St. Mary’s Academy stands tall on Winnipeg’s Wellington Crescent today, but the crosses and Catholic iconography that jut out from its old brick exterior haven’t been there for the entire 150-year history of the private school.
The story of how St. Mary’s got its start — one year before Manitoba was officially a province and four years before the city of Winnipeg was incorporated — isn’t one many Winnipeggers are likely to know.
“It literally grew up with the city of Winnipeg,” said Sister Susan Wikeem.
At the end of April 1869, the first Archbishop of Saint Boniface, Alexandre-Antonin Taché, caught wind of a rumour that the Anglicans were planning on opening a school.
In an effort to beat them to the punch, he rushed to find a few sisters to staff a local Catholic school.
“It was slapped together,” Wikeem admits — but St. Mary’s beat the Anglicans.
“We did. I don’t know if they ever opened their school.”
The school’s hasty opening was thanks to Sister Mary Jane McDougall and Sister Ste Thérèse, part of the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (or Grey Nuns).
Just days after hearing the rumour about the Anglicans, the nuns crossed from St. Boniface to the west side of the Red River and helped open Maison Ste Marie — which would eventually become St. Mary’s Academy — on Notre Dame Avenue on May 1, 1869.
It was run out of half of a house near where the Nutty Club heritage building is today, close to Shaw Park. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary took over in 1874.
St. Mary’s expanded three times at that original Notre Dame Avenue site before being relocated to its six-hectare Crescentwood space on Wellington in 1903.
Though it’s gone through many physical changes since then, it was the start of a school that would see many of its students go on to do great things.
That list includes 2012 Olympic rowing silver-medalist Janine Hanson and Olympic runner Erin Teschuk; International Criminal Court judge Kimberly Prost and provincial court judges Susan Devine, Catherine Carlson, Mary Kate Harvie and Eileen Nash; addictions specialist Dr. Nichole Riese; several Order of Canada recipients, including community and women’s rights activist Eira “Babs” Friesen, to name a few.
‘Their duties never end’
Manitoba Free Press coverage from the grand opening in September 1903 quotes a Rev. Father Drummond extolling the virtues of the Catholic and academic education pupils would continue to receive in the new building, and the sense of duty driving the sisters and teachers to deliver it.
“We have on our staff men and women who have consecrated their lives to the education of the youth for no material gain,” reads the story, a tattered copy of which hangs in an office at St. Mary’s to this day.
“To be permitted to serve their divine master in this way is all they ask. They are not hired by the month or the year; they are teachers of their lifetime, and their duties never end.”
It’s clear that sense of ongoing service to God and community still rings true for St. Mary’s alumna who may have graduated, but never really left the place.
Sister Mary Gorman, 86, attended the school in the 1940s and remains the institution’s archivist. She had a hand in getting things ready for the sesquicentennial celebrations coming up on May 1.
Wikeem graduated from the school in the early 1960s and went on to be a teacher, principal and director, before passing the torch on to one of her former students, St. Mary’s president Connie Yunyk.
“I aged out and so it was time for me to go, if I felt,” said Wikeem.
“For me it was a relief to kind of say I was retired after almost 40 years at the head of the school.”
Yunyk rose through the ranks at St. Mary’s as a teacher, vice-principal and principal herself before becoming the first lay leader (non-nun) to take control of the school in 2014, when Wikeem retired as director.
But she got her start at the school as a Grade 7 student after her Italian immigrant parents enrolled her at St. Mary’s in 1972.
“For them it was really important that I go to a Catholic school, but a Catholic school run by an order of sisters,” she said.
“I was very grateful for that decision because I am still affiliated very deeply and strongly, and this has just played a very important part in my life.”
She finished grades 7 through 12 there, putting her in the company of other “super sixers” who spent six years at the school as students.
Some things (never) change
Yunyk inherited Wikeem’s office — which, about 15 years ago, went through a movie makeover.
Parts of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Capote were shot in St. Mary’s. Wikeem’s office was transformed into a sheriff’s office with a jail cell to house the cold-blooded murderer in the film. To this day the words “Sheriff’s Residence” remain on the foggy glass portion of the door.
“One of our parents was very involved in the set decoration. When they actually finished the filming and moved out, he thought it was fun just to leave that on my door,” said Wikeem.
“I asked if they would also leave the jail cell, but they wouldn’t.”
Prior to Yunyk and the school’s foundation taking over, St. Mary’s was directed and administered by The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. The sisters still elect the board of directors and appoint the CEO and president, but Wikeem said membership in the order declined over the years and things needed to change.
Uniform styles have also gone through revisions over the decades, from a variety of full-length outfits to the present-day collared shirts, sweaters and tartans (plaid skirts).
Another thing that’s changed: the religious demographic at the school. Wikeem estimates today that 65 per cent of pupils are Catholic, and the majority of the rest adhere to other faiths.
In recent years, and in accordance with the province’s Bill 18, the school has also facilitated the formation of a version of a gay-straight alliance student group. When the Department of Education mandated all schools in the province accommodate requests from students who want to start anti-bullying clubs, including gay-straight alliances, the school started its Unity Club.
“We’ve embraced that,” said Yunyk. “We’re all created in God’s image and likeness.”
The issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, residential schools, reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action are all “integral” parts of St. Mary’s social studies and history curricula, said Yunyk.
The school’s mission club also raised funds this year for Artbeat, an organization that supports people with mental health challenges through art; the Next Step job program for ex-convicts; and the Honouring the Spirit of our Little Sisters transitional safe house for sexually exploited girls and trans youth, said Wikeem.
Traditionally, though, not everyone has been able to access the pricey education offered by St. Mary’s.
In its early days, the school was publicly funded, but by 1890 the province stopped funding sectarian schools. Wikeem said that was the moment St. Mary’s decided to remain a denominational school and became reliant on tuition fees.
Winnipeg’s Richardson family has long been a financial supporter of the school, as have other wealthy big-name families in the city.
In the interest of removing barriers, in recent years the school has upped the number of bursaries it offers to students in need of financial aid.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to bring in people who can’t afford to pay tuition,” said Wikeem.
In the 2018-19 year, Yunyk said 86 of about 570 students at St. Mary’s — 15 per cent of the student body — received financial bursaries. The school has funded over $1 million in tuition fees for such students in the past five years, she added.
“That adds to our diversity as well,” said Yunyk.
‘Our guiding light’
Even as the school added Mac desktop computers labs, expanded its athletics programs, built a new performing arts theatre and otherwise evolved with the times, Yunyk said the Catholic principles and charisms of the Sisters of the Holy Names have remained constant — and will going forward.
“That is sort of our guiding light and anchors us in the decisions that we make,” said Yunyk.
“Our identity is a Catholic school,” responded Wikeem.
“We do have religious instruction as well as opportunities for girls to develop their spirituality and to grow in their faith and … as a consequence of their faith, to reach out to those in need of charitable outreach and generosity.”
As for Wikeem, though she may not be the director anymore, she remains a wealth of institutional knowledge whose lasting touch is clear.
A boardroom in the administration building is named in her honour; a large painting of her hangs in a stairway; and staff and students all stop and greet her as she moves through the long hardwood hallways of St. Mary’s.
She seems to know the names of every grad to ever come through the school.
Asked whether she plans to stick around indefinitely, Wikeem, 76, quips that she hopes to move on and receive her heavenly rewards — someday.
For now, she says, “we’re preparing to celebrate our legacy.”