Religious History Of St. John Baptiste
Arrival of the Grey Nuns The first schools
and the boarding school.
That first winter of 1847, the priests started teaching children in the settlement. The 4th of October, 1860, three members of the Order of Sisters known as the Grey Nuns of Montreal, arrived in Ile-a-la-Crosse after a long and exhausting 63-day journey over rivers and lakes, and 37 portages; twice they escaped a tragic death. They had left Montreal June 4th, 1860 and then from St. Boniface on July 30th, and finally arrived in October. They were: Sisters Agnes (Rose Caron), Philomene Boucher, Aimee Pepin, Sister Marie Luce Fortier, (a member of the Third Order of St. Francis).
When Bishop Tache asked Mother Deschamps, the Superior General, to send Sisters to Ile a la Crosse in 1860, the Superior accepted on the condition that they would have all the necessary spiritual and material assistance. The Bishop informed her that the mission was very poor and the resources uncertain. He could not even promise the essentials. It is, therefore, under the most primitive conditions that the Grey Nuns began their work of teaching, assisting the sick and the infirm, and instructing the Natives in elementary hygiene and home sanitation. Bishop Grandin described the Grey Nuns as,
"God's artists in the art of educating children and nursing the sick, especially endowed to adapt to the poverty and privations in the coldest and poorest missions of the north."
They occupied the first convent, although still unfinished. A few rooms at the convent were reserved and made available to the sick on October 6th: the first patient to be admitted was Philip Bekkatla. This first combined dispensary and school were called St. Bruno Hospital and St. Bruno School, as promised to a religious order from St. Bruno, France, the Chartreux monks who had given Bishop Grandin a donation in money for the hospital providing it would be called St. Bruno. So, within two days of their arrival, the Grey Nuns gave medical care from the dispensary, and a month later they opened a boarding school which they administered until 1905. Fifteen children attended and were kept as boarders. In 1876, another boarding school was built for 33 children, it was the School of Our Lady of The Sacred Heart.
In 1871, Sara Riel (Louis' sister) (Sister Marguerite-Marie), came to serve at the school and hospital until her death in 1883, at age 34. In 1885, there were 6 children as boarders and about 30 in the day school. The school in Ile a la Crosse would not be officially recognized as a boarding school until 1897. The second convent was built in 1865-66 and the third one in 1872. From 1869 to 1881, the school was in a building separate from the Sisters' convent. When the Sisters were asked to keep some elders, the hospital was also referred to as the hospice and the infirmary of St. Bruno. In 1912-13, another school was built.
September 3, 1905, The Grey Nuns left Ile-a-la-Crosse. They were replaced by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons France (the black nuns). They stayed only a year because they were unaccustomed to daily hardships: "filleting" fish, working on the farm, in the gardens, and taking care of the sick. They moved to the Beauval Indian School, but left in 1909 and were in turn replaced by the Grey Nuns.
A fourth convent-school, called the School of The Holy Family, was built in 1917. Another school was built in 1921 and yet another in 1926, which served as a boarding school; a seventh convent was built in 1962.
September 21, 1917, four Grey Nuns returned to Ile-a-la-Crosse. On October 1st, Father Marius Rossignol, OMI, reopened the School of the Holy Family for 22 children and 4 boarders. After the fire of 1920, a new school had to be built for 50 children; 25 of them were boarders. Its official opening was on October 24, 1921.
The first school was a little grey building with a box stove in the centre of the room. There was a woodpile outside from which teachers would pull the frozen pieces of wood to keep the fire burning. Children had to wear mukluks and what-have-you on their feet to keep warm. French was taught and there was no such thing as grades. The catechism was taught and also reading, arithmetic, and singing. No scribblers were in existence; slates were used. The food was simple but plentiful with loads of vegetables from the mission garden tended by the Oblate Brothers; at times the school children had their garden chores. They soon learned how to bake bread, clean fish, to sew and mend their moccasins; to clean oil lamps and refill them; to do elementary carpentry, mechanics, and shoe repair.
