Author: Dr. Gil Stelter

Publication Date: 2009

Edited: 2022



Historic Guelph V48P4


From the time that Guelph founder John Galt chose the most prominent location in the new town site for the institution headed by his friend Bishop Alexander Macdonell, what became known as 'Catholic Hill' has been a place of special significance for the entire community. An important part of the eventual complex of buildings centered on a church was the Loretto Convent, now being transformed into the new Civic Museum.


To the casual observer, the convent building may seem to be just another old stone building, much like many in the Downtown, although on a more dramatic site. It is true that the Loretto Convent was, and is, a relatively simple vernacular building compared to some of the sophisticated Loretto convents in other parts of the world. Yet it is a complex building, constructed in three stages, and reflects the changing character of Guelph's townscape during the crucial second half of the nineteenth century.


Three distinct popular architectural styles are represented by this building. The original portion begun in 1853, was a plain three-storey stone structure in the eighteenth-century Classical tradition often referred to in Canada as Georgian. An addition including a chapel, was built in 1872 in the then prevailing Gothic style for religious buildings. In 1896, fourth and fifth floors and a new roof were added to the original portion in the elegant Second Empire style.


Local Catholic records are almost non-existent and some of the published sources are of questionable value. But the convent was often referred to in the Jesuit records which are housed at the Jesuit Archives in Toronto. I am indebted to the archivist, Father Jacques Monet (Society of  Jesus), an old academic friend, who helped me find some valuable, hand-written records related to the Guelph mission. In Guelph, the late Sister Romana Gignac was very helpful in explaining the early history of Catholicism in this region. More recently, Sister Helen Cameron provided some detailed recollections of the interior of the building during her years as a resident. I have toured the building several times since it ceased to be a convent, and in July 2009, Guelph Museums Director Katherine McCracken took me through the building which allowed me to see some of the original structure which was exposed by the preliminary reconstruction.


Building on Catholic Hill started in the 1830s with the construction of a little wooden frame church, St. Patrick's. The contractor was John Thorp who had earlier built the other two churches in Guelph, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, and St. George's Anglican. When St. Patrick's burned down in 1844, it was quickly replaced in 1845 by St. Bartholomew's, a substantial stone building in the Gothic style. St. Bartholomew's was designed by the Brantford-based architect, John Turnel, who designed many churches and public buildings in south-western Ontario.1 This was the first or second stone church to be built in Guelph, although it remained unfinished for almost a decade.2 It had a commanding presence in the small, frontier community, facing the town and terminating the vista from the street that Galt had named Macdonell.


Historic Guelph Father John Holzer V48P6

Father John Holzer, (S. J.)

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Historical Society).


A more ambitious building program for Catholic Hill began in 1852 with the arrival of the Austrian Jesuit, Father John Holzer, (S. J.). Holzer was born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1812, and he was educated there in the Jesuit College and University. He came to Canada in 1848 to take charge of a Jesuit mission at New Germany (Maryhill) which became a special mission of the Innsbruck Jesuits. Holzer also had strong connections to the Austrian elite including the whimsical Archduke Maximilian who was particularly fond of romantic buildings and architecture.3


Holzer was re-assigned to Guelph in January 1852 and immediately began a determined expansion program. A first task was the completion of St. Bartholomew's. A sum of three-thousand dollars was spent on completing the spire, plastering the church's interior, putting up a gallery to seat more people, and installing a bell and an organ.4


Holzer's second project was the establishment of a Separate School system. This first involved hiring teachers who were paid, "Almost altogether out of his own funds".5 And in 1853, he began a school which was to become the convent when it was completed in 1856 and 1857. The total construction cost was almost 97,000 dollars, a huge sum at the time for a school. The local congregation was able to contribute only five-hundred dollars of this amount. The total was a relatively modest sum, however, compared to the cost of Guelph's most expensive building, going up at the same time, the Town Hall and Market (City Hall), which cost over 46,000 dollars. The available records are not detailed enough to indicate the sources of Holzer's funds, but many of them must have come from his European supporters. Holzer certainly operated as though he could continue to count on this kind of money.


Historic Guelph St.Bartholomew's Church V48P7

The Rectory, St. Bartholomew's Church, and the convent in July 1857. Below, on Macdonell Street, is the town's militia, assembled because of the threat to these buildings from the local Orangemen.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Historical Society).


