Over 160 years, the Sisters of St. Ann have taught thousands of students, treated thousands more patients, and multiplied social justice efforts in B.C.

Now, as a congregation of sisters older than Canada itself faces dwindling numbers and no new recruits, it’s finding new ways to continue the mission they arrived with in 1858.

Not leaving a legacy

Once there were as many as 200 Sisters of St. Ann serving in education, health care, pastoral care, and other efforts in the Pacific Northwest. Now, there are 27 sisters left with an average age of 83.

Sister Marina Smith, who joined the community 65 years ago, says the focus as the community ages is not about leaving their stamp on history. “We do not try to ‘set a legacy,’” Sister Smith told The B.C. Catholic. “We’re not about that.”

Instead, the plan is to set things in motion so even after the last Sister of St. Ann in B.C. has passed away, their 160+ years of dedicated service to the poor and marginalized will not come to a stop.

“We’re not leaving something in our memory. We’re continuing something. It’s like what Jesus did: he left apostles to continue his mission. We’re hoping that’s what we’re about: continuing his mission.”

The mission

Blessed Marie Anne Blondin founded the Sisters of St. Ann in Vaudreuil, Que., in 1850. In her words, the purpose of the congregation was “the education of poor country children, both girls and boys in the same schools.”

They were 44 sisters strong when Bishop Modeste Demers of Vancouver Island came to visit in 1857 and asked if some sisters could travel west and open schools in his diocese.

Four sisters made the two-months-long journey back with him, arriving in Victoria June 5, 1858, four years before the city was incorporated. They opened the doors of a simple one-room school with dirt floors a few days later, and from the first day, welcomed everyone from the children of the governor to Metis orphans.

By their 60th anniversary, they had opened 21 schools, educated 17,000 students, founded four hospitals, and cared for 450 orphans.

By their 160th anniversary, the Sisters of St. Ann have opened or operated schools in B.C., the Yukon, Washington, and Alaska. Some have since closed, while others, such as Little Flower Academy established in Vancouver in 1927, are still running.

The sisters also opened 10 hospitals and St. Joseph’s School of Nursing, which trained generations of medical professionals in its 81 years in Victoria. Some hospitals have since closed, while others like Mount St. Mary Hospital were passed into other hands.

Reconciliation with First Nations

Since the day they opened that rustic one-room school, the Sisters of St. Ann have cared about social justice.

“Throughout our history, the sisters have really challenged systems that have excluded people from the benefits of an education, health care, and the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential,” said provincial co-leader Sister Marie Zarowny, SSA.

“That’s what we strove to do in our schools, in our teaching of religious education, our health care institutions, and that we continue to do, wherever we are.”

Sister Zarowny, who has spent most of her 59 years with the congregation serving the marginalized, is a good example. She was the Diocese of Victoria’s first coordinator of its social justice office and has also worked with dioceses in northern Canada on various projects, including a study of economic and social concerns of people up north. One project resulted in three statements by bishops from Yukon to Labrador condemning domestic violence.

The messages, translated into all Indigenous languages of the north and broadcast on radio, were “challenging the situation of domestic violence, looking at the causes, and committing themselves to working with the people to address it,” she said.

Sister Marie Zarowny, SSA, with Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light Television, at the sisters' 160th anniversary celebrations in Victoria June 2. (Photo courtesy Salt and Light)

She also coordinated the 1989-1991 synod for the Diocese ofMackenzie-Fort Smith , which had a special focus on better listening to and serving First Nations people.

“The people, both the First Nations as well as the non-First Nations of the north, came to see themselves as the Church, and that the Church wasn’t just priests and sisters,” she said. “That has carried on,” and many First Nations people have stepped up and taken more active roles in their faith communities since.

More recently, the Sisters of St. Ann helped found and fund Returning to Spirit, a non-profit that reconciles Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (the sisters once operated four residential schools) and donated to a new program at St. Paul’s University that links First Nations healing and psychotherapy studies.

