Growing up in the Beach, Sister Denise Burns remembers teachers ringing her back from recess with handbells.
Today, she is one of three graduates from Notre Dame High School who can remember what Grade 9 was like the year the school opened.
It was 1941, the Beach still had plenty of cottages, and her teachers – Catholic nuns from the Congregation of Notre Dame (CND) – had just arrived from Montreal. In two short weeks they managed to enroll some 75 girls from east-side parishes, enough to start a two-room, Grades 9 and 10 high school in an old church hall on Malvern Avenue.
For several years, the sisters slept on the upstairs floor of the school – a modest building where Sister Burns used to climb into the choir loft and shoo away pigeons.
“You couldn’t imagine the changes,” she says, smiling.
A big change is underway this summer at the Kingston Road convent that the Sisters of Notre Dame finally built around the corner from the high school in 1952.
After housing a generation of CND sisters who taught at Notre Dame, St. John, St. Denis, Neil McNeil and more than 20 Toronto schools outside the Beach, the convent is getting set to close.
Last Monday morning, friends of the Sisters of Notre Dame arrived to help move more furniture.
Inside, many things had already gone to new homes – good ones, says Sister Eileen Power, who manages the convent.
Some pieces will go to Becoming Neighbours, a settlement group for refugees, while others will go to Scarboro Missions. Books from the convent library will find new shelves at a Malawi school of theology and philosophy.
Even the statutes of Mary and St. Bernadette that used to stand in the shrine between the convent and St. John elementary school have retired to a country farmhouse.
Stepping inside the small, sun-lit chapel where the sisters prayed and Spiritan priests held twice daily masses, Sister Power laughed at another thing gone – the rocking chairs that used to sway by the tabernacle.
Many of the 11 sisters who were living at the convent for the last year are in their seventies or eighties, and few young women are taking their place.
Sister Power said historically, the boom in religious orders came in the 1940s and 1950s. At its peak the Kingston Road convent housed up to 30 sisters, sometimes two to a room.
“That probably won’t ever happen again in the same way,” she said. “I think there will be a place for religious orders in the future – it just won’t look like a big house like this.”
Like the founder of her congregation, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who in 1658 organized the first school in present-day Montreal, Sister Power has high regard for education. She taught in elementary and high schools for 34 years and loved it.
“I learned more than the kids, most likely,” she said.
Only a handful of CND sisters still teach in classrooms, mostly in western Canada and the Maritimes. Although she too is retired from in-class teaching, Sister Power still organizes retreats for high school students downtown.
Many CND sisters are also educating in broader ways, she said, by speaking about issues of social justice like human trafficking. One contemporary role model is Sister Helen Prejean, a nun whose efforts to abolish the US death penalty were captured in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking.
Closer to home, Sister Power speaks with great respect for her own colleagues – one leaves the convent every morning to run a 7 a.m. breakfast for 80 to 100 children at St. Paul’s before welcoming the lunch crowd at the Good Shepherd soup kitchen nearby.
“People are really involved,” said Sister Power, although she notes that a lot of that work is less public than teaching was.
“It was easier for people to find us,” she said.
Sister Power said she has no idea yet who might buy the convent – the sale will be managed by the CND office in Halifax.
“We just hope that whoever does buy it uses it well,” she said.
“I just hope they don’t build condos,” said Sister Burns.
As sad as it is to see the convent close, Sister Burns said she knew it had to be.
And in 61 years of teaching, there are a few memories at least, that students would rather forget. In the rush of moving, Sister Power found a binder full of class lists that go back as far as the 1940s. To the relief of some alumni, however, she said they have not found any evidence of anyone’s grades.
“No way,” she said, laughing. “We would never go that far.”
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I was educated in Montreal by CND – my mother’s family before me were as well. We all went to St. Anthony’s Academy on Canning Street in Montreal. Last year we lost 2 of the nuns in May – Sr. Anne-Marie Mulcair and Sr. Imelda Strachan. I attended church with Sr. Lawrence Noreen at St. Lukes, Calgary she was involved with the music. Now we are ltrying to find Sr. St James of the Faith – sorry I don’t know her birth name.
Hi, I am new to the Beaches but I went to high school in Macon, Georgia with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and to college at Trinity College in Washington, D. C.,. also founded by the Sisters. My education was sterling, the compassion, dedication and knowledge passed on was unsurpassed. Our youth are the poorer for losing this excellent gift of God for education. Sandi R.
I would like to say thank you to Sr. Power for believing in me to help me to see what she saw. Amazing woman with true guidance in life. Thank you once again.
I attended ND toronto from 1959 to 1961 before moving to Montreal.
I have the 1961 yearbook and was wondering if any of the sisters from then are still in Toronto?
Principal at that time was Sister St. Helen of the Saviour and Prefect of Studies was Sister St. Stephanie Marie.
I think the ‘old’ names of the sisters were saint names and they later used their own names, is that correct?
For Patricia Adair Korn:
Sister St. Stephanie Marie was Sister Jean Smith. I went to Notre Dame High School in Ottawa from 1964-69. When I boarded for Grades 11 and 12 , Sister Jean was the Superior. There were many sisters in the convent there at the time. Sister Jean was a lovely person. She died in Kingston and is buried in the CND plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
And yes: the sisters changed from their names in religion to their family names — in the mid-1960s.
Hello to anyone out there for 61-65. Where did the last sisters go? Is St Brigits convent still open and running? So the convent is closed now! What happened to the building since I see the original post was in 2013.
Are there any CNDs teaching at the Notre Dame HS now?My Email is email@example.com if you want to contact me.
Memories is what counts. Life goes on!