The schedule of the Sisters was based upon the Quebec farmer’s workday. The women would rise at 4:50 A.M., with half an hour to wash, dress and clean their rooms. After half an hour of meditation, there was a short break before Mass. After Mass, breakfast was eaten in silence and then the school day began. If the Sisters were not teaching classes or assisting other teachers, they were involved in chores in some other part of Convent life for most of the day, which included tending the garden and orchards, cooking and cleaning. A quiet lunch and tea break was taken in the afternoon, and after classes were finished, the Sisters went to the Chapel for Rosary.
Spiritual reading was part of the daily schedule. It was considered improper to sit with idle hands so quite often mending or other sewing would be done at this time. Dinner was eaten at 5:30 P.M. The teaching Sisters would then do their class preparation and corrections and supervise the boarder’s study period. The Sisters were in bed by 9:00, after which there was the ‘grand silence’, and the lights were put out. The great luxury of the Summer Schedule was sleeping in until 5:30!
These hours were part of the Convent Rule, the set of guiding laws by which women religious arranged their activities within the community. It was difficult for many of the women to follow this strict schedule, and they welcomed the changes that came with Vatican II in the 1960s , after which they could make a schedule better suited to the hours of their activities. This certainly did not mean that the Sisters relaxed their busy day, but rather that if they wished to work during the evenings, they were able to do so.
There was very little recreation time for the Sisters. What they did have was often spent with the students, supervising their activities, participating in their sports and outings and helping the girls to improve their artistic and musical abilities. They enjoyed the company of the other Sister's. Chats over a cup of tea or a moment of television in the Sisters area was a rare and much appreciated break from a hectic schedule.
The clothing of a woman religious has historically identified her religious vocation and her association with a particular order, or religious group under similar direction. The dress of the Sisters of Saint Ann was once an elaborate layering of black fabric garments and white head coverings. This added to the mystique of the Sisters, both for their students and for people on the city streets of Victoria. For these women who had chosen convent life, it was simply part of their role in a religious community, and they managed to go about their chores, meditations and even sporting activities without giving any consideration to the cumbersome clothing. Former student Aileen Kirby remembers “one nun who demonstrated high jump in her habit. She didn’t care! And the same with long jump -I remember them doing everything in their habits.” The parts of the Sisters’ clothing included:
The pieces framing the face and covering the head were known as the coif. A white cotton cap was worn under a thin headband, called a bandeau. A wimple, a head-dress made of starched linen which covered the neck and the sides of the face, covered these first two layers. A black crepe covered the white wimple, and was attached to a black capeline.
The veil was worn pinned over the coif head coverings.
This was the main piece of clothing. It was a dress made of black serge fabric, which was sewn with four pleats at the neck so that the habit fell softly from the neck to the floor. When working, the Sister pinned up the front and back.
A belt woven from wool was worn around the waist. The rosary hung from this belt by hooks.
Rosary beads shaped from brown wood were hung from a belt. The beads are divided into sets to help the memory in counting the recital of devotional prayers in Roman Catholicism. A medal of St. Ann teaching her daughter, the Virgin Mary, was placed with the beads, where a cross would traditionally be found.
The Holy Habit had two sets of sleeves. The larger set was folded up for work and unfolded for formal occasions and when in chapel.
The shawl-like pelerine was cut to leave the sleeves free. It was made of black serge and worn over the dress.
A large silver cross is worn hanging from a black cord. The cross is received when the first or temporary vows are taken by the Sister and remains a part of the dress of the Sisters of Saint Ann.
The simple silver ring symbolizes that the final or perpetual vows have been taken by the Sister.
Two skirts were worn under the habit dress. The top skirt was sewn from black serge, trimmed with a cord along the edge. A black cotton skirt was worn underneath the serge skirt.
Simple black shoes were worn with the habit of the Sisters of Saint Ann.
Black stockings were the traditional leg coverings.
When the Sisters would travel outside the convent and school, a stiff black covering called a card would be worn over the coif. The card was reinforced, to prevent the white linen from becoming wet or dirty.
A long black cape and black gloves were worn over the habit on trips.
A small black suitcase was used to carry a few items for travel.
Aprons of different types were worn over the habit, depending on the occasion, to help keep the other clothing from becoming dirty.
The habit was intimidating to some of the students, but they soon became accustomed to its appearance. It was often helpful; the sound of the large, heavy rosary beads swinging off of the Sisters’ belts as they walked down the halls warned the girls that their teachers were approaching, and that they had better start behaving! There were young students who were curious about what the layers of clothing underneath the heavy aprons looked like. It became a dare to grab the long ends of the habit as the Sister walked past the rows in the classroom, holding on until just before she noticed the tug. The teaching Sisters were not upset by these pranks and simply put it down to childhood curiosity (and mischief).
The community in the city of Victoria was, for the most part, non-Catholic. For these people, the sight of a Sister in full Holy Habit sometimes made them uncomfortable, as they were unsure how to react to these women. The Sisters running errands in town were used to whispers about their presence on buses and in shops, and to being shown a great deal of reverence and respect. When they wanted to chat about the weather, like most people out on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it became difficult to overcome the barrier of their appearance.
