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The Novitiate

Novices were the women seeking to enter the religious life, undergoing a probationary period before they entered the order as Professed Sisters. They first spent six months as a Postulant, “one who is asking”, before taking their initial vows.The Novitiate period generally lasted for two years, the first year being devoted to canonical study of theology, scriptures and the basis of the vows. The second year was directed towards training. In the case of the Sisters of St. Ann, this period would have been for education in teaching and nursing skills. Some women entered the Juniorate, an extended period of practical training.

Novices taking vows in the Chapel, c. 1955 Novices taking vows in the Chapel, c. 1955
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The Motherhouse in Lachine, Quebec acted as the sole Novitiate for the Sisters of Saint Ann until a Papal Decree in 1889 authorized the establishment of the Western Novitiate at St. Ann’s Academy, in Victoria. Sister Mary Leocadia was sent from Lachine to act as the first Mistress of Novices. Ultimately 523 women took their Novitiate vows in Victoria and over 200 of those individuals came from British Columbia.

The women who entered as Postulants had a “vocation”, or a personal calling to the Church. They would set off, travelling far from their families, who were often reluctant to see them go. Others were more uncertain. They immersed themselves in preparation, but if their goals were not compatible with the life of a Sister, their two years as Novices were intended to help them understand. It was common, during the 19th century, for orphans to fall under the care of Convents and for single fathers to send their girls to a religious order. These girls would grow up in the Convent environment and naturally make the transition from student to Postulant and Novice.

For investiture, the Novices would descend the Novitiate staircase in solemn assembly, and, after receiving a new “religious name” would receive a white veil and a silver cross. For their first vows (temporary commitment), the Novices received a black veil. A few years later, at final (perpetual) vows, the Sisters received a silver ring.

Novices teaching Novices teaching
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Until 1900, the Novices wore a long blue dress, when that garment was replaced by a long black dress with a white collar and a little white veil with a frill, so that the hair showed at the front. This habit was a symbol, both for the Novices and their peers, that they had entered a crucial time of study and questioning, in preparation for their lives in a religious community. Even fire drills in the middle of the night were no excuse for being seen without the veil!

The Novices were generally cloistered, or secluded within the Convent, as they pursued their studies. They attended chapel, sang at Mass and went out into the Novitiate Garden but were not to associate with individuals outside those areas, even during their chores. As a result, they became quite close to the other Novices and Postulants, who were their constant companions. As they undertook their practical training, they were permitted to address their pupils. In the early years of the Convent in Victoria, the Novitiate schedule matched that of the Sisters, based as it was on the agricultural society of Quebec. They were given more time for study and reflection. As Novices, they were granted special graces, and it is remembered as a happy time by most.

The chores of the Novices ranged from shelling peas to a strenuous scrubbing of the floors, but laundry was a task that sapped their energies. Every other week, the Novices would be assigned duties in the steam laundry, located to the rear of the grounds. The party of women would spend the night working at the labour-intensive task, until all the sheets, towels and tunics were washed and dried. Then, they would gather around, pulling the chairs together and covering them with comforters to sit around eating and telling stories.

Final Days

In 1967, the Noviciate training changed in accordance with Vatican II, and the long history of Novices at St. Ann’s soon ended. Few women chose to enter after that point. Just as it seemed natural for women to enter, it felt right for them to leave, to dedicate their lives to service in other ways, as the range of service organizations open to them had increased greatly over the years.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia is an online resource that may help with any questions pertaining to the Catholic faith. The site contains over 11,000 entries on Catholic scholarship, history and beliefs, and is based on volumes of books, collected and published in 1907. At the top of the screen, the letters of the alphabet are set up as links. All of the articles that begin with that letter are listed on another page, which in turn has links to the entries themselves. As an example, if one were to search for more information on St. Anne, they would begin by clicking on “A”, scrolling down the list to “Anne, St”, and selecting that entry. The entry includes an explanation of who she is and information such as the fact that she is the principal patron of the province of Quebec. The site, at is concise and simple to use.