Author: Dr. Debra Nash-Chambers

Publication Date: 2009

Edited: 2022



Historic Guelph Dance Class V48P20Dance class at the Loretto Convent, 1947.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Women religious from the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) have a long record of service in Guelph that dates back to 1856 when Father John Holzer invited the Lorettos to establish a filiation in the burgeoning town on the agricultural frontier of Canada West. Known locally, and affectionately, as the Ladies of Loretto, the sisters who travelled by train to Guelph from Toronto offered social welfare assistance and educational opportunities to the community. As their manner of dress at the time was not unlike that of other women of the period, the carriage driver who met them at the station spread the word that a Mrs. Lalor and her three daughters were new to Guelph. Over the decades to follow, the style of dress of Guelph's Loretto Sisters and the responsibilities of these nuns went through many transitions. When the Sisters of St. Joseph answered Father Holzer's call to travel to Guelph and found a hospital and a House of Providence, the Lorettos relinquished responsibility for the care of orphans and the indigent and concentrated on the educational needs of the community. In the mid-twentieth century, the Loretto legacy came full circle when sisters of the IBVM in Guelph refocused on social welfare by assisting marginalized members of the community to adapt to life following incarceration or those facing mental health-related challenges, family violence, or tenuous economic circumstances. While Guelph's Loretto Convent closed in 1996, four IBVM women religious continued to offer their care and leadership to Guelphites, regardless of religious affiliation.


In 1827, an imposing six-acre hilltop parcel of land was granted to the Catholic Church to honour John Galts friend and mentor, Bishop Alexander Macdonell. Lots situated on rises in the terrain were also set aside in the town plan for the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church, so all three denominations could establish a permanent presence. Until 1830, Roman Catholic priest Father Campion, the Chaplain of Niagara, travelled through Guelph on his mission circuit. Then a series of locally-based priests addressed the many needs of the struggling Catholic families in the area. Through the thirties and the forties, the fledgling Guelph parish faced the constant pressure of debt as the wooden St. Patrick's Church burned in 1844 and was replaced by a stone church named St. Bartholomew's. In a backwoods village, the social welfare needs of the local Catholics greatly complicated meeting the spiritual needs of the flock and addressing the issue of education. However, the work continued with prayer, sacrifice, and perseverance, and in 1852, the Society of Jesus established a call in Guelph that would be answered by the Jesuits until 1931.


Father John Holzer was the first Jesuit assigned to the Guelph parish. Holzer and Bishop John Farrell of the Hamilton Diocese shared a vision to establish an impressive institutional campus on Guelph's 'Catholic Hill.' The hill was bounded by Cork, Norfolk, Northumberland, and Dublin Streets. Along with St. Bartholomew's Church and the magnificent Church of Our Lady Immaculate that eventually encapsulated the older St. Bartholomew's Church in the 1880s, a convent, a Rectory, and Catholic schools eventually adorned the hill. The convent was already in its third year of construction when the Lorettos were invited to Guelph in 1856 to assist Father Holzer in fulfilling his vision. A chapel addition was completed in 1872 and two additional storeys were integrated into the structure in 1896 to meet the space requirements for instruction and the residential needs of a complement of roughly 20 nuns, novices, and an ever-expanding student population.


The Loretto Convent in Guelph was the centre of the third Loretto mission in British North America undertaken at the request of colonial church officials by sisters from the Rathfarnham Convent near Dublin in Ireland. The first was established in Toronto in 1847 at the behest of Bishop Michael Power of Toronto. The initial four sisters dispatched to Guelph came from the Lorettos second mission in London, Canada West. The Guelph Lorettos were one of many branches established as overseas missions by the order in Rathfarnham after it was established in 1821. Known as "Loretos" outside North America, women religious were sent out from Rathfarnham to India Mauritius and Gibraltar among other destinations.2 Ironically, the Toronto mission was considered to be one of the most challenging due to the enormity of need and the privations born of underfunding.3 Missions of varying duration were also established in Hamilton, Bellevue, Lindsay, and Niagara. The Guelph convent remained a residence for 140 years until it closed in 1996.


