A little girl once walked into Harrow United Church all by herself -- and 60 years later, she's retiring as one of the very last Catholic nuns teaching school in Manitoba.
"I was going to lead a quiet, contemplative life and emerge once in a while to teach little children about Jesus," laughed Sister Susan Wikeem, the director of St. Mary's Academy, where she's been principal, teacher and student.
There were once hundreds of nuns like Wikeem teaching in Manitoba Catholic schools, and every Catholic school principal was a nun, just as there were hundreds of nuns in her Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Now Wikeem is alone as an administrator, her days in St. Mary's Academy down to a few, and at 69 she's one of the youngest of the 40 nuns remaining in her order here. Only three other nuns still teach in Manitoba Catholic schools, all in their 60s.
There's a retirement dinner June 6 at the school, the only event the genuinely humble Wikeem would allow to be held in her honour.
"She's our last administrator," said Robert Praznik, director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. "At one point, all our elementary schools had principals who were sisters. All the parochial schools had convents.
"We still get people who say they want to bring their kids to a Catholic school because they want the nuns to straighten them out -- we have to laugh," said Praznik. "That's not unique to Manitoba; that's a North American phenomenon."
North American young women no longer enter the religious life, though there are many young nuns in Africa and Asia, he said.
Back in the 1940s, Wikeem's family settled in a house at Harrow Street and Warsaw Avenue.
"Although I had been baptized Catholic, I had not been raised Catholic," said Wikeem, who went to La Verendrye School and Earl Grey School.
That home was right behind Harrow United Church, and off little Susan went by herself.
"I could hear the music; it sounded like fun. My faith was first fostered in the United Church -- I was probably nine."
"I became a wretched teenager, disinterested in school. My parents kind of despaired and shipped me off to St. Mary's" -- where the nuns had a reputation for discipline. "Someone said to me, 'Wasn't that an overcorrection?' "
And thus started a lifetime of devotion to education.
"Coming here in Grade 10 was really my first contact with the Catholic faith; it was the first time I met nuns," she said. "I certainly got a taste of the pre-Vatican life."
That would be the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s transformed many of the outward appearances of the Catholic Church, such as conducting mass in the local language rather than in Latin and no longer requiring nuns to wear habits.
Back then, the teaching nuns lived in residence, and they didn't just teach at St. Mary's: They staffed St. Ignatius, St. John Brebeuf and other schools down the Red River Valley, some of them now public schools.
"When I came here, I responded. There was obviously something there before I came here, something that drew me," Wikeem said. "I started to go to St. Ignatius (church) -- I liked the rituals."
Though no one ever twisted her arm, she did as so many other young women had before her and chose the cloistered life.
Wikeem considered joining several orders, but opted for the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, whose primary responsibility is education.
"Some of these people gave their whole lives here. These were the sisters I knew -- I didn't give a thought that at the same time I was choosing a profession.
"I don't remember asking my parents, I remember telling my parents. They tried to talk me out of it."
She was off for two years of training in Montreal, then back to Winnipeg where she taught during the day and went to university at night, ending up with a PhD.
Wikeem taught grades 5 and 6 for a year at the four-classroom St. Thomas More School in Norwood and "loved it."
That school is long gone, as is her second school, St. Mary School, now the Delta Hotel downtown, the convent next door now the site of the Ichiban restaurant.
A pattern seemed to have been developing.
But her third school, St. Ignatius School, fared better in the long term and still thrives. Vatican Two prompted some people to leave the orders, and schools turned to younger nuns for leadership.
"At the ripe old age of 26, I was named principal of St. Ignatius. I was teaching the younger brothers and sisters of kids I'd grown up with on Warsaw," chuckled Wikeem.
Wikeem was 31 when she became principal of St. Mary's Academy.
"We had a built-in mentoring system and a network," with the Brebeuf principal taking Wikeem under her wing. She recalled having meetings with public school principals back in the 1970s, when the Catholic nuns were the only women in the room.
St. Mary's has never had an all-Catholic student body; there were three lay teachers even when Wikeem was a high school student, and when she arrived in 1974 there were already men on staff. "I call them our affirmative action staff."
Suddenly, Wikeem discovered what it meant to be an administrator in a changing school that, since 1869, had existed overwhelmingly with a faculty who lived in a religious order... women with no worldly goods, all their modest needs met.
"It was not incorporated; it was a family-run business," Wikeem said.
"The balance had already tipped. There were more lay teachers than nuns on staff," and young nuns new to the order were very scarce indeed.
"We had no written personnel policies," no pension, no sick leave, no vacation pay, no maternity leaves, though lay teachers' salaries were competitive with the public schools.
St. Mary's lawyers helped set up an advisory board, which led by the mid-80s to the school's appointing a lay principal to oversee education and a nun as the school's director and face of the school.
The lay teachers don't have to be Catholic, but must be "people with faith and God in their lives," she explained. "If we're going to say God is part of our everyday life here, it can't just be some of us doing that and everyone else cheering us on.
"By 1990, we incorporated the school. Every time you lose a sister, you have to pay a salary," Wikeem said.
The academy's oldest section was built in 1902, followed by another section in 1909. The nuns' residence has long since been converted into classroom space, and there is an ongoing capital project that has produced some of the best high school music and theatre facilities in the province. Still, there's not enough land for a playing field.
Hockey has become a big part of St. Mary's Academy -- "It runs us," said Wikeem -- with two teams, one being a highly competitive travelling team. "There was pressure; Balmoral Hall had done it, people wanted us to start a prep team."
And so with her retirement at the end of the school year June 30, there are unlikely to be any more nuns teaching at St. Mary's Academy.
With so few nuns left in the order, St. Mary's Academy is now run by the school's foundation.
There is an ongoing challenge to raise money for the building and to deal with the sad reality that one day there will be no nuns left.
"That's the next planning piece," Wikeem said. "We have to have some confidence -- I used to tell God regularly, 'this isn't my stuff, it's your stuff, if you want to make it work.' "