St. Mary’s Convent: a John Dunn story

By 1840 Daniel Shipman, known to the hundred or so residents of Shipman’s Mills as the “founding father” of the settlement that became Almonte fifteen years later, had to watch from the sidelines as the godfather wrestled with the future of the place. Mr. Shipman had reached a critical stage in his enterprises in the pioneer community. Twenty years earlier he had taken over the land grant that David Shepherd had abandoned, and since then had built three mills around the falls of the river, a grist mill, a shingle mill, and a square-timber making yard.

In contemplating the future of the community, he realized that newcomers with families who thought of living here, would find one building missing, a most important one — a church. Once he realized that defect, Daniel Shipman took action to correct that spiritual void.

Publicly he declared that he would donate a plot of land in his townsite free, to the first congregation that would undertake to build a church in the village. The offer was unconditional, without restriction of any kind.

As it turned out, Mr. Shipman was the most surprised person in the place when he discovered that the Catholic people, mostly Irish and French, had made a firm resolve that they were going to build a church.

Catholics held no high favour in Mr. Shipman’s esteem: he saw them first as tarred with the brush of heresy, and, in addition, he regarded them as subversives, adherents of ‘a foreign power’, Rome. Guilty, therefore, of fundamental spiritual mischief, with an overlay of suspicious notions, if not treasonable intentions to boot.

Nonetheless, no one could deny that Catholics were ‘a congregation’. That left Mr. Shipman before an impasse. A frightful difficulty. He could not, as a gentleman, and the godfather of the community, renege on a promise. Even though the very thought harrowed his conscience, he could not break his promise. How would he ever live down the public shame? Could he live long enough? He had made the offer of a lot to the first congregation that would undertake to build a church, and without condition: the offer must stand.

And stand it did: the very first lot for building a church in Almonte resulted in St. Mary’s.

An infant parish was conceived, child of its parent, St. Michael’s, Corkery, and came to birth right in the heart of the Shipman plantation. With its birth the lid closed tight on the one missing element in Shipman’s Mills, the spiritual void. The first St. Mary’s church rose in place.

Although a disastrous fire destroyed the first church on Christmas Eve night, 1868, within the year, a new church, the present St. Mary’s, rose on the same site out of the ashes of the first.


Though very few convents are being built today, yet, in the first quarter of this century almost every new Catholic parish was seen as incomplete until it had a church, a school, and a convent. The word “convent”, therefore, requires a little exploration to understand its meaning in parish life. Since we’re explorers, let’s take a giant step backwards.

Say it is wartime. And say the place is “somewhere in England”. My recollection, now sixty years from the time, is that the place was near Hindhead, and on a quiet country lane, in that part of Surrey. It was there I stumbled on “The Cenacle”.

A friend, Frank, and I, both suited up in khaki, and with similar instincts, used often on Sunday afternoons when off-duty set out to walk the country lanes in Surrey. In hob-nailed boots. We’d cover twenty-five miles each time out. Frequently. The entire South of England was an armed camp; the countryside was sown with the dragon’s teeth of war and engines of death. Yet, on Sunday afternoons the quiet lanes seemed undisturbed by all the preparations for battle.

The third time Frank and I went on the twenty-five mile venture was in the year before the invasion of Normandy. It was a very hot day in June, and after fifteen miles Frank suggested we might make a stop at a place he called “The Cenacle” for tea.

I knew not “The Cenacle”, but agreed without hesitation. “I’ve been there once before,” said Frank. “I remember it’s somewhere close to where we are now.”

A quarter-mile further on we turned in through a gate and took the path up to the front door of an English country house that was set among ash trees. Meadows flanked it in the back. We went straight to the entrance.

Great heavens! Surprise! The door opened wide. We were welcomed by a nun and invited to come in! Frank and I found ourselves the Canadian contingent of an Allied force comprising English, American, Free French and Polish men of war, all guests at “The Cenacle” for an English afternoon tea.

Curiosity knocked me sideways. I asked the Sister who offered us delicate little cucumber sandwiches and cookies to go with tea, if she could enlighten my ignorance. “The word “Cenacle”, I said, “Can you tell me what it means?”

