This old convent

St. Adolphe facility has date with wrecking ball, but book preserves colourful history


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ST. ADOLPHE — The rules were strict at the convent school — confessional was weekly and chastity paramount.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2014 (2797 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ST. ADOLPHE — The rules were strict at the convent school — confessional was weekly and chastity paramount.

But the nearby grotto? This is where the boys would sneak a smoke, and also for the opposite sex to meet, beyond the watchful eye of the nuns.


KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The old St. Adolphe convent, built in 1906, is to be torn down in the spring. The convent was run by the Filles de la Croix, or Sisters of the Cross.

“Inside the grotto, underneath the altar, behind the trees,” laughed Linda Le Gal, who attended the former convent school from 1957 to 1965. “That whole area was where couples could meet. You could meet your boyfriend, exchange notes.”

The former convent’s walls can’t talk but the people who went to school there and who taught there can and have in a splendid souvenir book, The Old Convent Tells Its Story. The book, to be launched Tuesday, preserves some of the history of the former convent, which is slated for demolition next spring.

Le Gal has edited stories from about 70 former students and nuns, as well as from staff who worked there when it became a private nursing home in 1967. The convent was run by the Filles de la Croix, or Sisters of the Cross.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sister Rachel Schaubroeck (from left), Lina Le Gal and Rhea Trudeau with a manuscript of The Old Convent Tells Its Story, a collection of memories from former students, nuns and staff.

Many convent practices seem quaintly antiquated today, including efforts to keep boys and girls apart. The convent was a public school but its underlying objective was to recruit future nuns.

So boys entered the school at one end of the school and girls through the other. Playgrounds were segregated, and if a soccer ball from the boys side went to the girls side, it was considered lost.

One of the challenges for the nuns was to keep the boys from climbing the fire escape to glimpse the girls through the windows on the third floor. Le Gal’s brother got a scolding at home when one of the nuns informed on him.

Winnipeg Free Press The nuns of the Sisters of the Cross in 1950, with their real names in brackets. Front row: Sister Jeanne Lucille (Berthe Alarie), Sister Dominique (Dolores Poirier) and Sister Gertrude-Thérèse (Rachel Schaubroeck). Back row: Sister Agnes-Eulalie (Germaine Mith), Sister Andre Saint-Louis (Clementine Bedard), Sister Helene Saint-Joseph (Rose-Helene Paulhus), Sister Esther (Madeleine Brunet), Sister Iréne Thérèse (Reva Dubois), Sister Blandine-Marie (Ghislaine de Moissac) and Sister Roseline des Arcs (Madeleine de Moissac).

The convent was a grades-one-to-12 school from 1906 to 1961, and grades one to 8 until 1967, after which children started being bussed to a new school in St. Norbert. The building closed permanently in 2013. More than 100 girls from the convent would eventually join the nunnery.

The school had 80 beds and typically boarded about 70 girls at a time. Girls as young as five years old were sent as boarders. That was the case for Aline Audette, née Courcelles. “What a shock! It was a strange, new place where I did not know a soul,” she says in the book. “At our home, we did not have indoor plumbing, so I did not know how to use a toilet. I didn’t know what to do or who to ask!”

She was fortunate she got to go home on weekends, but only if she behaved. “We always had to be quiet or we could lose marks or, worse still, lose the privilege of going home for the weekend.”

Students perform in the Easter pageant in 1956, which was the 50th anniversary of the convent.

Other boarders weren’t so lucky. Some children went home every month, and some had occasional visits from family in the parlour. Other students only got to go home at Easter, Christmas and summer holidays.

Children boarded because there was little motorized transportation back then. Children living in St. Adolphe could go home, of course, but the convent drew francophone students from across southern Manitoba, including farms and towns such as La Salle and St. Malo. Some children were boarded simply because their families were destitute.

In the book, these are not told as tales of abuse or hardship. The former students relate their stories with warmth and wit. The girls adapted, made friends, and survived the way children know how to survive, with very short-term memories. The girls slept in two large, open dormitories, one for the younger girls and one for the teenagers.

They adored some of the nuns and feared others. They spoke French, although provincial law only allowed it for an hour a day, plus during half-hour catechism. But the convent school would bend the rules and students also took courses such as math and Canadian history in French. That was everyone’s first language, after all. They hid their French books in the nuns quarters when they knew the English school inspector was coming.

Because of the female boarders, the student body’s ratio was three or four girls to every boy, in a school of more than 200 students. The boys were primarily there to beef up student numbers and trigger government grants.