Historic Guelph 1860's photo of Guelph V48P7An 1860s photograph of Guelph, showing how the Rectory and convent were typical of Guelph's buildings of that time. 

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library).


By the standards of the day, and certainly by the size of Guelph's population of three-thousand people, and the modest size of the parish, the school/convent was a large building. Its outside dimensions were 71 by 41 feet, with three storeys in the front and two in the back. It was a simple box-like structure, typical of public buildings of the time in Guelph. It is very substantially constructed in the symmetrical fashion of the Classical tradition, but the stonework reveals an amateurish approach to building. This is vernacular architecture in the truest sense of the word for it was probably designed and built by local stonemasons connected with the parish.6


Historic Guelph The Convent 2005 V48P8

The convent in 2005.  

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


Historic Guelph Quoins at the convent's corners V48P8

Quoins at the convent's corners. 

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


The stone used is similar to other Guelph buildings of the time - local limestone, with an amber tinge because of its magnesium content. The type of stonework used here is known as 'rubble stone masonry,' in which irregularly sized pieces of stone are set into large amounts of mortar. The pointing of the mortar is designed to make the stone more regular than it actually is. Rubble masonry is considered to be the third grade of masonry behind ashlar (cut stone) and broken-coursed masonry (irregular square blocks). It costs less to build with the rubble type, but it is as substantial as the more elegant types. The front wall of the Provincial Winter Fair Building of 1900, now the front wall of the New City Hall, is of this rubble type, as are many of the buildings or portions of buildings in the downtown, including the Woolwich Street wall of the Wellington Hotel Building.


The façade of the original portion of the building has the symmetry of the Classical tradition, with a central doorway leading to a central hallway and staircase. The façade is seven bays wide. The roof is a simple, side-gabled type; early photographs show a small cupola, presumably to hold a bell.


Historic Guelph The "Welsh" Arch V48P9

The "Welsh" arch with the keystones extending into the stone walls.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


A detailed look at the stonework shows a vernacular lack of concern with strict architectural precision. The corners of the building have very rudimentary quoins which are usually meant to embellish a stone or brick structure. Here they are hardly apparent and are not cut regularly. An example of more elaborate quoins can be seen on Norfolk Methodist (United) Church across the street, built at the same time.


The front façade has 20 rectangular windows. Each window of the first three storeys is topped with a row of tapered keystones that are known as 'Welsh' arches in that the keystones project into the surrounding wall, providing an especially strong arch.7 This type of arch was common in this area before 1855, and similar examples can be seen on the earliest commercial buildings on Wyndham Street, such as numbers 13 to 17.


While the school/convent was being built, Holzer also began work on a companion building designed to be a college and a priest's residence. As he wrote to the Bishop in 1855, "I have laid the foundation for a large priest-house this week close to my humble dwelling place. I shall build the priest-house as large as the present schoolhouse is." In his plans, the purpose of the second building was twofold: "I want an excellent school for training teachers - we have no staff of teachers throughout our missions."8 While Holzer's dream of a teachers' college did not work out, the building became known as the Rectory and served as a boy's school, a priest's residence, and the administrative centre for the regional mission field to the north.


The primary purpose of Holzer's new buildings was obviously educational and religious, not architectural prestige. The informal approach in the details of the stonework was also reflected in the placement of the convent and the Rectory in relation to the church. While the convent and the Rectory are fairly closely matched in size, they were not the same distance from St. Bartholomew's, and thus did not provide a classical sense of symmetry from Macdonell Street.


On the other hand, the growing collection of buildings on Catholic Hill was certainly impressive from the town in other respects. Some of the Orangemen of Guelph and area, "Could not help seeing with anger building after building rising on Catholic Hill," as Holzer reported to his superior in 1857. A combination of the town's militia, shown on Macdonell Street in front of the church, and armed church members led the Orangemen to cancel a threatened attack planned for July 13th. Holzer wrote that one leader,


"Who had boasted he would feast that day in our church and carry away my head as a trophy", and another, "Who said he would sleep in the convent after driving out the nuns," had both died horrible deaths shortly afterward.9


Holzer's construction projects did not end with the convent and the Rectory. In 1861, he built the first phase of St. Joseph's Hospital on a portion of the church glebe, rural land granted to the church by the provincial government. Nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph came from Hamilton to operate the hospital that soon included a House of Providence for the aged and infirm.