Guelph's women religious articulated the vision of their foundress Mary Ward (1585-1645). Mary Ward was a well-educated, devout young woman whose family faced religious persecution in England at a time when Roman Catholicism was declared to be illegal.4 Four hundred years ago, Mary Ward established her foundation to facilitate her belief that, "Women, also, should and can provide something more than ordinary in the face of common need."5 Undaunted by rebuffs from Roman Catholic officials in the Vatican who questioned the unconventional worldliness of women out in the community doing good works, Ward's work continued after her death. In her own lifetime, Ward was declared a heretic by the Church and houses associated with her foundation were to be closed.6 Yet, the foundation maintained a foothold in England and Europe and eventually established branches in Ireland in the 1820s.


The first decade of the Loretto mission in Guelph did not pass without controversy. Two incidents were the result of anti-Catholic sentiment in the area. In 1856, Sister Michael was miraculously rescued by rail workers after she was put off a train beyond Guelph by a conductor with Orange Lodge sympathies. She was returning home from convent business in Hamilton.7 In 1857, the convent weathered a threatened July 12th assault on the hill by drunken Orangemen.8 An internal conflict within the hierarchy of the Loretto order had regrettable consequences for the Guelph convent. In 1858, Mother Berchmans Lalor attempted to establish administrative autonomy for the Guelph Lorettos due to the issue of distance between Guelph and Rathfarnham. The Guelph Superioress was following a precedent set in 1852 by a Dublin offshoot of the Rathfarnham convent. Despite the approval of Bishop Farrell, the controversy that followed became known as the Guelph Schism.9 Bishop Farrell was asked to rescind his support and Mother Lalor was replaced as mother superior and recalled to Rathfarnham.


Historic Guelph Students of Loretto Academy V48P23

Students of the Loretto Academy, 1919.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Before the departure of Mother Berchmans Lalot, the first Lorettos directed to Guelph adapted to a system of Catholic education already in process. Lay teachers had been fully responsible for local Catholic education of both sexes since the Catholic Board of Education established parochial education in 1854. Mr. Patrick Downey offered boys a free primary school education first in a room in the convent and then in the Rectory until 1883, when a new St. Stanislaus School opened to the west of the Rectory. Attempts to establish a novitiate to offer higher education to male students was attempted and twice failed by 1880.


The Lorettos augmented the board-subsidized services of lay teachers Mrs. Gagnier and Mrs. Stance who taught in a room near the entrance to the convent. The Lorettos started a boarding school and a day school for girls that were supported by tuition fees. Until 1861, and the arrival of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the building also housed an orphanage. The sisters kept a vegetable garden, fruit trees, cows, and chickens to help make their enterprises self-sustaining. The demands for paid and free education grew. In 1883, a separate St. Agnes School for girls opened near the convent and the Lorettos continued to oversee teaching and administration in this 'free' school, as well as their convent academy. Both the size and scale of the convent changed over time as more students, novices, and nuns needed to be accommodated. The educational mission of the Lorettos also adjusted to meet new needs. In 1880, due to the increasing demand for certified Catholic teachers, the Loretto Academy in Guelph inaugurated a program to certify young women in teachers' training.10 Starting in 1882, the Lorettos and lay teachers offered night school classes so workers, including farm boys, had access to education to improve their lives.11 However, the sisters are better known for their private school programs that offered a quality education in a convent that resembled a 'rath' or Irish fort.12


Guelph's Loretto Academy became one of the finest 'finishing' schools for the education of proper young ladies in Ontario. In the 1875 to 1876 Guelph Directory, Rev. Mother Regis Harris, Superioress, advertised a quality education,


"Open to ladies of all denominations," which was, "Carried on in precisely the same system and equally well as Loretto Abbey of Toronto, both as regards the efficiency of teachers and comfort of the pupils."13


The laudable painting and music programs at the Academy attracted Catholic and non-Catholic pupils alike. The curriculum also included religious and moral training, deportment, manners, elocution, English, French, and mathematics. Annual recitals showcased the recitation, choral, voice, and instrumental music achievements of their pupils throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.14 In the early twentieth century, physical culture education became a component of the curriculum and the achievements of the pupils were displayed at evening events featuring dance and precision drills.15 The academy's impressive music programme incorporated certification by the Toronto Conservatory of Music for performance as well as choral direction.


