An article from the Victoria newspaper states, "this garden will be a veritable arboretum from which lovers of tree and shrub may glean new ideas ... while the pupils of St. Ann's Convent will have a most delightful and interesting garden in which to wander in the hours of recreation." (Victoria Colonist, April 1912) The unknown writer of this piece is commenting upon the westernmost section of the grounds of St. Ann's Academy, now known as the "arboretum".
This section of the property was once marshy ground, linked by a creek to the tidal mud flats that dominated the region around Victoria's harbour, James Bay. Earth and rock fill, brought from construction sites around the city, were used to build up the ground in preparation for formal gardens between 1909 and 1912. Father Vullinghs, the co-ordinator of the landscape architecture, proceeded to obtain a long list of trees, most of them foreign to the Victoria landscape, to plant along the pathways.
In addition to a wide range of botanical curiosities, decorative elements were used to entertain and delight garden visitors. Two gazebos, latticed summer houses on raised earth, were erected opposite each other. These octagonal pavilions, open on one side, were bathed in sunlight before the young trees grew to their mature forms and shaded the garden. Girls occupied these gazebos for study, teas, sewing, needlework and recreation. Gazebo roofs rise like little pointed caps above the trees in old photographs. Rustic concrete urns and large stones were used to mark the intersections of the geometrically laid paths.
The unusual Battleship Fountain was added by Father Vullinghs to his garden design of 1911. A moat, which was filled with water from a stream bed and thick ivy, depending on the time of year, encircled a large, jagged rock atop which a concrete and stone man-of-war rested. Complete with cannons that shot water, this seemed an unlikely garden ornament, particularly for an area that many would come to use as a meditative garden. This ship was part of a theme for the formal gardens, likely intended to inspire children's play, and included a lighthouse and a rockery with model trains and a lake, represented by glass. (ASSAVE Brabant Scrapbook cited in 5 Year Plan)
A sundial was erected in memory of Marjorie Napier, a student who had died of pneumonia shortly after her first communion. The parents of the girl acquired a piece of stone from the remains of St. Anne de Beaupre, Quebec, from which to carve the base. The direction of north was indicated with a fleur-de-lis, and the dial was made from copper, with the words "I mark none but sunny hours." (from Reminiscences of St. Ann's) This original sundial now marks the hours at Queenswood. A reproduction sundial has since been installed in the same location as the original.
Strolling the brick-lined paths was a lunchtime activity for the students. Named for the trees, the "Silver Birches Pathway" was one of many areas where groups of girls could be found clustered together, chatting and laughing. The grape arbour, which was staked out parallel to Humboldt Street was another favourite destination.
Students were brought outside during classes, to enjoy the benefits of the many species on the grounds. The sketching of trees was an aspect of drawing and charcoal classes. "The immediate environs of the Academy, unsurpassed for scenic beauty, afford great advantages for sketching". (School Prospectus, 1911) Botany lessons were sometimes centred around the arboretum specimens.
Behind the cover of trees, girls climbed over the walls to go to the corner store and throw notes rolled into lipstick cases to boys, often from St. Louis College. One girl was convinced that the holly bushes had been planted on the perimeter of the grounds to keep her from an easy escape (although they had actually been growing there long before she registered as a student!). Conrad Schiller, a student in the primary classes at St. Ann's and the son of the maintenance man, first fell in love with a girl from the Academy. The boy carved their initials into some of the trees, and when the Sisters figured out who these two young people were, they hastily covered the offending areas with mud.
Before the restoration of the grounds could be considered, an inventory of the trees and shrubs was needed. According to Tom Loring, an authority on trees and a participant in the St. Ann's Rescue Coalition, the presence of the stream bed through the grounds gave the trees access to the water table, which helped the various species survive through the years of closure and neglect. This chart lists the trees that have survived from the original arboretum plan. (based on count published in St. Ann's Academy Grounds 5 Year Plan).
Plans to restore the pathways and plantings on the grounds continue. There is debate over several issues, for, unlike the building, the grounds have evolved over time, without the help of human intervention. The small saplings of 1911 are now large, adult trees, and the nature of the arboretum has changed. The gardeners continue to search for a balance between the heritage of the site and needs of current users. The solace that many Sisters and students took amongst the trees continues to be an aspect of the arboretum. Tom Loring expresses, "I still come across people in the arboretum, just sitting or standing there meditating." Speaking to one local woman, he discovered, "she found that if she was troubled, she'd just go down to the St. Ann's grounds and sit amongst the trees ... it restored her." He feels that this special role in the Victoria community is not fulfilled by any of the other park settings.