By Devonna Edwards, Columnist
How the Sisters of Charity built a Motherhouse and established a boarding school in the fall of 1873.
In the early days, the Motherhouse of the Halifax Sisters of Charity was Saint Mary’s Convent located on Barrington Street. There they opened St. Mary’s School but soon purchased property on the Bedford Basin in Rockingham, five miles from the City of Halifax. The property extended from the shore of the Bedford Basin to where Bayers Lake is today. Several Nuns along with their first boarder, a little girl by the name of Helena Howlett arrived on the new site. They stayed at Le Gras Cottage on the property, and it was in this quaint old cottage that classes were held until the central portion of the Academy was erected. Wing after wing was added to the central brick structure in the coming years to accommodate a growing school until a magnificent building stood on this beautiful site. The building housed both students and Nuns, it also contained many classrooms, exhibition rooms, a study hall, and a chapel. A beautifully furnished large library located on the main floor of the central building contained as many as twelve thousand volumes by 1934. Many glass doors admitted as much sunlight as possible to add to the pleasant environment.
Only female students both Catholics and Protestants were accepted at the academy. The original purpose of the academy was to train novices and young Nuns as teachers, but the Nuns also recognized a need to educate other young women. Mount Saint Vincent also known as “The Mount” was one of the only institutions of higher education for women in Canada.
The campus included tennis courts high on the hill in a hemlock grove, playgrounds for basketball and baseball, along with many woodland nooks for camp-fire suppers.
The long winding roads were ideal for hiking, coasting, and skiing. Further back were farmlands and orchards from which came the daily supply of milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, and fruit.
Early Days at the Mount
The Bedford Highway ran in front of Mount Saint Vincent Academy and a single railway track ran parallel to the road. On Sundays, many students took walks in the woods on the property or walked along the train track. The Mount had a charming beach near the front of their building, there the students could swim and dig for mussels or skip stones in the summer. During World War 1, the government expropriated their waterfront property for the railway and ruined the beach area.
Along with their academic teaching, the girls were taught needlework, art, dancing, singing and various musical instruments. They also were instructed in the sport of fencing, very popular at that time and club swinging which is an ancient Persian physical training exercise to improve strength, mobility, coordination and to increase mindfulness. They also played a game called cache-cache (Hide and Seek) and another called Prisoner’s Base, a game where players of one team seek to tag and imprison players of the other team who venture out of their home territory. In the winter they skated on St. Joseph’s Pond, located behind the Academy.
Fire Destroys the Grand Old Motherhouse
On December 31, 1951, the Motherhouse (novitiate, academy, and college) caught fire on a very cold winter night and burnt to the ground without any loss of life. The fire was so intense that the firefighters could do nothing to save it. A station of the cross in the courtyard and a hand-painted ornament were the only articles that were saved. During the fire, the women from the Motherhouse stayed in small cottages on the property until buses, taxis and private automobiles transferred two hundred sisters, novices, and postulants to Halifax convents. Later they were all billeted at St. Joseph’s Orphanage on Quinpool Road, where as many as sixteen women stayed in one room for over a year. Classes resumed on the Mount campus in the autumn of 1951, but the new Motherhouse did not open until 1959.
The Second Motherhouse
Built on the same property as the first but constructed in a different location. The new stone structure was built high on a hill giving a spectacular view of the Bedford Basin. The Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse on Seton Road opened in October 1959 and cost nearly two million dollars. The structure was described as a 350,000 square foot building, covering a ground area of two and one third acres which made it the largest foundation in Canada. It was four stories at the front and two stories at the back. It had 1.7 miles of corridor and 400,000 bricks used on the courtyard wall. There were 2,000 windows in the building, 7,000 light fixtures and 12,000 electrical outlets were installed. In all 1120 interior doors were installed. A remarkable, attractive building demanding your attention! The building was a complete unit for all departments of the College. The Motherhouse provided living quarters for nine hundred Nuns and students and had a chapel, gymnasium, science laboratories, lecture rooms and a library housing more than 50,000 volumes.
A foundation (still visible today) on the shore of Susie’s Lake was said to be a pump house which was used to pump water through a pipeline down to the Mount so the Nuns could do their laundry. The Mount has a Reservoir Pond on the northside of Seton Academy. This pond was once a water reservoir which served the original Mount Saint Vincent Academy.
In 1966 the institution changed its name to Mount Saint Vincent University and a year later the first male student was accepted at the university. Ownership and operations were transferred from the Sisters of Charity to Board of Governors and Senate in 1988.
In 2014 The Sisters of Charity sold the Motherhouse and lands of seventy-three acres in size to Southwest Properties Limited, who plan to build single detached dwellings, townhouses, and mixed-use residential and commercial buildings that range from 6 to 20 storeys in height.
The huge Motherhouse was closed in 2001 and demolished in 2009.
The new residence was built by Shannex in 2008 on the same property, just across the way from the previous Motherhouse. It is a six-storey, red brick building and is a retirement home for seniors and has office space for the congregation’s administration. About one hundred retired Sisters moved into the establishment when it opened.
In 2018 the Sisters of Charity presented “The Truth and Reconciliation Panel” in the Heritage Garden located next to the Caritas Residence.
Today the property lays vacant and undeveloped but remains home to hundreds of crows, who arrive there every night to sleep. It is also a favourite place for many deer that enjoy the apple trees.