The iconic St. Ann’s Academy in Victoria has an important place in the history of education and healthcare in British Columbia, and particularly the education of women and girls in the province. Built in the style of rural French-Canadian churches, St. Ann’s was Victoria’s first Catholic cathedral and girls’ school. The school’s infirmary developed a good reputation and the sisters who worked there, often trained nurses, dealt efficiently with sick students, insisting that they rest until completely recovered. The structure dates back to 1858, when four nuns belonging to the Sisters of Saint Ann––an order founded in Quebec in 1850, traveled to Victoria, not yet a part of Canada, to open a school.
After a journey that lasted nearly two months, the founding sisters of the school, Sister Mary Angele, Sister Mary Conception, Sister Mary Lumena, and Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, arrived in Victoria in June of 1858. Starting their duties only two days after their arrival, the sisters were surprised to find that the city was much more well-established than they had expected. They soon sent for more assistance, and the school grew. Before long, students came from near and far and included pupils from Victoria and also from as far afield as Europe, India, and South America.
Operating from a belief in women’s empowerment, the school had the motto: “Sic itur ad astra,” which translates to “Such is the way to the stars.” The sisters who taught at St. Ann’s were known for their progressive beliefs and their championing of female liberty, and they believed that giving their students confidence in themselves would unlock their abilities and lead them to succeed. One nun at the academy, Mother Marie Providence, reportedly said often: “A woman’s influence is not limited. Life will be what women truly wish it to be.” The school also actively encouraged girls to study science––a subject that, at the time, was often regarded as unsuitable for women. In 1892 the school expanded to include the Commercial Class, a program that taught older students skills for employment such as shorthand, typing, and bookkeeping. A number of the women who graduated from this program went on to be hired by the Provincial Legislature.
In addition to championing women to succeed, the school operated from the philosophy that education should be widely accessible. The foundress of the Sisters of St. Ann, Mother Marie Esther Sureau Blondin, grew up in rural Quebec, and as the costs of formal education were prohibitively expensive she only learned to read and write at twenty years old. In 1833 she began her quest to help educate those who would not otherwise be able to afford education.
Now a national historic site, the building currently belongs to the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services. The grounds and the beautifully restored building offer a glimpse into the past and stand as a testament to the history of women’s education in Victoria.