Championing social justice

The sisters haven’t solely focused on relations with First Nations peoples, either. Sister Joyce Harris, chair of the sisters’ B.C. social justice committee, has focused her efforts in Victoria and across the globe.

“We’re always concerned about living the social Gospel of Christ,” she said. “It is the heart of what it means to be a Christian, in my opinion.”

Locally, Sister Harris has contributed to Faith in Action, a group that advocates for public policy for the homeless and poor; Kairos, an ecumenical social justice and advocacy group; and Anawim House, a home for men recovering from poverty and addiction.

“Our focus there is to help them to change, to give them the skills and tools to give them the inner confidence to contribute again to society,” she said. The name, Anawim, comes from a Hebrew word meaning “God’s poor.”

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, has thanked the sisters for their incredible contributions over the last 160 years. “From health care to education to social justice, the ministry and impact of the Sisters of St. Ann have had on the Church and society in British Columbia has been an enormous gift,” he wrote in April.

Internationally, the sisters have been remarkably active as well.

They have spoken up on human rights issues through the Canadian Catholic charity Development and Peace as well as UNANIMA, a non-governmental organization at the United Nations. One of their recent big advocacy efforts was against human trafficking, with Sister Nancy Brown (a sister well known in the Vancouver area) at the forefront.

Changed, not ended

Now, life is changed, but not ended for the Sisters of St. Ann.

“We’re moving into a new phase of our ministry,” said Sister Smith. “Because we’re not the young, energetic people we were, can we spread God’s love through other people doing the ministry.”

While these social justice activists, teachers, and nurses don’t have the energy to work as hard as they used to, they have many resources saved up over 160 years. “We’ve always kept money for what’s called ministry and mission,” Sister Smith explained. 

Those sisters who taught in Catholic schools over so many years didn’t keep their salaries for themselves; a large portion of those funds went into a fund for future missions, have been receiving interest, and are now being distributed. The sisters are also downsizing, selling land (including their motherhouse in Quebec), and donating the funds to worthy organizations.

In this way, they’ve given a significant boost to Development and Peace ($4 million) and Victoria groups like Anawim, the transition home for men; Rosalie’s Village, a housing project for single moms and women fleeing abuse; and the Cool Aid Society, a group working to build 61 affordable housing units in Victoria.

These organizations aren’t necessarily Catholic.

“To us, this 160th means finding ways to carry on the ministry and keep it alive,” said Sister Smith. “There are people out there doing wonderful things. By connecting with them, we’re hoping to bring the Christian dimension.”

Travelling exhibits of the congregations archives.
Photos courtesy Carey Pallister.

For example, they joined Greater Victoria Acting Together to partner with faith-based and civic groups and make positive changes in their neighbourhood.

The sisters are also still very focused on education, donating funds to Catholic schools including $3 million to St. Mark’s College (the largest donation the college has ever received), and creating bursaries to help disadvantaged students get post-secondary degrees in Victoria.

They also sent $2 million to Haiti, where Catholic schools and the Sisters of St. Ann working there were hard-hit after the 2010 earthquake.

A life-giving force

While the congregation admits its work is “nearing completion” in B.C. and membership in Quebec and Massachusetts is dwindling, efforts in other parts of the globe are thriving.

The Sisters of St. Ann in Haiti were founded when four sisters went to build schools there around 1945. One sister died of malaria, but the other three managed to plant a new community that is now 55 sisters strong and growing, with most members under the age of 40.

They run five schools in Port-au-Prince, at least another seven schools in other parts of Haiti, and are opening health clinics as well.

“For some years, there were a number of Canadian sisters who helped get Haiti established,” said Sister Harris. “Now it is well established with their own leaders, education, administration, and health care. We are very excited about that life-giving force.”

Sister Smith agrees. “The sisters in Haiti are going ahead, taking on schools, building clinics. They will be the future.”

