A Story to Commemorate the Convent of the Sisters of Sainte-Marie de Namur
On November 11, 2020, at the request of the Sisters of Sainte-Marie de Namur, a plaque was installed at the corner of Vankleek Hill’s Higginson Street and Stanley Street, to commemorate the century-long location of the Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in Vankleek Hill. Representatives from the Order were present. The date was selected to celebrate the establishment of their first convent in Canada, in Vankleek Hill, and to mark the founding of the Order in Namur, Belgium.
Sister Fernand Levac (seen above, far right) and Sister Nicole Kingsley, Regional Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Canada (centre back row with name tag) explained that the occasion was made possible with the cooperation of the Champlain Township, property owner Dana Johnston, and the contribution by André Martel of Martel Monuments. The plaque, they said, was to ensure the presence of the convent “is not erased from the collective memory.”
Due to the ongoing pandemic, no public announcement was made of the event. Those invited to attend included: Father Pierre Domerson of St. Gregoire parish, Mayor Normand Riopel, Councillor Peter Barton, Martel Monuments owner André Martel, Dana Johnston, The Review publisher Louise Sproule, Thérèse Boyer on behalf of parishioners, Denis Seguin Architect President Vankleek Hill & District HIstorical Society, and Michelle Landriault Vankleek Hill Museum.
What follows here is a brief history of a dynamic convent that served our town and district for over a hundred years.
The corner stone for the Convent of Saint Mary of Namur in Vankleek Hill was laid and blessed in May, 1886. The project was the inspiration of the two daughters of Eliza and Richard McGreevy, Irish-born Catholics, of Vankleek Hill.
In the 1861 Census, Richard is a farmer on Concession 5, Lot 18 in East Hawkesbury. He has 100 acres, 21 under cultivation; 13 under crops; 8 pasture; one acre of orchard and several wooded acres. By 1881, he is a hotel keeper in Vankleek Hill.
On a family visit to Elmira, New York their two daughters became enamoured with the Belgian teaching order Sisters of St. Mary, and later entered the novitiate in Lockport, N.Y. The two daughters, Sister Mary Berchinaus and Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, were devoted to setting-up a Catholic education centre for Vankleek Hill’s Catholic children.
Through a combination of land donation from their father Richard McGreevy, and a land purchased by the Ottawa Diocese from William Higginson assisted by a $275 mortgage held by Eliza McGreevy, the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur Convent – with a playground – was constructed at the corner of Higginson Street and Stanley Street, and opened January 27, 1887. The Duke of Norfolk, Lord Strathcona and Belgian nobles were among early benefactors. (The Ottawa Journal, June 25, 1937)
The Vankleek Hill location is historically the first building of the Sisters of St. Mary in Canada. The nuns began to arrive in December,1886, and quickly organized classes in very humble conditions. The school, Sacred Heart Academy, offered the same English courses as in the Ontario public education system with the addition of French and Catholic instruction. The school was well known over the decades for its dedication to teaching music and singing.
Through community concerts, bazaars, and draws the Sisters raised money for construction of the school, including paying the mortgage. In addition to day scholars, they took in paying boarders to support the building upkeep, and continued their fundraising.
In the fall, the nuns would travel into the Vankleek Hill countryside to visit the families of their students, and return with donations of produce and money. For country families, boarding their children at the convent to attend school was necessary because roads were often impassable in winter. The accommodations ensured that the children were secure as they received their education.
According to author Alan MacKinnon, “By 1890 there was room for 200 boarders as well as day students with 180 actually on hand under the guidance of seven Sisters.” (Story of Vankleek Hill and its environ, 1979)
In 1895, author Cyrus Thomas reported, “There are now eight Sisters connected to the institution – four of them are French and the others of English-speaking nationalities. They now have in charge about 250 pupils. Special attention is given to music, the teacher in charge of this department being one of high ability.” (History of the Counties Argenteuil, Quebec; Prescott, Ontario, 1895)
In 1896, the convent was enlarged with a brick extension on the north side, and the nuns could now offer Fifth Form bilingual education as well as Commercial courses in both languages. In 1902, the nuns opened a school in St. Eugene, another in Masson, Québec, and sent nuns to teach in Papineauville, Québec. The Order expanded its role in Ontario and Québec, and into the wider world with missionary work in Africa, Brazil, the Dominican Republic to name a few.
In 1932, a smaller third extension was added to the north end of the building for use as a gymnasium. The Convent now had more day students than boarders. The children did well, and passed their entrance exams into high school.
From 1939 to 1967, les Soeurs de Ste-Marie de Namur worked at École St-Grégoire. When St-Grégoire was enlarged and modernized in 1952, there was room for the Convent boarders to attend their day classes at St-Grégoire.
In 1954, grades 9 and 10 were added to the Convent, and private teaching was offered to grades 11 and 12 until 1965 when the teaching elements at the Convent ended. Girls from out of town attending grades three to eight could still board. At times there were 38 to 45 students boarding.
By 1983, the student boarding services ended. The Convent became Maison Ste-Marie to be used for religious retreats, a renewal home for the missionary nuns of the order, a retirement home for elderly nuns; and for use by community assistance organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The use of the convent for retreats brought public knowledge of the outstanding chapel located on the second storey of the 1896 extension.
For decades, it was common to pleasantly meet Sisters of St. Mary on walks to the post office on Main Street, or on a summer evening stroll. In August, 2009 the Order sold the building to a private owner. The remaining nuns in Vankleek Hill relocated to the Order’s home in Buckingham, Québec.
Before the sale of the building, all religious artefacts were removed by the Order. The Vankleek Hill Sisters asked the Vankleek Hill & District Historical Society to publish a history booklet about the convent. With the help of local advertisers, the chapbook was distributed to Paroisse St-Grégoire parishioners at a Mass celebrating the work of the nuns.
In December, 2013, the 1896 and 1932 extensions, including the chapel, were demolished by the owner. In 2017, the building changed hands again, and the original 1887 building was demolished.