Bog # 20 Education of Girls in Red River Settlement: Part Four: French Catholic Education

Tags: Bishop Provencher; Lord Selkirk; Angélique and Marguerite Nolin; Grey Nuns; St. Boniface; Rosalie Gauthier; St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg; Manitoba French education;

 Lord Selkirk and the HBC Support Education

 The Bishop of Quebec sent the first three Catholic missionaries, led by Joseph Norbert Provencher, to the North West in 1818. In his instructions to them he wrote:

Missionaries will take particular care of Christian education among children, and for this they will establish schools and catechisms in all the localities they may have occasion to visit…The missionaries will establish their home near Fort Douglas on the Red River [and] will build there a church, a house and a school. For their support they will take the most advantageous way to utilize the lands that will be given to them.  [Tache, p. 1]

At this time, Lord Selkirk gave Catholic authorities in Quebec two tracts of land “the whole to help the work of the Catholic missionaries in Red River country”.  The mission was named St. Boniface. Immediately upon their arrival in July 1818, the missionaries constructed a building which became the first Catholic school at the Red River. Beginning in September 1818 the children were taught reading, writing and catechism for a few hours each day.  It is unclear whether both boys and girls were taught because Provencher wrote to the bishop in Quebec six months later, “If we had some nuns for the instruction of the girls, they would already find work to do.”  [Jaenen, pp. 8-10]

At a meeting of Hudson’s Bay Company council in July 1825 it was decided to make an annual grant of ₤50 to support the St. Boniface mission. The HBC also offered free passage to missionaries coming from Quebec as long as they were listed as teachers rather than priests. By 1830, the HBC council voted to increase their annual grant to ₤150. Equal grants were made to support Catholic and Protestant education and both were granted land on which to build schools.

A seminarian named Jean Harper arrived in St. Boniface in 1822 and was put in charge of teaching junior students. In 1827 he was sent to St. François-Xavier where he built a chapel and began instructing some girls and young women who couldn’t travel to St. Boniface. During the winter, the wife of the mission’s farm manager began to teach the girls to work in flax and wool. [Jaenen, pp. 13-4]

 The Nolin Sisters, Angélique and Marguerite

 A prominent family named Nolin arrived at the Red River from Sault Ste. Marie in 1819 on the invitation of Lord Selkirk. Jean-Baptiste Nolin was a French-Canadian and his wife Marie-Angélique Couvret was Métis-Ojibwa.  Their daughters had been well educated in Montreal, so Bishop Provencher asked one of them (Angélique) to teach the girls in St. Boniface. Her father, however, would not let her go.  He was elderly and wanted his daughters to stay home and look after him. In a letter to a Quebec Archbishop Provencher explained that J-B. Nolin “has all sorts of petty excuses, but above all he does not wish that his daughter be a servant. It is certainly not the status that I wish to give her.”   [Boyd thesis, p. 51]

 Following J-B Nolin’s death in 1826, Provencher again approached Angélique about teaching school. Finally in  1829 she and her sister Marguerite opened a school which they operated until 1834. That year, they left for Baie St. Paul near present-day St.  Francois Xavier west of St. Boniface where they continued teaching for the next ten years and also helped a priest named Belcourt in translating an Ojibwa dictionary.

 School for Weaving

 A school to teach girls how to do weaving and other domestic arts was established by Bishop Provencher in 1838. Governor Simpson agreed to pay the salaries of two women instructors for three years if the St. Boniface mission provided them with board and lodging. The school began well, but it burnt down the following year and all of the equipment was destroyed.  It was not rebuilt. One of the instructors was Ursule Grenier, the bishop’s housekeeper, who had come from Lower Canada.

 Bishop Provencher

Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher


Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns)

 Provencher visited the Grey Nuns in Montreal to request some sisters to come to the St. Boniface Mission at the Red River to provide education for the daughters of the French-speaking people of the area. The first four sisters arrived on June 21, 1844. They were Marie Louise Valade, Marie Marguerite Eulalie Lagrave (trained nurse and musician), Gertrude Coutlée, and Marie Hedwidge La France.  By July 11, they had organized a class for girls, and soon after a class for boys was begun. The nuns continued to teach both boys and girls until the Brothers of the Christian School of Montreal arrived in 1854. After that time the nuns only taught girls. Sister Lagrave soon realized that there was as much or more need for nursing care than for education.  In 1871 the Grey Nuns opened the first hospital in the North West.