Sister Rita Larivée. (L. Dall photo)
Sister Zarowny and others at the 160th events. (L. Dall photo)

Archivist Carey Pallister is not a religious sister, but sees her work as a lifelong vocation, too.

“This is more than a job. This is a mission, and it’s one that I take extremely seriously,” she said. “In the archives, I am surrounded by the historic and the beautiful, but I must also always look forward to educate and to continue the legacy and mission of the Sisters of St. Ann.”

The sisters’ archives have been in the care of the Royal B.C. Museum since 2012. Pallister, with staff at that museum, have created an exhibit currently on display in their Pocket Gallery in the  museum’s main hall.

They also created two travelling exhibits – one on health care, the other on education – that fit in wheeled trunks and are available to be borrowed by Catholic schools or anyone else interested in learning more about the work of the sisters.

The sisters held a celebration in honour of their 160th birthday in Victoria June 2. An estimated 500 sisters, supporters, and friends – including those taught and nursed by them – arrived to celebrate the work done so far and the efforts to come.

The Sisters of St. Ann opened 10 hospitals on the west coast:

St. Joseph’s Hospital, Victoria, B.C. (1876-1972)
St. Ann’s Hospital, Juneau, Alaska (1886-1968)
St. Ann’s Hospital, Douglas, Alaska (1898-1920)
St. Mary’s Hospital, Dawson, Yukon (1898-1906)
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Campbell River, B.C. (1926-1957)
Sacred Heart Hospital, Smithers, B.C. (1934-1969)
Mount St. Mary Hospital, Victoria, B.C. (1941-2000)
St. Martin’s Hospital, Oliver, B.C. (1942-1973)
Skagway Sanatorium, Skagway, Alaska (1945-1947)
Mount St. Francis Hospital, Nelson, B.C. (1947-1997)

St. Anne's Academy in New Westminster. (Photo courtesy Carey Pallister)

The Sisters of St. Ann also owned and operated many schools*:

St. Ann’s Convent School, Victoria, B.C. (Opened 1858)
Broad Street School, Victoria, B.C. (1859)
View Street School, Victoria, B.C. (1861)
St. Ann’s School, Duncan, B.C. (1864)
St. Ann’s Academy, New Westminster, B.C. (1865)
St. Ann’s Academy, Victoria, B.C. (1872)
St. Joseph’s School, Williams Lake, B.C. (1876)
St. Ann’s School and Convent, Nanaimo, B.C. (1877)
St. Ann’s Academy, Kamloops, B.C. (1880)
St. Ann’s School and Convent, Juneau, Alaska (1886)
St. Ann’s Kindergarten, Victoria, B.C. (1888)
Holy Cross Mission School, Holy Cross, Alaska (1888)
St. Ann’s Academy/Holy Rosary, Vancouver, B.C. (1888)
Akulurak Indian Mission School, Akulurak, Alaska (1894)
St. Ann’s School and Convent, Douglas Island, Alaska (1895)
St. Mary’s School, Dawson City, Alaska (1899)
Our Lady of the Snows School, Nulato, Alaska (1899)
St. Aloysius Protectorate for Boys, Victoria, B.C. (1899)
St. Joseph’s School of Nursing, Victoria, B.C. (1900)
St. Mary’s School, Ladysmith, B.C. (1909)
Little Flower Academy, Vancouver, B.C. (1912)
St. Ann’s Kindergarten and Primary School, Victoria, B.C. (1929)
Holy Ghost School, Richmond, B.C. (1947)
Holy Angels Kindergarten, Victoria, B.C. (1948)
St. Ann’s School and Convent, Penticton, B.C. (1952)
Copper Valley School, Glenallen, Alaska (1956)
St. James School, Vernon, B.C. (1956)
St. Patrick’s School and Convent, Victoria, B.C. (1957)
Centennial Annex (Secondary/High School), Victoria, B.C. (1958)
St. Mary’s/St. Joseph’s, Andreafsky, Alaska (1974)

*They taught in an additional 18 schools across the province.

(With files from archivist Carey Pallister)