Two years later, in 1863, Holzer embarked on his most ambitious project, a new and much grander St. Bartholomew's Church. That summer, the foundation setting began, and in October the Bishop laid the cornerstone. There is remarkably little information on an architect or proposed design except that the new church was to be massive and would cost an estimated 100,000 dollars. The new church was to face west, towards Dublin Street, and stand next to the old church, which was to become a parish hall. This meant that the back end of the new church would need the space occupied by the convent, which was to be moved to four lots purchased by Holzer at the corner of Cork and Dublin Streets.10


What followed was a bizarre series of events that brought an end to Holzer's vision. As much as 20,000 dollars had been spent on the foundation of the church - in some places it was as high as 12 feet - when Holzer suffered a paralytic stroke and could not continue his service to Guelph. The local parish had never been that enthusiastic about the project in the first place and now was faced with a huge debt. Had Holzer's scheme depended on funds from his friend, the Archduke Maximilian, as some local sources suggest? Certainly, Maximilian was preoccupied with his own problems in 1864 when he accepted a rather foolhardy European scheme to parachute him into a position as Emperor of Mexico. Some of his own wealth was used to maintain his court in Mexico. And local opposition to this European intrusion culminated in what amounted to a civil war in Mexico and his execution in 1867.11 


Historic Guelph Catholic Hill before 1872 V48P11

Catholic Hill before 1872, viewed from Market Square.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Public Library).


As a result, Holzer's grand vision was abandoned, or at least postponed. In 1876, 13 years later, the foundation stones were used in the building of the Church of Our Lady. The failure of Holzer's specific project, however, meant that the convent would stay in its original position.


A second phase of the convent's evolution began in 1872 with an expansion necessitated by increased enrollment. This addition was basically a chapel but also included an assembly hall and dormitories.12 It was attached to the north wall of the original convent and extended about 12 feet in front. The gable portion of the new addition was the front façade facing the town. There is no documentary evidence of who the architect or builder might have been.13


The stonework is very similar to that of the original portion. What distinguishes this addition is the Gothic style of the windows on the front façade. Three levels of windows all have decorative stone drip moulds. The lower level has three rectangular windows each crowned by square drip moulds designed to direct water running down the face of the wall away from the windows themselves. What gives the chapel the look of a sacred place are the three pointed-arch windows of the middle level. Here the shape of the drip moulds corresponds to the pointed arch of the windows and culminates in sculpted forms based on shamrock, presumably to symbolize the Irish character of the local Catholic population. The top level of windows has two smaller, rectangular windows with squared drip moulds. In between these two windows is a niche which perhaps was designed to hold a statue of the Virgin Mary, but it is not known if any statue ever occupied this space.14 


Historic Guelph V48P12

Image Left: The east façade of the chapel.
Image Right: The rectangular chapel windows with the squared drip moulds.   
(Photos courtesy of Gil Stelter).


Historic Guelph Pointed-Arch Windows V48P12

The pointed-arch windows of the chapel with their corresponding drip moulds.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


The northern elevation of the chapel is not as elaborately decorated. There are no drip moulds on any of the windows and the stonework, probably similar to other portions of the building, has been plastered over at some point in time.


Adding a Gothic portion to an existing Classical building seems to have been typical of this neighborhood in Guelph. In 1876, local architect John Hall designed a tower with a Gothic look for the Norfolk Street Methodist Church which had been built earlier in a Classical style.15 The culmination of the Gothic in Guelph came with the design and construction of the magnificent Church of Our Lady, beginning in 1876, built on the same general location as the earlier St. Bartholomew's.


Historic Guelph V48P13

The sculpted decoration of the pointed-arch drip moulds.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


A third phase of the building of the convent involved the addition of floors four and five to the original portion in 1896. By this time the school facilities on Catholic Hill had expanded with the building in 1883 of St. Agnes School for girls and St. Stanislaus School for boys. The convent school essentially operated as a high school. According to the Guelph Mercury, the Sisters of Loretto, "Finding their accommodation too cramped," had enlarged and remodeled their convent, making it, "A very substantial building."16


In this case we know the architect involved. The diocese turned to the most prolific architect in the city, George R. Bruce, who represented the third generation of one of the most distinguished building families in Guelph. His grandfather had advertised himself as, "Architect and Builder," in the 1850s and was one of several who had submitted designs for the new Town Hall. Conceivably, he could have been involved in the original convent. Bruce's father and uncle operated one of the most successful local building firms with work on churches such as First Baptist, Knox, and Chalmers, and factories such as those of Charles Raymond. Bruce followed his family tradition with major contracts such as the Biological Building at the Ontario Agricultural College and dozens of houses considered to be among the most up-to-date in the city.17