The social awkwardness shown towards the Sisters and the cumbersome length and weight of the habit, when cleaning, exercising and going about the other activities in a busy life, were left behind in the 1960s, after the decrees of Vatican II. The decision was made, at the Vatican in Rome, that women religious would no longer be required to give up civilian clothing for the habit, at the time of their vows. Instructions were given to dress in a professional manner in suits of navy, black or grey. Although most of the younger Sisters were quite willing to adopt the new style of dress, some Sisters recall that it was quite a conflict; so many of the older Sisters found the change very difficult.”
This “intermediate dress”, as the suit was referred to, was worn with a white blouse and a modified veil. This was worn by some of the Sisters for the rest of their lives, but some saw it as a transition between the old, full habits and street clothes. The women carefully chose a time to make the change into ‘regular’ clothes, and began to plan a wardrobe for worship, work and recreation. Some of the Sisters asked their students what their mothers would wear on different occasions, or they borrowed patterns from friends and family, so that they could sew their own outfits.
According to their former students, some of the Sisters had some trouble co-ordinating fashions in the 1960s and 70s, because they had not paid any attention to such things while they were limited to wearing the habit. They tended to favour polyester pantsuits (that didn’t match), an unexpected sight for their pupils. Unfortunately for the girls who expected the warning sounds of the rosary beads, the Sisters were now difficult to hear in their new clothes! A silver cross remains an important part of what the Sisters of St. Ann wear today.
A former teacher at St. Ann’s Academy, fondly referred to her years as a teacher as “God’s Joke”, laughingly noting that women who vowed chastity gave up children, but when September arrived, they took on a class of 40 girls. The responsibilities of running the school were both draining and satisfying. The girls were a constant challenge, and the boarding students, in many ways, became part of their families. In the words of another Sister, “I felt like I was a mother and father to them.” It was important, especially for the younger pupils, to have a sense of consistency, so the Sisters would often try to teach the same students for most of their primary school years. The Sisters gave advice and tried to guide the pupils, both in their lives and in their studies: they felt a sacred responsibility towards the students.
The policy of the Academy was to provide structure and caring. One student who was caught drinking, during the later years of the Academy’s presence, was spoken to and guided through a troubled time in her life. The following year, due to the guidance of the Sisters, that same girl was elected the president of the Student’s Council. These women impressed their students with their strength: they ran a school, a Convent and a hospital, with all the technical, financial, administrative and leadership skills those tasks entailed. They tried to lead by example; the boarders could expect cleanliness inspections of their quarters only after the Mistress of Boarders had tidied her own room. A former pupil remarked that the Sisters “encouraged us to think independently and were able to take the consequences after, if it ‘backfired’ on them”. They stressed responsibility in the girls, whether they were young children, teenagers, or young women, ready to graduate and go off into the world.
Sometimes the girls faced difficult decisions that required advice from the Sisters. One Sister tells of a student that wanted to move from the dorms, into her own apartment, in order to have a better atmosphere for her studies. The Sister took her into the chapel, with the words, “OK, if God’s talking to you, He’s also talking to me.” They knelt down together and waited. “All of a sudden, she started heaving with sobs. I gave her a big hug and gave her some hot tea and sent her to bed and that was the end of it.” Sister had known that the move was not the right choice for the student, and had helped her to see it on her own. On the girl’s graduation night, “we were at the party, and she was in her white graduation gown with her roses and everything ... we stood in that place where we had knelt and she sang I May Never Pass This Way Again.” Many of the Sisters never realized the great impact that they had had upon their students.
Lois McGee, a day student during the 1950s, remembers that the students were expected to try their best, and that the teaching Sisters were always there to assist them. “I really have a happy memory. The Sisters were very unselfish”, she comments. The Sister Superior, spent many hours helping Louis with her math studies, after school and on weekends. They worked diligently, to help prepare for the Provincial Government Exams. Almost as if by miracle, the very theorem that they covered in their final study session appeared on the first page of the geometry component. Lois realized that it was through the willingness and dedication of these women that she was able to pass this subject, which she found so challenging.
The Sisters encouraged different learning experiences for the pupils, including visitors and guest speakers. The manners and good behaviour of the girls was a matter of pride to those involved with the school. During the 1930s, the school was visited by Lady Baden-Powell, who, with her husband Lord Baden-Powell, founded the Girl Guides in 1910. In a letter to the Sister Superior of St. Ann’s dated April 10th, 1935, she writes “Thank you for the kind invitation to come to your school on Friday, and I shall look forward to being with you very much, and to giving a little talk on the Guides to your students and your personnel.”
Life did not always run smoothly at the Academy. In the late 1960s, one of the pupils, who had travelled a great distance to attend the Academy, was having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the way of life at St. Ann’s. She began an episode of arson that involved the local police and fire departments, damaged dormitory and auditorium property and frightened some of the parents of foreign boarders into sending for their children to return home. The Superior of the Academy at the time dealt with the situation with tact and grace, as she attempted to spare the community of Sisters and students the discomfort of publicity and fear. It taught her to cope with crisis situations, and to depend on herself, her community and her spirituality for strength and support.
The spiritual life of women religious was lived through their dedication to the school and hospital. They celebrated their beliefs through song, prayer and the community activities in the chapel. Feast days marked the passage of the year; Christmas, Easter and the days of St. Ann and the Virgin Mary were observed with joy, and a great deal of cooking and cleaning! The vows of poverty, taken by every Sister, only heightened their enjoyment of the simple pleasures of telling stories, rejuvenating themselves with weekend spiritual retreats, educating themselves in summer studies and creating home made treats, such as suckers and root beer, for the girls in their care.