taught music and singing in the schools and in the community. One of our Sisters, Sister St. Jude, was supervisor of music for the county, that is the Renfrew County Roman Catholic Separate School Board. In 1967 she brought a four-part choir of Grade 7 and 8 girls and boys to Southern Ontario to a meeting of music teachers. She also took a Kiwanis girls’ choir composed of 40 high school students to EXPO in 1967 for a one-week show. For several years Sister was involved in the Kiwanis Music Festival competition in Pembroke where she directed choirs composed of varied ages.