She was happy to tell. She and her sisters belonged to an order, The Sisters of the Cenacle. Their order had been founded in France in the 1820’s following the Napoleonic era. Some years later, in the 1880’s the order leaped across the English Channel and this “Cenacle” near Hindhead had been founded. The work the Sisters carried out was principally catechesis, and, in addition, they conducted a school which specialized in teaching English youngsters, in French!

As she refilled our teacups, my curiosity about “Cenacle” remained unfilled. “The word, ‘Cenacle’, Sister: where does that come from?”

“Un moment, s’il vous plait, messieurs,” she began, and paused to gather thoughts. “Let me see. First, I think, is the history brush. The Cenacle in Jerusalem was the room where Our Lord held His Last Supper, the night when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament.”

Frank and I nodded at new light. Sister went on.

“Again, you might know the Cenacle as the place where Our Lord appeared to His apostles after His Resurrection, and where the apostles received the Holy Ghost on the night of Pentecost. So, you see, from the time of Christ Himself, the Cenacle in Jerusalem was a gathering-place for the faithful. Indeed, you might even see it — as we certainly do — as the forerunner of all Christian churches.”

Light, so brilliant, threatened to blind us.

“You’ll remember too,” Sister went on, “That Christ said that where two or three had gathered together in His name, that He was there in the midst of them?”

“Yes.” We remembered.

“Well, our Order was founded in France following the awful times of the Revolution to encourage the people to come together for spiritual growth. I should think there’s no need then for you Canadian soldiers, to wonder why we in this Cenacle at Hindhead are happy to invite you to share our cucumber sandwiches and weak tea. It’s the Christian way, ha, ha, n’est-ce pas?”

Ha, ha, again. The Cenacle has remained in memory as an example of a Christian community in action. It brought back to my mind the mediaeval tradition of country places scattered throughout England where the Divine Office was recited daily, and other spiritual works followed in the pattern of the community who gathered at the Cenacle in Jerusalem. That pattern existed in more than a thousand abbeys, priories, and convents in Britain until Henry VIII plundered them, appropriated their revenues to his own use, and turned out their residents, monks, priests and nuns into an unkind and unspiritual world.

In the Middle Ages a convent usually stood close to the parish church. Community life and the apostolic spirit dictated the structures. A convent had a chapter house, cells, a refectory, infirmary, dormitory, library, cloister and crypt. These were the physical assets which Henry seized. In addition, of course, there was the apostolic spirit, which went underground, and continued in spite of persecution, and went travelling to new places in the world.

St. Mary’s School

Paddy O’Meara’s house once stood at the top of the hill on Brae Street, that is, back of the church, and the just beyond the drive sheds. More precisely it sat on the site of the gymnasium of St. Mary’s School.

In the 1890’s the parish purchased the house for use as a separate school. Paddy and his family moved to another house at the top of the hill in Irishtown, exchanging one hill for another.

The house back of the church was a wooden structure, with a tongue and groove clapboard exterior. It had two parts: Part I was a full two storey, square plan, with space for two classrooms, one at ground level, the other upstairs.

Part II had two floors as well, but only the lower level was used for school room space until the 1930’s, when the fourth room came into being. Though equal in length with Part I, it was narrower. At the junction of its narrow end with the side of Part I, a hallway linked the two.

Of course, no basement existed. Nor water system. (The town of Almonte’s waterworks system was installed in 1929-31.) For convenience of scholars whose systems required No. l, an auxiliary building stood in one corner of the schoolyard. It had two doors, one marked Girls, the other Boys. Visitations to the site took place each recess.

There was one other building on the site, the woodshed.

In 1900 the teachers were Miss Slattery, Miss Dowdall and Mr. J.H. Donnelly.

Management of the school opened the new century of instruction happily with an entry in the books “Cash in bank”, amounting to $584.97.

Additional revenues during the year included Rent from F.M.T.A. (Father Matthew Temperance Association) $9.00, Notes discounted, $294.68, Gov’t Grant $103.00, Note discounted $300.00, Taxes from Town of Almonte $549.92 and Taxes from Township of Ramsay, $152.32 and another Rent from F.M.T.A. $9.00. Total revenue for the year, $2052.89.

