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Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie

A few years ago, during a conference entitled, La religion dans la Cité des modernes: un divorce sans issue? (Religion in the Contemporary City: An Inescapable Divorce? ), Charles Taylor stated: “In our Christian tradition there have been some amazing things. I was privileged to know women who were remarkable builders of institutions. When […] the role of women in Catholicism was described to me as passive and secondary, I found that this did not correspond to my experience […]. There is much strength to find here […]. Once errors are corrected, we should try to recover this extraordinary human strength.”

Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie who made it possible for women to enter university in Quebec by offering them the first classical college and the possibility of deepening their pedagogical formation in the Institut pédagogique, an institution she founded, surely figures among the “remarkable builders of institutions” referenced by the celebrated philosopher. In order to realize such accomplishments, this woman, who like Marguerite Bourgeoys dedicated her life to liberating education, had an extraordinary passion for learning, a daring vision of how to meet the needs in the field of education and, along with diplomatic finesse, a strong sense of pragmatism. Let us briefly retrace the path of this exceptional woman.

Institut pédagogique / Institut Marguerite-Bourgeoys: collège Marguerite-Bourgeoys, École normale de l'Institut pédagogique and École normale de musique, institution established in 1926, Montreal, Quebec, [after 1926]. Archives Congrégation de Notre-Dame - Montreal.

Throughout the 19th century, only elementary education was offered in Quebec public schools. Several religious congregations opened boarding schools in different Quebec regions and somewhat enriched the curriculums; boarding schools, particularly those in the cities which received young women from affluent families, offered programs clearly superior to those offered in public schools. However, diplomas obtained in these private institutions did not provide access to higher education. Classical colleges, the only entranceway to university, were reserved for boys only.

If French-language young women did not have access to higher education, a career in teaching offered them “professional” opportunities in the work force. But who was responsible for the formation of these teachers? In the first half of the 19th century, the state had entrusted this training process to religious communities: In Quebec City and Trois-Rivières to the Ursulines and in Montreal and its surrounding areas to the Congrégation de Notre-Dame. Their boarding schools became true “little normal schools.” It is important to mention that teaching congregations in Quebec became part of an ever-growing movement of women who made the right to higher education the foundation of its demands. Was Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie “a feminist before her time?”

Born in 1861 in Saint-Paul d’Abbotsford, the second of six children, Marie-Aveline Bengle demonstrated very early superior intelligence and numerous talents. A teacher in the local schoolhouse, she entered, in 1878, the novitiate of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, where she was given the name Sainte-Anne-Marie. In 1883, she began a career in education at Mont Sainte-Marie, where, with courage and vision, she expanded and broadened the curriculum. Because she thought that she and her companions needed superior pedagogical formation, she formed a study group under the guidance of Father Georges Gauthier. When a Chair of French Literature opened at Université Laval, she registered and succeeded, to everyone’s surprise, in obtaining a degree in Literature, even though she was unable to present herself at the university in person! While Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie already envisioned an École normale supérieure (teacher-training university) to provide teachers better pedagogical formation, she also was aware that the first step was to offer women access to university education. These two projects constituted her life’s work!

Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie (Marie-Aveline Bengle) at her desk, Montreal, Quebec, [from 1926 to 1937]. Archives Congrégation de Notre-Dame – Montreal.

“In 1908, the great educator established the first collège classique (classical college) for French-language young women, École d’enseignement supérieur (School of Higher Learning), which was, in 1926, renamed Collège Marguerite-Bourgeoys. From then on, it was possible for young Quebec women to pursue university studies. With the first part of her grand project completed, she resumed her efforts to establish a teacher-training university. She faced deep-rooted discrimination relative to women’s access to higher education and to the role of women in society. This discrimination stemmed from both inside and outside as “no one believed this school had a future.” But no obstacle would shake the faith and resolve of this daughter of Marguerite!

In 1913, Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie wrote a memoir describing her project; government officials rejected it. Refusing to accept defeat and continuing to find ways to provide teacher-training to both sisters and lay persons, she innovated and, in 1917, laid the foundation for an École normale supérieure: a course in pedagogy offered during weekly conferences; it was funded by the Montreal School Commission.

Persevering, Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie resumed efforts with ecclesial and government authorities to create a pedagogical institute. In 1923, she received a $25,000 subsidy over a fifteen-year period for its construction. In 1924, the General Council decided that it was necessary to temporarily interrupt the project… but not the funding! Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie was profoundly affected: “I was stunned,” she said, not by the Council’s decision as much as by the fear “of having been a victim of its imagination.” Persuasive and a true diplomat, Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie managed to secure the subsidy; the Act Establishing the Institut pédagogique in Montreal came into effect in March 1924.

Construction of the Institut pédagogique began in 1925. Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie prepared the curriculum and continued to innovate. She became interested in, among other things, the education of intellectually challenged children. Motivated by the dynamism of the recently opened École des beaux-arts de Montréal, she established an arts section. Its success encouraged her to found École normale de musique and a “Homemaking” section. While on the topic, it should be emphasized that we would all gain from being more familiar with her valuable contributions to the cultural and artistic development of women in Quebec. Indeed, until 1969, École normale de musique provided formation to numerous professors and musicians. For some four decades, École normale de dessin, affiliated with École des beaux-arts de Montreal formed a large number of specialized teachers. From the “Homemaking” section stemmed, in 1932, École supérieure des arts et métiers (College of Arts and Crafts). In the 1950s, its orientations changed in order to offer adult students courses in personal development, such as, sewing, weaving, food preparation, drawing, painting, painting on porcelain and enamel on copper.

Singing lesson, École normale de musique de Montréal. Archives Congrégation de Notre-Dame – Montreal.

Harmony lesson, École normale de musique de Montréal. Archives Congrégation de Notre-Dame – Montreal.

Student of École normale de musique de Montréal. Archives Congrégation de Notre-Dame – Montreal.

Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie founded Institut pédagogique because she was aware of the urgent need for teacher-training in the absence of university education. When, in 1965, following the recommendation of the Parent Commission, Université de Montréal announced the foundation of the Faculty of Education, Institut pédagogique’s surrogate role came to an end. The formation of teachers was exclusively entrusted to universities. As a figure who profoundly marked the history of Quebec, Sister Sainte-Anne-Marie’s pedagogical heritage is still alive in the memories of the hundreds of teachers who, thanks to her, were given the opportunity to pursue their professional, moral, intellectual and artistic development.


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