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St. Mary's Academy marks 150 years

Anniversary celebrates humble beginnings

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/4/2019 (398 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Headed toward journalism school after graduation, Grade 12 student Malisa Thoudsanikone knows she has gained more than a solid footing for university from her six years at Winnipeg’s oldest private Roman Catholic school.

"I was exposed to an education with beautiful and gifted and powerful women who really guided me to be a better individual and better student," explains the editor of St. Mary’s Academy student newspaper, who aspires to run the New York Times.

On Wednesday, St. Mary’s Academy marks 150 years of Catholic education with an all-day celebration for students, staff and members of the Grey Nuns and the Sisters of the Holy Names of Mary and Jesus, the two religious orders involved in the founding of the school.

With its humble beginnings as a two-room school in a house on what is now Pioneer Avenue, St. Mary’s has left an indelible mark on the city. Over its 150 years, it has sent more than 62,000 graduates out into the world, and left Winnipeg with a trio of streets named after the school: Academy Road, Notre Dame Avenue and St. Mary Avenue.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Students Ibukun Okunnu (from left), Nina Hutsulak and Malisa Thoudsanikone, with Carol-Ann Swayzie, junior school principal, and Michelle Klus, senior school principal, at St. Mary’s Academy.</p></p>


Students Ibukun Okunnu (from left), Nina Hutsulak and Malisa Thoudsanikone, with Carol-Ann Swayzie, junior school principal, and Michelle Klus, senior school principal, at St. Mary’s Academy.

The downtown avenue was named after the cathedral, which began as the school’s chapel in 1870, a year after the school was founded at the urging of Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché.

"We were here before Manitoba was a province and (before) Winnipeg was a city and the school (witnessed) the Riel Rebellion," says former principal Sr. Susan Wikeem, who retired in 2014, and was the last Catholic sister to lead the academy.

"It was just down the street on Main Street when (Louis) Riel seized Fort Garry. The sisters were very aware of what was happening."

Today’s students are also aware of that long history of Winnipeg’s oldest private school every time they step into the stately Wellington Crescent building, its oldest wing completed in 1903. The second-floor hallways are lined with framed black-and-white photos of the first campus and the nuns who taught there, as well as photos of cap-and-gowned graduates over the decades.

"Being able to walk down the hallway and seeing my mom is just amazing," says Grade 11 student Nina Hutsulak, whose mother graduated in 1983.

SUPPLIED</p><p>St.Mary’s Academy in 1881</p>


St.Mary’s Academy in 1881

"You can see the whole history behind the school and the whole history of the school," Grade 11 student Ibukun Okunnu adds.

"There’s something that makes St. Mary’s different from any other public school."

That difference is a faith-based education that goes beyond religious instruction to include development of the whole person, and embodies the principles of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Mary and Jesus, who took over teaching duties from the Grey Nuns in 1874, explains Sr. Michelle Garlinski, the academy’s director of charism and mission.

With the focus on faith, learning, leadership and serving others, Garlinski says the sisters’ legacy continues by sending students out on service assignments, raising funds for community projects and closing all public prayers with the same words: "We make this prayer in the holy names of Mary and Jesus."

"Our community was founded because she responded to the needs of the day," Garlinski explains of Mother Marie-Rose, born Eulalie Durocher, who started the community in 1834 in Longueiul, Que.

Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary on the front steps of St Mary’s Academy in 1915.

SUPPLIED Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary on the front steps of St Mary’s Academy in 1915.

"We have to continually ask ourselves what are the needs (now) and who is on the margins."

Principal Connie Yunyk has some practical ideas about current needs for the school, which has an enrolment this year of 565 girls in Grades 7 to 12 and runs on a budget of $8 million. She dreams of a second gym to accommodate the school’s athletic program, and welcomes more donations to the school’s bursary fund, which helped 85 students last year cover their $7,555 tuition fees.

She says the school is stronger when it can open its doors to a more diverse population which may not be able to afford private school fees. In the past, the sisters always welcomed students from across the religious spectrum, and those with no affiliation at all, says Yunyk, on the faculty for 21 years, and principal for the past five.

"We’ve never been 100 per cent (Catholic). We’re a Catholic school for young women," the 1977 St. Mary’s graduate says.

"It’s a faith-based environment."

SUPPLIED</p><p>Glee Club in 1967</p>


Glee Club in 1967

Wikeem hopes and prays that faith-based environment continues even as the school adapts and evolves over the next decades. During her time as administrator, she witnessed the school change from a religious-run organization to an incorporated school run by a lay president and a board of directors.

She says that transition also means trusting the teachers and administrators to carry on the school’s long history of religious instruction and faith formation.

That religious culture remains important to current administration as they navigate the day-to-day challenges of meeting the needs of students and staff, explains senior school principal Michelle Klus, who taught in the public system for 25 years before joining the academy.

"I just hope we stay true to the vision of the sisters, which is providing a place for all girls to learn and to grow in mind, body and spirit, and to thrive," she says.

But most of all, St. Mary’s Academy wants their girls to thrive after they leave the campus, both in their careers and as they build community wherever they find themselves, Wikeem says.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Music teachers and students in 1896.</p>


Music teachers and students in 1896.

"I used to tell the girls often that I wanted them to be very successful professionally and to be lifelong learners but also give back to the community. They need to make the world and the community a better place," Wikeem said.

"We don’t want them to do charity, we want to work for justice."

Students and staff are marking the anniversary with private events on May 1, but Winnipeggers in the Crescentwood area can watch for the ceremonial jet flyover at 10:25 a.m.

Anniversary events continue with an awards brunch on May 11, a community picnic on Aug. 28, a gala dinner, on Sept. 27, homecoming on Sept. 28, and a 150th birthday mass at St. Boniface Cathedral on Sept. 28. The celebrations close with a high tea on Dec. 8.

Check out details and ticket information at

SUPPLIED</p><p>Sisters Pauline and Eleanora on the grounds of the Academy during the 1950 flood.</p>


Sisters Pauline and Eleanora on the grounds of the Academy during the 1950 flood.

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

Read full biography

The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.


Updated on Monday, April 29, 2019 at 11:40 AM CDT: additional formatting, adds hyperlink, fixes cutline

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