Their first teachers were nuns from France, where a law had passed that nuns could no longer teach public school. Those who wished to do so had to quit the order. So 40 nuns from France, who wanted to continue teaching, arrived together in Winnipeg in about 1904. When the St. Adolphe convent opened in 1906, three of the nuns from France took over the convent. That was considered a coup for St. Adolphe. They hired girls to help them with English.

The book relates some of the medical practices back then. Coughs were treated with a spoonful of goose fat, swallowed quickly, followed by a peppermint candy.

Letters sent home were censored by the nuns, so the girls avoided mention of boyfriends.

Punishment was interesting. One girl had to copy four pages of the dictionary backwards.

“What affected me the most was the discipline. Silence in line. Silence in the dormitory. Silence in the dining hall, even at supper time,” Germaine Marion, nee Gosselin, who began boarding at age six, says in the book.

The only way you could linger in bed in the morning was if you had a fever. So girls learned they could induce a warm forehead by standing on their heads, before the nun came around with a thermometer. It really worked, Lucille Bazin, née Marchand, writes. She also began boarding at age six.

“I discovered all kinds of sins: mortal, venial, impure, in thought, in action and in omission. It seemed like there was something forbidden no matter which way I turned,” she said.

“There was a system of points for conduct, effort, self-control and politeness which was tallied weekly in front of the boarders, by Sister Superior and provincial Mother.”

Children were required to make weekly visits to the confessional and chastity was of utmost importance.

“On the subject of washing, we had a bath every two weeks. To avoid impure thoughts, we were not allowed to look at our bodies while bathing and had to wash ourselves wearing our flannel night shirts. I did this until one day I decided to bathe in the nude in my little enclosure. No one could see me, or so I thought. A nun spotted me and, after a scolding to “Miss Marchand,” I had to put my wet, cold and heavy nightgown back on.”

Rhea Trudeau, née Berriault, once came to school in a pullover sweater and was sent home to put on something more appropriate. The sweater showed too much outline of her body. The girls were required to wear loose blouses, and later, uniforms, Trudeau said. Trudeau is president of the St. Adolphe Heritage Group that helped put out the book.

Sister Rachel Schaubroeck, who transferred from La Salle to take her high school at the convent, had no intention of becoming a nun when she arrived, and didn’t even want to go to the convent school, she said in the group interview with Trudeau and Le Gal.

She made her life-changing decision in Grade 11. She liked teaching and the sisters told her she was a natural at it. She felt a call from God “to do something different,” and the “prayerful life” appealed to her.

That sort of choice is rare today. The average age of nuns in Manitoba is in the 70s now, and the youngest nun is 49, said Sister Schaubroeck. She doesn’t know of a single student in Manitoba currently studying to be a nun. There is a novice visiting from Italy but only for a three-month stint.

Sister Schaubroeck would become Mother Superior in charge of the Filles de la Croix order in Manitoba.

The old, four-storey convent has a few quirks. Because the convent floors were added on piecemeal, you can’t go directly from the first floor to the second from the former nun quarters. You have to go from the first floor to the third floor, and then down a stairway to the second. There are also ghost stories, included in the book, but those are associated more from its nursing home days.

The grotto was torn down prior to 1961, according to the memories of people interviewed, because it was deemed too close to the high school that was being built next door.

Several years ago, the Niverville Heritage Centre purchased the convent-turned-nursing home. The heritage centre’s intent was to obtain the St. Adolphe nursing home licence so it could build its own facility in Niverville. The group built an 80-bed Heritage Life Personal Care Home in Niverville, about 10 minutes away, in 2013. It’s a community-built state-of-the-art facility, complete with the only special-care unit for aggressive Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in Canada.

The Niverville group couldn’t re-purpose the old convent because the building was crumbling and had asbestos insulation throughout. To remove the insulation would have cost more than $400,000 alone. So the large, old building was deemed no longer economically viable.

It’s sad to see the old convent go, Trudeau said.

“I just broke down when they said they were going to demolish the building,” she said. “I found it very, very hard. It was like a second home. I lived next door. I took all my school there. I worked at the nursing home.”

But the old convent was antiquated in so far as providing supports for the elderly. While it held 42 patients, many patients had to share rooms. Patients were constantly being moved because they didn’t get along with a roommate. It is also in a flood zone, which had forced evacuations in the past.

The Niverville Heritage Centre has committed to building an assisted-living complex on the former convent site, including lease life units.

It was Steven Neufeld, Niverville Heritage Centre CEO, who recommended to local people they put together a souvenir book on the convent’s life, and the Niverville group helped pay some of the cost. The launch for the book, which retails for $30, is Tuesday at Club Amical, 344 Main St., in St. Adolphe. It’s available in St. Adolphe and at the Niverville Heritage Centre and Villa Aulneau in St. Boniface.

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