In 1913 the teachers were Miss Sullivan, Miss Stafford, and Miss Grace. In April of that year Rev. Dr. McNally was still receiving (in trust) the salary for the caretaker. However, he was elevated to the episcopate and left the pastoral care of the faithful in Almonte, eventually becoming archbishop of Halifax. His successor at St. Mary’s, Fr. W.E. Cavanaugh, P. P. continued as caretaker for the caretaker’s salary of $9.00 monthly.

However, when school reopened in September, 1913, in addition to the book entry of $9.00 paid now to the new parish priest for caretaker, there is an entirely new and remarkable entry under the wording “Rev. Mother St. Dominic, teacher!”

Entries specifying sources of revenue for the year were brief: Picnic, $660.00, Gov’t Grant, $90.00, Ramsay taxes $234.90, Almonte taxes, $756.00, Balance from 1912, $385.48. Total: $2116.38.

Sources of revenue continued in the same pattern into 1914. They were Balance from 1913, $703.95, Picnic, $360.00, Fr. Cavanaugh, $100.00 less 15 cents, Gov’t Grant, $90.00, Taxes, Ramsay, $241.80, Taxes, Almonte, $759.84. Total $2245.59.

This was the era when a convent came into focus of the populace of the town of Almonte. The parish priest, Fr. Cavanaugh was a force to be reckoned with. The Sisters of St. Joseph at Peterborough received from him, on behalf of the parish, a request to come to Almonte and engage in the apostolic work of instruction of the youth of Almonte in the tradition of the Apostles themselves.

The parish had acquired the former WINDSOR HOUSE hotel, Reilly’s Hotel, a solid brick structure at the corner of Queen St. and Union Street. Its ground floor was dedicated for school use and chapel, and the second floor for living accommodation for the Sisters of St. Joseph. That left the third floor unused, as well as the fourth floor which had a stairway only in space between the rafters, that led to the glassed-in captain’s cabin penthouse on the roof. That cabin in the sky in the days of the hostelry, was the chief attraction for guests coming on the trains. It offered a magnificent view out over the sixty-two and a half foot fall of the Mississippi, a sight to enrapture, a view of a miniature Niagara itself. A rooftop with a view.

Disadvantages didn’t take long to surface for the Sisters. In its converted use from hotel to convent and school, parishioners in their eagerness to welcome the ‘good sisters’ failed to take full account of the eleven-foot ceilings on the ground floor, ten foot ceilings on the second floor, and only nine-foot stretches on the third. All of which were lighted with enormous windows, fitted in brick walls with no insulation, naturally, nor storm sash.

The twin furnaces in the basement struggled to burn elm blocks to heat the building in winter, but scarcely ever succeeded in raising temperature to comfort level.

A second difficulty for that location as a convent was spiritual: the convent-cum-school, former hotel, was half a mile from the church, and Ottawa Valley winters made the walk to church through unplowed sidewalks for Mass at seven in the morning a trial, both by frostbite and chilblains.

The sisters wondered if something could be done.

One thing was certain: they could not go on where they were.

In 1917 a double house on Farm Street became vacant. Farm Street would be so much closer to the church. And the old school overlooking the Spring Bush (Paddy O’Meara’s old residence) might be taken out of mothballs and returned to use as St. Mary’s School.

The sisters, though closer to the church, might have other inconveniences to be overcome, but, being a spiritual order first, they turned again in prayer to their patron saint, “The Wonder Worker”, St. Joseph. He did it! He came through! The convent moved to Farm Street.

Not that things on Farm Street were perfect, but only that, well, Sisters don’t expect perfection this side of heaven. It’s something to be earned for good conduct in putting up with smoky furnaces and failing water heaters. Anyway, Almonte at the time was truly missionary territory.

In 1917 when they moved to Farm Street, the Town of Almonte had no central waterworks system. Farm Street double did have a small cistern though, which caught the rain off the roof and some of the snow melt in winter time, all of which was used for the wash.