A dramatic shift occurred when local demand prompted the Ladies of Loretto to offer their services at the academy for the education of male students, too. A notable male graduate of the academy's painting class was internationally respected artist Rolph Scarlett.16 Other male students received a full-time high school education at the academy. The graduation rolls in the twentieth-century Loretto scrapbooks indicate that the so-called 'Loretto boy' remained a minority of the academy graduates until the late twentieth century. According to Sister Helen Cameron, the co-educational policy of the academy was implemented while the school board was still pondering how to meet the needs of male students desiring a high school education.17


In the century and a half after 1856, the Lorettos established elementary intermediate and high school institutions offering a quality education to both sexes on the city's Catholic Hill and in the twentieth century elementary schools beyond 'Holy Hill.' From 1912, the Lorettos taught at St. Patrick's School opened in the Ward in 1908 and its larger replacement, Sacred Heart School, built next to the Sacred Heart Church in 1932. Two decades later, the post-war Baby Boom increased the demand for education in Guelph and two new Catholic elementary schools were completed. The Lorettos taught at St. Joseph's School from 1951 and at the Holy Rosary School from 1955. Once again, the new elementary schools were adjacent to new churches in a new parish. However, an ever-increasing lay presence was evident in the teaching force and among the principals of local schools as the century continued. While Mother Mary St. Joseph was the principal of Holy Rosary, lay teachers were promoted to become the principals of St. Joseph's School and the new St. Bernadette's in 1959. This became the norm after 1965, even though the school board chose Lorettos to be the principals of the first two Catholic senior public schools: Our Lady of Lourdes (1965) and St. James (1965). Between 1926 and 1971, 11 Ladies of Loretto served as school principals of the Loretto high school on Catholic Hill.18


After 1953, the role the Lorettos played in education on Catholic Hill began to change. In 1953, over-crowding in the academy was relieved when Notre Dame High School was completed below the convent on Holy Hill. Students in grades 9 and 10 attended the new school while grades 11 to 13 remained at the academy. In 1962, the two units began to share administration and resources under the name Bishop Macdonell High School. The two components were physically joined by new construction in 1967. In 1971, Mr. J. Heany became the first non-Loretto principal. After 1971, the Lorettos at the convent became increasingly focused on local catechism-related educational programs. In 1995, the original Bishop Macdonell High School closed and was later demolished.


The Loretto Chapel in the new Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School on Clair Road in Guelph reminds the community of the role that the Ladies of Lorettos once played in local education. The convent was spared from demolition after it closed in 1996 due to local plans for it to be adapted as the future home of the Guelph Civic Museum. Today, the Loretto legacy in Guelph is sustained by four members of the IBVM. Two of these women play a less public role in the community. Sister Jeanine works full time for the Loyola House Jesuit Retreat Centre where her work involves planning and administration in addition to offering spiritual direction. Sister Donata Dean taught for many years at Sacred Heart School. Like Sister Christine Leyseç, Sister Donata lives at Yorkhaven and helps the residents to live independently. She has been involved with Sister Christine's many outreach ministries.


In 1979, Sister Christine came to town,


"With a sense, like Mary Ward, that God wanted something else. This insight led her to work with prisoners and former prisoners, to provide for the homeless poor, and to be a voice for those who had no voice or power in Guelph and surrounding region."19


In 2009, Sister Christine's decades of service to the socially and economically disadvantaged in Guelph via the Drop-in Centre and her residential missions were recognized when she received the Order of Canada. Sister Christine urges us all to go where there is no path and leave a trail.20 Helen Cameron, IBVM, a former Mother Superior in Guelph, did that in 2007 when she approached administrators at the new Bishop Mac to re-establish the tie between the Lorettos and Catholic education in Guelph. She dedicates her time and talents to being a volunteer teacher and assistant to the chaplain.21


Once converted into the new Guelph Civic Museum, the Loretto Convent will return to an educational mission, serving all, regardless of religious affiliation. Beyond its walls, out in the larger community, local 'Lorettos' continue to honour the visionary leadership of their foundress Mary Ward by addressing the needs of Guelphites - body, mind, and soul. Reflecting on the past and contemporary roles of the IBVM in Guelph, Sister Helen concluded that,