The style Bruce used for this addition was the very popular Second Empire style, based on the French fashion dating from the reign of Napoleon III.18 The most elegant example of the style in Guelph is the Wellington Hotel Building constructed in the late 1870s, but other examples include the first General Hospital and many homes. The most obvious architectural feature of this style is the mansard roof which could be built with straight, convex, or concave curbs beneath a hipped roof. The style was practical for adding floors to a building because it allowed for a full floor of attic space. In the case of the convent, Bruce chose the simplest roof alternative, the straight curb. But the addition had its elaborate features as well, especially a projecting central bay, or frontispiece, which amounted to a small tower. This was punctuated by three dormers, with two more on each side, making a total of seven dormers on the front façade. The rear of the building also had seven dormers and the south face, four. The tower is topped by decorative iron cresting and the cornice has several attractive brackets.


Historic Guelph 1915 view of Convent V48P14

A 1915 view of the convent.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Historical Society).


The stonework of the fourth floor followed that of the original building except for the stonework above the windows. Instead of the straight arches of the earlier period, these windows are topped by a lintel cut from a single piece of limestone, a typical feature of late nineteenth-century stone building in Guelph.


Historic Guelph V48P14

The mansard roof of the 1896 addition, with the straight curb, the dormers, and the brackets.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


The interior of the convent has seen extensive changes over almost 150 years of use. In general, the major functions included classrooms and other public rooms at the lower levels, and individual rooms for the sisters and dormitory rooms for boarding students at the middle and upper levels. The sisters' bedrooms were relatively small, and each was furnished with a bed, a table and a chair. Each room had a window and, after 1896, the window was set in a dormer. Some Sisters remember that the upper-level bedrooms had no radiators, with the only heat coming from the hall. After the chapel was built in 1872, some dormitories were located above the chapel, with rather awkward access from the third floor of the main building. Sister Helen Cameron, who first visited the convent in 1962 and lived there from 1979 to 1981 as Mother Superior, remembers the earlier version as, "A dark, unwelcoming place," with very dark woodwork, not many comfortable chairs, with long tables in the dining room. The entire interior was lightened up in the late 1960s or early 1970s, she believes, when the sisters painted all the woodwork a cream colour, put up new drapes and curtains, and furnished the bedrooms with new furniture, making it, "A very much brighter and more comfortable place to live."


Some of the original features of the convent include the main entryway, with classical paneling inside and out, typical of Guelph in the 1850s. Some of the woodwork around the main door still has the very dark colours to which Sister Helen referred. The main entrance was used by students while the sisters tended to use the back verandah, with access to the church's parking lot. As you enter at the ground level, to your left is the large room where the Separate School system in Guelph began. Here is where Patrick Downey taught both boys and girls while the upper-level floors were being finished. When the Loretto sisters arrived in 1856, the boys were moved to the Rectory, then under construction. To the right of the convent's central hall was the music room for piano lessons.


Historic Guelph The Front Door V48P15

The front door and its paneling.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


Perhaps the most striking architectural feature of the interior was the central staircase. The first two levels appear to be original. The style changes slightly for the higher levels which might be the product of the 1890s renovation. The relatively primitive methods of the basic construction are apparent in the now exposed portions of the stairs, where you can see virtually untrimmed tree trunks used as supports. 


Historic Guelph V48P16

Image Left: Part of the central staircase in 2005.

Image Right: A sister's bedroom window.

(Photos courtesy of Gil Stelter).


Historic Guelph Gothic Window V48P16

A Gothic window on the east side of the chapel.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


At the top of the first flight of stairs is a niche where a statue of St. Michael once stood, following a tradition of Loretto convents around the world.


Sister Helen remembers the early chapel as, "A dark, dingy, unattractive worship place, sort of pseudo-Gothic style, with a reredos that looked a bit like a wedding cake, ornate and not easy to dust!" The original focus of the altar was to the west, to your left as you entered. This was re-oriented to have the chapel face north making it wider than it was long. A large statue of Mary of the Immaculate Conception stood by the east-facing Gothic windows, for the title of this convent was 'Loretto of the Immaculate Conception.'