But the daily accommodation for cooking and the kettle and the like came through the kindness of Jack O’Reilly, a Farm Street neighbour, who had made a yoke, fitted for himself, and with which he carried two pails of water from the spring in the Spring Bush each morning and evening for the good sisters at the convent. Spring water, as everyone on Farm Street knew, makes fine tea. Furthermore, the spring in the Spring Bush never stopped, never, winter or summer. Through drought or flood. Never varied. People depended on it. Even the nuns.

Well, the staff of the convent and school in the years 1919-20 included Mother St. Fergus in charge, Sister Demetria, principal, Sister St. Patrick, primary, and Sister Thecla.

In 1920, however, illness struck the convent. Mother St. Fergus became seriously ill. Mortally so, as it turned out. Doctor Dunn, having determined that the illness was terminal, and, at the request of Mother St. Fergus, decided that the patient would be taken to Peterborough. Accordingly the patient was placed on a stretcher, and, for the sake of privacy and quiet for the journey, the stretcher was put aboard the baggage car of the train. The doctor also made the journey to Peterborough, accompanying the patient in the baggage car. Thus was Mother St. Fergus returned to the Mother House. Her health did not improve at ‘The Mount’ in Peterborough; she died in April, 1921.

And now, since it’s getting late, it’s time to return to Almonte.

During the time between leaving the Windsor House and the residence on Farm Street, the old hotel lay vacant and unused. By co-incidence the parish priest, in this period of waiting for something to happen, Fr. Cavanaugh went to attend a conference of the diocesan priests in Ottawa. There was a guest speaker, Father John Mary Fraser, a missionary priest who had spent some years in China, and, now returned to Canada, was seeking assistance in his plan to establish a China Mission College to train young men for the priesthood and to go as missionaries to China.

The Apostolic Spirit led him at Father Cavanaugh’s invitation to come to Almonte. He too looked at the Windsor House, and made it his founding institution for the society known today as Scarboro Missions.

To return again to the convent on Farm Street. In 1921-22 the convent on Farm Street was under the direction of Mother Basilla. The other sisters included Sister Agatha, Sister Rosalea, principal, Sister St. Patrick, primary, Sister St. Cleta, second room, and Sister Celesta, housekeeper.

Mother Basilla taught music, tended the furnace, and generally looked after the Sisters. She, along with Sister Rosalea and Sister Celesta remained in the Sault community when the division occurred. Many of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peterborough elected to go with the new community of Sisters of St. Joseph of the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, a further evidence that the apostolic spirit was alive and well and working in Canada.

During their residency on Farm Street Mother Basilla kept a light burning all year long before the statue of St. Joseph in St. Mary’s church, and that, along with a lot of fervent prayer directed to the “Wonder-Worker Saint” kept the request of a new convent on the front burner at heaven’s gate.

She and Sister Rosalea drew up the plans for the present convent, which they hoped would be located next to the church. Canon Cavanaugh turned the plans over to a committee which comprised Jack Ryan (Sister Julitta’s uncle), Frank Hogan, the CPR agent in Almonte, Jim Devine, and George Clement.

These men worked tirelessly to bring together a building for the “good sisters”, and in 1922 the convent came into being.

When the Sisters moved into their new residence in the fall of 1922 they found some surprises waiting for them. In the basement there was an enormous cistern! In the kitchen they found an electric cook stove! And for heating, they found an oil furnace, the very first in Almonte. And, because there was no central waterworks system yet in Almonte, they found the convent had a flat roof, a deliberate part of the plan to keep the cistern full!

The Spring Bush was now closer even than before, and Jack O’Reilly had not yet worn out the yoke, and the spring water was so nice for the tea!

But patience, patience. In the hard January that followed the move to the new convent, the cistern went dry. Mother Basilla arranged to have water brought in barrels from the river and dumped into the cistern. 25 cents a barrel. But that January was cruelly cold, and most of the Mississippi flood froze as men tried to empty it into the cistern. Sister Celesta melted snow!