It was indeed a mission school that operated on a shoestring budget, provided partly by a very small grant from the Federal Government, but the greater part of the funding came from benefactors of the Bishop and the generosity of the Grey Nuns. Children came from Beauval, Patuanak, and Green Lake. The residential school belonged to the Federal Government. In 1929, there were 42 boarders; the administration was left to the Oblates. Provincial Government grants helped to support the day school for the Metis.
Keeping the Catholic School of the Holy Family open seemed like a never-ending battle with government officials throughout the years. The school closed several times; when it reopened in 1935, two additional classrooms were added. The school did not always meet the requirements in terms of numbers so that no financial help would come from the Department of Education. In 1942, a third classroom was added. The result of a census in 1944 revealed that there were 137 children of school-age, both Metis and white. Through the generosity of benefactors from eastern Quebec and Ontario, a building capable of accommodating twice the school registration replaced the old one in 1946.
The public school closed and the teachers at the separate Catholic school would finally be paid by the Department of Education. The cost of the upkeep of the boarding school remained a burden to Bishop Martin Lajeunesse, OMI. On July 18, 1945, the question of a private school was partially resolved; the old convent looked good after renovation; it was occupied by the girl boarders. The boys were in another building (it had been put up for the centennial celebrations in 1946). There were then 115 boarders and 150-day students in four classrooms; a fifth classroom was in use in the boys' shelter.
In 1947, there were 168 students in 5 classrooms, 124 of these were boarders. Two other classrooms were added in 1952, then a teachers' residence in 1954. In 1959, a new school was built with eight classrooms for 231 students, 113 were boarders; a second residence for teachers was built in 1961, and a new convent in 1962.
The school was blessed on June 14, 1961. Improvements included a hot air heating system, large playgrounds, slides and skating rink, a ball field large enough for competitive games. With the school being next to the hospital, the children could be better cared for medically and hygienically. There was an assurance that religion would be taught to the children. That was the educational system until 1964.
A large school was then constructed to replace the mission school; oil furnaces and running water were a great improvement. Over the years a new wing and an auditorium were added. More teachers were hired. However, High School students had to resume their schooling in The Pas and Prince Albert until High School was offered in Ile a la Crosse. Tache Hall and the boys' boarding house were blessed on December 6, 1964.
The Oblates had been the administrators of the school and the bishop of the diocese had the ownership, from its early beginnings until 1976, when the administration was transferred to a lay local School Board and the boarding school closed its doors. The new school was dedicated to Father Marius Rossignol, OMI, who had been a great support to the School for over 45 years. (He died on March 17, 1961).
Because of the loss and damage caused by fire October 28, 1972, the school was rebuilt in 1976. The official opening was held July 24, 1976. As of September 14, students could follow the High School curriculum in their own village.
The Grey Nuns were also the main instruments in keeping the Catholic status of the school for many years, to name but a few: Sisters A. Brady, L. Belley, A. Bisson, V. Lapointe. Grey Nuns, who were among the pioneers in the establishment of a school in Ile-a- la-Crosse, were still present in the turbulent years of the mid-'40s when battles were being waged over the school situation.
In terms of education, Ile-a-la-Crosse certainly progressed, though not without turmoil; not without factions and friction and battles; but the community always got back on its feet. Church and School survived the rifts and the disturbances of the mid-'70s, in spite of the differences about the transfer and the change of the school status and its administration and ownership.
June 5, 1960, There was a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the arrival of the Grey Nuns in Ile-a-la-Crosse. Thirty-four Grey Nuns were present at the feast, Bishop Paul Dumouchel, six Oblate priests and four Brothers.
The number of Grey Nuns who have served in Ile-a-la-Crosse since 1860, is 160! At times, there were as many as 20 Grey Nuns teaching or nursing. They shared in the progress realized for the good of the children and their families.
1975 - 1976, the number of Grey Nuns dwindled from seven to five for both school and hospital. Now in 1996, there are still two Grey Nuns at the hospital: Lucie Lefebvre and Therese Lesage. Sister Sheila Whelan, Grey Sister of the Immaculate Conception (Pembroke), is exercising pastoral ministry in the parish.