Sisters of St. Ann honoured for legacy of education, health care


Sisters of St. Ann honoured for legacy of education, health care

When B.C.’s Catholic schools decided to recognize contributions to Catholic education with a new award, it was obvious who the inaugural recipient should be: the religious order for which the award was named.

The Sisters of St. Ann, who have devoted lifetimes of service in education, nursing, and social justice in the province, received the first annual Sisters of St. Ann Award at the Catholic Educators Conference where they were praised for their historic efforts.

“It’s very humbling for us to receive this, in the sense that those of us who are here are receiving an award on behalf of all those who have gone before us,” Sister Marie Zarowny told The B.C. Catholic before she and several other sisters accepted the award from the Catholic Independent Schools of B.C.

The Sisters of St. Ann were founded in Vaudreuil, Que., in 1850 with the mission of providing quality education to poor children. They arrived in Victoria eight years later at the request of Bishop Modeste Demers and opened the province’s first Catholic school.

Over the next century and a half, they opened 10 hospitals and more than 30 schools across B.C. and Alaska, while also running social justice initiatives including reconciliation efforts with First Nations, raising awareness about domestic abuse and human trafficking, and caring for creation.

The sisters founded St. Ann’s Academy in Kamloops, which opened in 1880 and was considered the longest continually operating school in B.C, as well as St. Ann’s Academy in Victoria, now a historic building that operated as a school for 115 years and educated more than 35,000 students.

“Those who were here in the 1800s and the early 1900s would have no idea that what they were doing would have this lasting effect,” said Sister Zarowny.

Organizers said the award was created to recognize a group or person whose exceptional leadership, commitment, and vision advance Catholic education in B.C., making it fitting to name it for an order of sisters who were teaching before Canada was a country.

“What is amazing is that these dedicated, well-educated women of service managed to own and operate Catholic schools across the Pacific Northwest without public funding from the Ministry of Education,” said the press release accompanying the award.

“The sisters were astute businesswomen, acquiring land in the region that would be used for schools and healthcare centres, all while they were working full-time as principals, teachers, and healthcare professionals.”

The sisters’ days of opening new schools and hospitals are now behind them. There are only 25 left living in the province – all in Victoria – with a median age of 86. Lately, they have been wrapping up their work by selling their properties and making donations to worthy organizations who can carry on their mission.

Sizable donations have gone to St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. The sisters also have a strong relationship with the Victoria Foundation and various non-profits in the city that support affordable housing, reconciliation, food security, and help for vulnerable people including those with drug addiction or fleeing domestic violence.

Sister Zarowny said she has come to realize that the sisters can leave the schools behind, but not the order’s heart for education. “Whether we’re involved in social justice or responding to needs for housing or the environment, there has always been an educational component. That taps into our educational charism.”

As the award is given to a different group or individual each year, Sister Zarowny said she’s grateful it will continue to recognize the sisters’ efforts. “The work of the sisters over these 162 years will be remembered, in a sense, in perpetuity. Each year we will be remembered – if anybody chooses to look us up.”

The 2020 Catholic Educators’ Conference drew a record-breaking 1,500 principals, teachers, and other educational staff Feb. 13-14. The conference included Mass, vendors, entertainment, and presentations from Toronto Paralympian and motivational speaker Tracy Schmitt, teacher and author Warren Woytuck, Sister Marie Veritas of the Sisters of Life, and professor and writer Ann Garrido.

Also recognized were educators with significant teaching experience in Vancouver Catholic schools, including Donna O’Hara of St. Augustine’s Elementary and Waldemar Sambor of St. Helen’s Elementary, both of whom have 40 years’ teaching history.

By Agnieszka Ruck

Published on the B.C. Catholic website.