In 1925-26 Mother Basilla was still Superior and did music. Sister Adrian was principal. Sister Frances Joseph, primary, Sister St. Cleta, second room and school music, and Sister Inez, church sacristan, Sister Albertine, housekeeper, and Sister Dolores, entrance class.

In 1927-28 Mother Imelda arrived as Superior. Sister Alexis came as principal, Sister Frances Joseph again as primary, and Sister St. Cleta, second room and school music, and Sister Florence, music.

This was the moment too when Sister Alexis began Grade IX work (known then as First Form, High School), which necessitated opening the upstairs room of Part II of Paddy O’Meara’s former residence. This made the fourth room for instruction in St. Mary’s School.

The next year Sister Alexis added Grade X, (second form).

In 1929-30 Sister Alexis added Grade XI (first year, junior matriculation) to her already well-stocked program, and, as I remember, having the desk near the window on the ground floor, taught all the subjects of the curriculum for Grades X and XI.

Sister Alexis was appointed Mother Superior, which office she held until 1938. She also added Grade XII, which completed junior matriculation program. In that era final examinations were provincially set, and matriculation certificates obtained through the Department of Education.

Two students of St. Mary’s Continuation School completed the entire Junior Matriculation program, Mary Coderre, who subsequently went to nursing training at the Hotel Dieu in Kingston, and decided to enter the convent of the Religious Hospitalers of St. Joseph, the order of nuns in charge of the hospital. She became noteworthy in the nursing circles in Canada as Director of Nursing Training for the Hotel Dieu, and later still, a renowned nursing consultant. She lives in retirement in Kingston.

The second graduate was myself.

1930 was memorable in another way as well. It was the year when Sister Estelle came first to Almonte. She taught music in the convent, and had the audacity to create an orchestra comprising violins, piano, and a cello. Two members of that musical aggregation survive, the renowned Sister Mary Coderre and myself. Mary was a pianist; I, a violinist.

In 1938 Sister Vincentia came to Almonte, and two years later, Sister St. Frederick.

In 1968-69 Sister Estelle returned in her retirement to Almonte, and she died in the convent after the Thursday evening Mass, March 13, l969.

In 1973-74 at the convent in Almonte were Sister St. Hubert, Sister Irene Williams, Sister St. Frederick, Sister Neilus, Sister June Prentice, and Sister Hilda Maloney.

Sister St. Frederick took seriously ill during Retreat, March 17, l974, spent four weeks in hospital, returned to the Mount in Peterborough on Holy Thursday, April 11, 1974 to infirmary, and became very ill again during the week after Easter, Friday 19th to April 24th. She had been rushed to hospital Wednesday evening for emergency operation, and died the following Tuesday, April 30. Burial took place in the sisters’ plot in Peterborough.

1979-80 the staff of St. Mary’s School were the following:

Sister Neilus, Sister St. Clare, Sister Vincentia, Sister Sheila (Arnprior) Margaret Amyotte, Sister Judith Lee (St. Vincent de Paul, Kingston), and that’s it.

As I was saying, very few convents are being built in these, the final days of the second millennium. Yet, for most of this twentieth century there has been a convent of Sisters of St. Joseph in Almonte. The work of the nuns here has been largely catechetical, just as it was at the Cenacle at Hindhead in Surrey, and, just as it was in the founding days of Christianity when the Apostolic Spirit manifested itself to the gathering of the faithful at the Cenacle in Jerusalem. It takes a wide-bladed brush to paint a big picture.

A struggle it certainly has been in the parish to keep the church, the priest’s house, the school, and a convent all running.

Let me close with the statement of revenues to operate the school for the year 1919, the year I was born. They are:

  • Two euchres ($11.25 + $30.20) = $41.45
  • Balance from 1918 $935.99
  • 17th March concert $129.15
  • Part payment – picnic $300.00
  • Oct 2, part payment – picnic $227.00
  • Oct 7, Gov’t Grant $24.19
  • Nov 24, Rev.Fr Fraser, supplies $73.75
  • Taxes, Ramsay, $244.89
  • Taxes, Town, $794.69
  • TOTAL $2771.11

A masterly account, for working in the vineyards in Almonte.

John Dunn
22 Sept 99.