A new red-brick building, simply called the Loretto Academy, was connected to the chapel in 1926. This eight-room structure housed a science room, a library and a commercial department. Some male students now attended as well. In 1953, with the building of Notre Dame High School, later renamed Bishop Macdonell, facing Norfolk Street; a co-ed high school program was initiated, with teaching staff that now included male and female lay teachers. Both the Academy and the Bishop Macdonell buildings were demolished in 2004.


Historic Guelph The Loretto Academy V48P17

September 30, 2004: The Loretto Academy still stands, after the demolition of Bishop Macdonell High School.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter).


In terms of its functions, the Loretto Convent was a significant feature of early Guelph's educational and cultural development. Now the building itself can be a useful artifact that can be used to explain Guelph's architectural traditions during the second half of the nineteenth century, when so much of what we appreciate about Guelph's heritage was constructed. This convent was never meant to be an elegant architecturally noteworthy building and, in this respect, it helps us understand and appreciate the vernacular approach to building, which, after all, was the way most buildings in Guelph were constructed. And finally, the convent's restoration and renovation into the Civic Museum represents another trend that has become a Guelph tradition that of re-doing old buildings for new purposes.


Historic Guelph V48P4

The pre-1926 view of the convent.

(Photo courtesy of Gil Stelter (April 21, 2005)).




  1. St. Bartholomew's is mentioned as one of Turner's designs in his obituary in the Brantford Expositor, January 22, 1887.
  2. Depending on what you count as a church. The Congregationalists had built a small stone chapel in 1840.
  3. Entry on Father Holzer in Woodstock Letters, A Record of Current Events and Historical Notes connected with the Colleges and Missions of the Society of Jesus in North and South America (Woodstock College 1888), Vol. XVIL. p. 244-249; P. Edouard LeCompte, Jesuits du Canada au XIX Siecle (Montreal: Imprimerie du Messager, 1920), p. 258-263.
  4. Financial data on Flolzer's projects are from Theodorus Fleck S. I., "A Sketch of the Labors of the Society of Jesus in the Western Part of the Province of Ontario," an unpublished manuscript, based on archives at the College Sainte-Marie, Montreal. Fleck was based in Guelph in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He had Father Flolzer's original letters and other primary sources available to him. A handwritten copy of Fleck's manuscript is at the Jesuit Archives, Toronto.
  5. Fleck.
  6. The late Constance Pole Bayer, John Turner's great-granddaughter once told me that she believed that Turner designed the convent and the 1872 chapel addition, but I have not found any documentation to support this claim.
  7. Gordon Couling, Our Heritage in Stone (Cambridge: Heritage Cambridge, 1978), p. 6.
  8. Quoted by A. P. Monaghan, "History of the Diocese of Hamilton: Notes on the Guelph and Waterloo County Area," typescript, Jesuit Archives, p. 5.
  9. Quoted by Fleck.
  10. Fleck; Ken Foyster, Anniversary Reflections, 1856-1981: A History of the Hamilton Diocese (Hamilton: W. L. Griffin, 1981), p. 90-92.
  11. Most of the locally produced accounts accept the story of Maximilian's involvement, but Rev. Thomas Collins, "The History of the Church of Our Lady Parish" booklet produced by the Parish in 1989 rejects it as myth. In my view, Holzer was a visionary but not incompetent financially. He would not have started such a large project without some serious basis for believing that the money would be forthcoming.
  12. Sister Romana Gignac, "History of Bishop Macdonell High School," typescript, n.d., Archives of the Church of Our Lady.
  13. "Building Operations in Guelph in 72," Guelph Mercury, December 1, 1872.
  14. Sister Helen Cameron, "Reminiscences of the Loretto Convent," June 12, 2009.
  15. G. A. Steltec, "The Carpenter/Architect and the Ontario Townscape: John Hall, Jr., of Guelph," Historic Guelph, Vol. XXX (September 1991), p. 12-13.
  16. "Building Operations in Guelph 1896," Guelph Mercury, October 28, 1896.
  17. Guelph Herald, July 6, 1852; Guelph Mercury, April 9, 1881, October 27,
    1987, October 8, 1908. Bruce died at the relatively young age of 45 in 1903. Guelph Mercury, February 17, 1903.
  18. Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994), Vol 2, p. 600; John Blumenson, Ontario Architecture (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990), Chapter 10.