Marie Louise Valade was chosen as superior-foundress of the convent at St. Boniface for several reasons. She had vast experience as a treasurer and good leadership skills. Another important qualification was that she was Métis and it was felt that she “would have an instinctive understanding of the young girls and women she could expect to be in charge of.”   [Mitchell, p. 11] At her death at the age of 53 in 1861, Mother Valade left a well-organized convent, three schools, and a staff of 21 nuns.

Sister La France began as the girls’ teacher, with 27 students “whose docility and intelligence were really remarkable” according to her. The parents paid tuition of 20 sols plus one cord of wood per student each year.  [Mitchell, pp.  29, 31] In 1846, Sister Ouimet and Sister Marguerite Connolly (a young Métis woman who entered the Grey Nuns order at the Red River) were also assigned as teachers. Sister Lagrave soon formed an excellent choir.

Sister Ste. Therese, who became known as Soeur le Docteur because of her medical skill, spent most of her time treating the sick; however she was also a teacher and was one of the founders of Ėcole Sainte-Marie which evolved into St. Mary’s Academy to serve the English speaking Catholics across the Red River from St. Boniface. St. Mary’s Academy continues to operate today as an all-girls high school in the city of Winnipeg. Classes began in 1869 with the assistance of Red River Governor William McTavish and his wife. Because the Grey Nuns’ primary mandate was as nurses rather than teachers, they soon requested that the bishop find someone else to take over this new school.  Bishop Taché was successful in recruiting some Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for this task. They arrived in 1874. Initially both boys and girls attended the school until three Christian Brothers arrived the following year to set up a school for boys.

Sister Laurent (born in Montreal in 1832) was one of the Grey Nuns who arrived at the Red River in 1850. She was interviewed for the book Women of Red River when she was 92. She recounted how she had dreamed of serving in a far-off mission field from her childhood, so she volunteered to   come to the Red River. She was initially asked to teach school; however, because she was a very small woman, she declined when she saw some of the boys she would have as students.  She said, “I do not want to teach school. Those boys are too big, and they will not mind me, I am sure.” Instead, she visited the local people in their homes and spent many years as a housekeeper at the St. Boniface convent. She later helped to establish a convent at the nearby community of St. Norbert.  [Healy, p. 113]

 Grey Nuns

Sister Ste-Therese                                             Sister Margaret Connolly

Archives Grey Nuns of Manitoba

 In 1862, a local priest wrote in praise of the education offered by the Grey Nuns:

As to the pupils of the boarding school, I dare say their examinations results could honour our fine convents in Lower Canada. The program of studies is exactly the same: French, English, history, mathematics, drawing and music…They also teach spinning, weaving and knitting besides sewing. [McGuire, p. 5]

In the early 1860s classes began at St. Charles along the Assiniboine River at the western edge of the modern city of Winnipeg. About 40 children were taught by two former students of the Grey Nuns, Adeline Dauphinas and Marie Riel (sister of Louis).

Rosalie Gauthier (née Germain)

In addition to the Nolin sisters and the Grey Nuns, another French teacher was a married woman at a time when most female teachers would have been either single or widowed.  Rosalie Germain married Jean-Baptiste Gauthier when she was 16 and became mother of 14 children.  She was born and educated in Quebec and came to the Red River in 1853. She and her husband took up a farm at Lorette south of St. Boniface where—despite her rapidly expanding family—she began teaching   children in the daytime and adults at night.  She continued teaching there and later at nearby Ste. Anne when the family moved there. “When my babies came, the women of the settlement used to help me with them, until my older girls grew up, so that I might be able to continue teaching,”  she said. During her first years at Ste. Anne she taught in her own home—she in the afternoon and the priest in the morning.  School did not operate during harvest time because everyone had to help with it.  [Healy, pp. 117-18]

The first cathedral was  destroyed by fire in 1860. Sara Riel wrote a description of the fire to her brother Louis. It is likely that the girls she refers to were students:

The girls were busy melting tallow for candles to beautify the altar for Christmas. The girls had put too much tallow into the vessel when it boiled over and caught fire. They passed water on it but the flames spread more and more and it a second the kitchen floor was ablaze.[McGuire, p. 11]

 St. Boniface Cathedral

St. Boniface Cathedral 1858

Archives of Manitoba


Healy, W.J. Women of the Red River, Winnipeg: Women’s Canadian Club, 1923

Jaenen, C.J. “Foundation of Dual Education at Red River, 1811-34”, MHS (online)

McGuire, Rita SGM, “The Grey Nuns in the Red River settlement, 1844-70” (online)

Mitchell, Estelle, The Grey Nuns of  Montreal and the Red River Settlement 1844-1948


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