Sisters of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Convent

Street Address : South-east corner of Bagot and Johnson
Period: 1800-1850

Father Alexander Macdonell, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Kingston, decided during his time as bishop that the educational system of the town should be improved, especially with regards to the education of Catholic girls. It was not until a number of years later in 1841, however, that his successor, Father Remi Gaulin, made Father Macdonell’s dream a reality, by asking the Bishop of Montreal, Father Bourget, to send two Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame to Kingston to establish boarding school for Catholic girls. On November 19th of that same year, the Sisters St. Alexander and St. Edward, the two Sisters picked out of the many who volunteered their services to the Kingston mission, began their journey to Kingston accompanied by Father Charles Prince, an honorary canon of Montreal. Their journey was an arduous ordeal: because their trip was to be made in the winter, they could only travel by stagecoach, a trip which took two days in total. Upon their arrival in Kingston, the small party was met with more unpleasant news, as the only accommodations available at the time were located in a large and crowded building overlooking the market square. The building not only housed a number of families, but also the City Council Chambers, which meant that loud yelling matches and table banging could be heard at all hours of the day and well into the night. Still, the Sisters did not let any of this deter them from their mission, and set to work the day following their arrival, cleaning the place up. They were so efficient that they were able to open their doors to pupils in under a week: on November 25th, twelve students arrived for their first lessons.

The two Sisters’ first few months in Kingston were not uneventful, quite the opposite in fact. The night of December 22nd, 1841, an enormous celebration took place in the market square right in front of their building. A large pig was roasting on a fire, and people were drinking and dancing merrily around it. The event, which celebrated the birth of the Prince of Wales, was quite loud and rowdy to begin with, and only became increasingly so with the announcement that the cook had not planned the roasting far enough in advance and thus the pig was not ready to be eaten. The Kingstonians became increasingly impatient, and started blaming the town’s mayor for the lack of food at the party. The latter tried to escape the crowd by running into the building where the Sisters of Notre Dame were staying and hiding in the City Council Chambers. The crowd followed him into the building and started banging on doors on the Sisters’ floor. Terrified, the Sisters barricaded their door in hope that the mob would not get into their classroom. Luckily, the apartment was not broken into, and they were safely able to go to bed when the noise died down later on that night.

In June 1842, because of their increasing number of pupils, the Sisters were forced to try and find a new location for their boarding school. Father Gaulin was able to find a house on Earl Street for this purpose, and the Sisters and their students moved in there. The attic was converted into an additional classroom to allow the Sisters to day students as well as their boarders, which required another Montreal Sister to join the Kingston mission. As such, Sister St. Agatha (who was replaced by Sister St. Colomba just two years later) arrived in Kingston with a Miss Higgins to teach the day class. In June 1843, when the number of day students became too large for the attic classroom, the day class was moved to a wooden house provided by Father Gaulin next to his Bishopric. In 1846, Father Patrick Phelan, Father Gaulin’s successor, generously gave the Sisters of Notre Dame his Bishopric on the corner of Bagot and Johnson Streets so that their convent would not be so overcrowded. The Sisters moved into their new house, which had its own private chapel and a covered walk that led to the day school building. That same year, Sister St. Edward returned to the Montreal Mother House, and only two years later Sister St. Alexander did the same, meaning that by the summer of 1848 the Kingston Notre Dame Convent had lost its two Foundresses.

The decades following the departure of the Foundresses were full of change and expansion. In the mid-1850s, there was a need for another expansion to accommodate the 200 students that were attending the Sisters’ day school. As such, a rough cast building was built as an expansion, which housed two classrooms and a meeting room. At the end of the decade, Father Phelan’s successor, Father Horan, decided to convert St. Joseph’s Church, which hadn’t been used since 1848 when St. Mary’s Cathedral opened, into a school building with six classrooms, which would allow the Sisters to further expand their school. In 1867, the Sisters purchased a property called Hawthorn Cottage, located on King Street West, and converted that into a boarding school, renaming it St. Mary’s on the Lake at the request of Father Horan. That same year, two Sisters of Notre Dame started teaching at St. John’s School, located in northern Kingston on John Street. In 1891, after having served for almost 35 years as a school building, St. Joseph’s Church was condemned by the inspector of public buildings, and subsequently demolished that same year. A new building was constructed in the same location, opened in February 1892, and named St. Vincent’s Academy. Just a few years later, the rough cast building which had been used to house the day classes was demolished, and a new wing was built in its place, opening in 1898. A second wing was built in 1914, along Johnson Street, adjacent to the Convent.

The number of boarders in the Convent, steadily increasing over the years, called for more accommodations to be made available to them. As such, the attic of the Convent was transformed into a new dormitory in 1919. In 1922, St. Vincent’s Academy was expanded to allow for all the elementary students of the Convent to transfer over, leaving only high school students to be taught by the Sisters in the Convent. This helped with the money problems the Sisters had been having considerably. Just nine years later, the School Board took over the education of the lower high school grades (Grades 9 and 10) as part of the elementary school system, aiding the Sisters financially even more, as their instruction of those two grades were compensated by the Board. A large celebration, feasting the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Kingston, occurred in October 1941 in St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Vincent’s Academy’s auditorium. Twenty years later, in 1961, the number of boarders at the Convent was so low that the Sisters were forced to close down the program, operating the Convent as a simple day school. Later, in 1967, because it was no longer deemed financially viable to keep the two Catholic high schools separate, Notre Dame and Regiopolis, the boy’s Catholic high school, merged and the Notre Dame pupils moved their studies into the Regiopolis buildings on Russell Street, accompanied by a few of their teachers from the Convent. The Sisters formally moved out of their home of 123 years in 1969. The former Convent building is now a part of the Kingston Public Library.

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