It began with a humble mission: to educate girls.
In the mid-19th century, the Congrégation Notre-Dame, a religious order founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys, purchased a country estate known as The Monklands in what is now Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. On Sept. 12, 1854, the Villa Maria Convent Boarding School welcomed its first 17 students. Within two weeks, the number of pupils enrolled swelled to 45. Forty per cent of the girls originated from outside the Montreal area.
Located on Décarie blvd., the building’s past is as rich and colourful as the tapestries that once adorned its walls. It started as a regal home built in the early 19th century by Sir James Monk, a prominent judge. The estate would later become the residence of three Governors General. Next, it served as a stylish country hotel, and an ill-fated romantic tryst that took place there has become a staple among the collection of ghost stories told to this day in the school’s halls.
Villa Maria is the oldest private school for girls in Montreal, recently turning 160 years old. Today, it is much more secular than at its inception, when it offered bilingual instruction for elementary and secondary education, and a curriculum imbued with strong Christian principles.
The school’s early years were marked by a rigorous daily schedule that kept the girls occupied for more than 14 hours — from 6 a.m. until bedtime at 8:30 p.m. Time was set aside for spiritual reading and going to the chapel. A daily time slot devoted to the “examination of conscience” encouraged quiet introspection.
Antoinette Taddeo taught music, world religions and English at Villa Maria for 36 years before retiring six years ago. “When the girls were boarders, they almost reflected what a nun’s life was like during the day—like a faint echo of what religious life was like,” says Taddeo, “so during the ‘examination of conscience,’ you had to sit quietly in chapel and examine your conscience—the faults that you had had that day or that week, and just acknowledge them to God. It’s a form of a prayer. You strove to better yourself.”
The educational program went far beyond basic courses. Attention was given to penmanship and time was allotted to “the art of conversation.”
When we saw a nun, or crossed her in the parlour, or saw her walking in the opposite direction—we had to stop and bow.
“It was like military discipline but in a spiritual way. The discipline of a spiritual life, and Quebec was very, very Catholic,” says Taddeo.
The girls’ instruction also included drawing, sewing and painting on porcelain. Also integral were harp and piano lessons. Students also studied celestial bodies with a telescope.
“There were some brilliant women in the community who were visionaries. The nuns were very avant-garde with respect to education,” Taddeo says.
Villa Maria’s daily schedule during the 19th century
6:00 a.m. – Wakeup, followed by 45 minutes to put on multiple skirts
6:45 a.m. – Meditation
7:00 a.m. – Mass
7:30 a.m. – Breakfast and study
9:00 a.m. – Classes: in French in the morning, in English in the afternoon
10:30 a.m. – Writing
11:00 a.m. – The Art of conversation
11:30 a.m. – Examination of conscience
12 Noon – Dinner, then gymnasium
1:00 p.m. – Study
2:00 p.m. – Classes in English
3:30 p.m. – Arithmetic
4:00 p.m. – Collation, Chapel
4:30 p.m. – Manual tasks accompanied by spiritual reading
5:00 p.m. -Religious instruction
6:00 p.m. – Supper
6:30 p.m. – Recreation
7:00 p.m. – Study, Chapel
8:30 p.m. – Bed
Helen Lanthier, who graduated from Villa in 1944, returned 20 years later and taught for 28 years.
“When we saw a nun, or crossed her in the parlour, or saw her walking in the opposite direction—we had to stop and bow,” says Lanthier, who has written a book about the school called Monklands Then, Villa Maria Now.
The fee for this robust education in 1861? $130. An additional charge applied for piano or harp lessons, $34 and $50 respectively. The cost for the 2014-2015 academic year is $4,200. (Villa receives grants from the provincial government, which lowers the base fee.) Supplementary fees apply for various extra-curricular activities. Currently, 1,402 students attend Villa Maria, including both the English and French sectors.
Over year years, boarding was gradually phased out and officially ended in 1966. But initially, all students remained on school premises seven days a week, and only went home for Christmas, Easter and for summer vacation. Pupils who lived too far away to travel stayed with the sisters over the summer break and took holidays with them. Parents could visit their daughters on Thursdays and Sundays. Girls who lived in the city were permitted to go home once a month for the day but had to return to school in the evening.
Because she lived nearby, Lanthier did not understand that she had to board at the school. “On (my first) Friday night, I left. I walked home. I didn’t realize I was going to stay the weekend. My father had not told me,” Lanthier says.
Boarding at Villa over the years
1854: School opens, with obligatory boarding for all students.
1904: Boarding is no longer obligatory for elementary school students, but remained obligatory for high school students.
1939: Boarding was mandatory only for the last two years of high school.
1947: Boarding becomes optional.
1966: School closes its boarding facility permanently.