"In a variety of ways, there is continuity from the earliest beginnings in 1856, as we live Mary Ward's mission and vision of responding to whatever are the needs of our times."22




  1. Typescript, "History of the Lorettos in Guelph," n. d., p. 1. Guelph Convent File, Archives, Loretto Abbey, Toronto, Ontario.
  2. Sister Gregory Kirkus, C. Mary Ward. (Strasbourg: Congregation of Jesus Charitable Trust and Way Publications, 2006), p. 31. Booklet provided by Bishop Macdonnell Catholic High School.
  3. Kathleen McGovern, IBVM. Something More than Ordinary, The Early History of Mary Ward's Institute in North America. (Richmond Hill: T. I. Tram, Publications, 1989), p. 93.
  4. Kirkus, Mary Ward, p. 3.
  5. Booklet, The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary Loretto Sisters, 400th Anniversary Mass of Celebration, Sunday May 3, 2009, Quotation taken from the booklet's inside front cover. Booklet provided by Bishop Macdonnell Catholic High School.
  6. McGovem, Something More Than Ordinary, p. 24.
  7. Typescript, "History of the Lorettos in Guelph", n. d. p. 1. Archives, Loretto Abbey, Toronto.
  8. "Biography of Father Flolzer," typescript copy of a document from the Woodstock Council Archives, and unsigned typescript, "History of Our Lady's Parish, Guelph, 1827-1957," p. 2, Jesuit Archives, Toronto.
  9. Mary Wright, Mary Ward's Institute, The Struggle for Identity. (Sydney: Crossing Press, 1997), p. 117 and McGovern, p. 137.
  10. A History of the Guelph Separate Schools, A Sesquicentennial Project, Wellington County Separate School Board 1977, p. 4. Archives, Guelph Public Library.
  11. Helen Cameron, IBVM. "Loretto in Guelph", typescript, 2009, p. 1. Both the typescript and the interview with Sister Helen are appreciated.
  12. An American writer who visited Guelph in 1856 made these comments. See the newspaper clipping from the Guelph Daily Mercury dated May 26, 1956 in Guelph Convent File, Archives, Loretto Abbey, Toronto, Ontario.
  13. Leo A. Johnson, History of Guelph, 1827-1927. (Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, 1977), p. 221.
  14. See the Churches and the women in Guelph files, Archives, Guelph Civic Museum and various scrapbooks from 1930s to 1996 in the Bishop Macdonell Catholic School Archives, and the Bishop Mac Archives were facilitated by Ms. Maria Prigone.
  15. In addition to evening events demonstrating the physical culture subjects of dance and precision drills, garden parties, elaborate graduation exercises, fashion shows, drama productions, school trips, dances, and a wide variety of intercollegiate Celtics sports teams for males and females became popular traditions, according to, "The Loretto Academy School Chronicles, 1932-1935," and various scrapbooks compiled by the Lorettos and their students from the 1950s to the 1990s. The sisters kept clippings regarding the marriages, university graduations, and post-graduation pursuits of their former students. Students who became priests or women religious feature prominently in the scrapbooks.
  16. Rolph Scarlett was one of many notables included World War I era song-writer Laura Lemon, who was famous for her tune "My Ain Folk;" 1950s Toronto Opera star Angela Antonelli; student accordion player Joey Macerollo, Winner of the 1958 Channel 11 Amateur Hour; Canadian Cinderella Beauty of 1967, Carole Anne Priamo; and 1976 Olympians Bob Sharpe and Rachelle Campbell. The Loretto/ BM Scrapbooks are full of clippings detailing the success of former Loretto students.
  17. Cameron, "Lorettos in Guelph," p. 1.
  18. "Principals Since 1926," typescript, n. d., p. 1. See scrapbook titled BMHS 1971 Record of Achievement, BM Archives.
  19. Cameron, "Lorettos in Guelph," p. 3.
  20. Interview with Sister Christine Leyser at the Drop-In Centre at Gordon Street, Guelph, on June 16, 2009.
  21. Interview with sister Helen Cameron, IBVM, Chaplain's office, Bishop Macdonnell Catholic High School on Clair Road, Guelph, on June 4, 2009.
  22. Cameron, "Lorettos in Guelph," p. 3.