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Timeless tales: Empty lot once housed St. Ann’s convent

NANAIMO – School operated for 89 years on Old City Quarter property also housed hospital, orphanage.
St.Ann’s Convent and Academy survived two fires and operated for 89 years at the corner of Wallace and Wentworth streets.

It’s not much to look at, the lot on the corner of Wentworth and Wallace streets.

Moss creeps over the wall and mowed brambles cover crumbling concrete steps. The land is an expanse of weeds, asphalt and the occasional coffee lid. People walk briskly past the property, not even sparing it a glance, except for resident Connie West.

There used to be a convent here, she says.

“I’m not sure where it was.”

She arrived in Nanaimo in 1958, and remembers the building existing then. She went to a dance there once, she said.

The acreage is now owned by Telus, but it was the home of St. Ann’s Convent and Academy, attended by pupils for 89 years.

It opened as one of the community’s first schools in 1877, documents from the Nanaimo Community Archives show. Founders Sister Mary of the Cross and Sister Mary Eleanor had 29 children on the roll call, including the daughters of coal and railway developer Robert Dunsmuir, teaching them drawing, needlework, English and arithmetic.

The school started in the house of Nanaimo’s first resident priest Father John Lemmens, but within two years a convent was built. A Victoria benefactor sent her gardener to landscape the grounds with a flower and vegetable garden, according to Sister Mary Luca in a 1971 audio recording, published by Vancouver Island University.

In 1885 small pox hit Nanaimo. Many families left the area in a hurry and it was difficult to find anyone to nurse the stricken, according to Luca, who says the sisters were asked to help Thomas Morgan, whose family included the worst victims. One sister told Luca she was “absolutely terrified,” but pulled up her sleeves to help when she saw another sister pick up a little girl and kiss her.

In 1910, the convent suffered another setback. A fire broke out, starting in the laundry room, and without an adequate water supply, the convent and adjoining parish church were reduced to ashes. Forty-five orphaned children were without a home.

Citizens offered to house them, but the children wouldn’t leave the sisters, Luca said. A Mr. Grant offered his five-room house and the orphans slept on mattresses on the floor of the front room and upstairs.

For the next year, St. Ann’s students went to St. Mary’s School in Ladysmith until a new, three-storey academy was built.

In 1955, another fire struck the convent. John Mochrie, a former Nanaimo resident who attended St. Ann’s from Grades 1 to 11 between 1950 and 1961, was an altar boy at the church’s 7 a.m. mass when flames broke out. School was out for a week or two, then smelled like smoke for the rest of the year.

In 1941, St. Ann’s began to offer a business college. In 1961, the high school was closed and Mochrie had to finish his last year at Nanaimo District Secondary School.

It was an “interesting” transition, he said. At St. Ann’s one sister taught the subjects, students didn’t move classrooms and there were no male teachers. At NDSS, he said he might have had two female teachers.

“The rest of my teachers were men and I was always calling them sister,” he said, chuckling.

The sisters eventually turned the school over to the parish council for reasons like rising prices, the decline of the boarding school and economic conditions, and the council shuttered it for good in 1966.