As the years passed, the reputation of this small Montreal school grew, and Villa Maria caught the attention of affluent parents from other countries. It is believed that Villa’s strong Catholic underpinning made the institution attractive. Aside from the United States, girls from South America, Central America, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico attended. And as the Second World War raged in Europe, Montreal became an even more appealing place for parents to send their daughters.
On the lands belonging to the school were vegetable gardens, apple orchards, chickens and horses. The bounty sustained everyone on site, and any surplus was sold to neighbours.
Leisure periods were also woven into the fabric of Villa life. The girls enjoyed activities on school grounds: a playground served the younger ones, a pond was used to sail toy boats and for skating. And in winter, the girls could be seen sledding down the gentle hills. A man-made lake provided opportunities for boating, and many picnics were held on the lush grounds. Students also visited museums, libraries, and made trips to Nuns’ Island, which was also owned by the congregation.
But the beautiful setting did not isolate the school from calamity — for example, when smallpox scourged the city from 1871 to 1880. In its first appearance it claimed three girls; the school’s Mother Superior herself succumbed to the disease two days before Christmas 1875.
This would not be the only time that death courted Villa. A crypt on school premises contained the graves of the sisters who perished over the years. Their final resting place was marked with a modest wooden cross. Also in the crypt, which no longer exists there, was a tombstone with a carved angel to identify the burial place of Lillian Stubbs, a pupil who fell ill with cholera during her last year of school. Her contagious condition prohibited travel home to Texas for the summer. She was buried on July 25, 1880.
In 1928, two more young girls perished from illness. One was only 6 years old when she developed pneumonia after battling measles; the other died of scarlet fever.
As the student population steadily increased, additional buildings were constructed. The creation of a new wing in 1908 allowed more space for science, fine arts, new classrooms and a gymnasium.
Educational reforms in the 1960s and 1970s introduced sweeping changes, notably secularization. Villa’s elementary school was phased out; the high school no longer boarded students.
When I went there, we were very Catholic. We had mass regularly. We had activities like fast-a-thons. That’s all gone by the wayside. I’m sorry to see some of that go, but it’s not possible to do otherwise today.
Today, nuns no longer teach at the school, although three sisters currently sit on the school’s board of directors.
Sister Sheila Sullivan taught at Villa for 13 years in the 1970s, and remains an active member of the board. When asked what the most notable change in Villa education is, she points to the school’s “increasing secularism.”
Although there are still some pastoral activities at the school, they are optional — a marked contrast to Sister Sullivan’s time at Villa. “When I went there, we were very Catholic. We had mass regularly. We had activities like fast-a-thons. That’s all gone by the wayside. I’m sorry to see some of that go, but it’s not possible to do otherwise today,” she recalls.
Yet Sister Sullivan says Villa’s philosophy remains intact. “The desire is to try and enable the young person to develop her full potential — to be holistically developed. I’m not looking to make just a bunch of brilliant, intellectual people. I want people to have the ability to take their place in society; to have certain human values.”
Lynda da Silveira graduated from Villa in 1994 and returned six years later to teach. In 2009, she became assistant director of educational services for Secondary 1, 2 and 3. As the education sector continued to transform and technology became more prevalent, she took on a new position as assistant director innovation in teaching and learning.
“The Villa of 1994 was a very traditional Villa … very magisterial in terms of the teaching, as well,” says da Silveira.
“I can remember being student council president at the time, and we said on stage once at an assembly: ‘Oh my God.’ “ Da Silveira was promptly called into the office and told, ‘You can’t say that, it’s so inappropriate.’
“Today, of course, this would not be an issue.”
Despite the changes at the school over the generations, Da Silveira says a timeless thread has endured. “The theme of friendship is always the same. It crosses generations. It’s a beautiful legacy that the Congregation of Notre Dame built … they provided education for girls, catered to their development, and helped foster these bonds of friendship over the years — it doesn’t matter when, but that comes out as at the permeating theme of your time at the Villa.”
Historic main building was once home to governors general
The central building of the school is the original elegant home built in 1804 by Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench in Lower Canada, Lord James Monk. The two-storey stone structure is in the Palladian-style architecture, noted for its decorative motifs, classical forms, and symmetry. When entering the home there is a long hallway, to the left a dining room and to the right a parlour. Since the purpose of these rooms was to entertain guests, they were exquisitely appointed and ornately decorated. Upstairs, the bedrooms were much simpler in décor as was the custom for this era. Surrounded by forest and farmland, Monklands served as his country estate.
In 1844, the Monk family leased Monklands to the Crown and the house became the official residence of three governors general. A ballroom, dining room, and servants’ quarters were added to meet the needs of this prestigious office. Sir Charles Metcalfe (1844-45), Lord Cathcart (1845-46), and Lord Elgin (1847-49) occupied this prominent position and are the only Governors General to have lived in the home.
The property remained in Monk family hands until 1854, when it was purchased by the Congrégation de Notre-Dame.
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