View the original articles as it appears in the Temiskaming Speaker.
You could look at the roof and four walls of a building and see it as just a pile of concrete and bricks.
But two sisters from Les Soeurs de l’Assomption de la Sainte-Vierege en Ontario see Haileybury’s Place Sainte Marie as their former home and a francophone school where the seeds of education were planted in thousands of students over the years.
Sisters Jeanine Lemire and Claire Tremblay came to Place Sainte Marie recently to share a heartfelt “trip down memory lane” explaining the historical significance of the building that they lived and worked in and more importantly called home.
Place Sainte Marie Superintendent Dave Laskey said he had met Sister Lemire outside the building one day. She explained the storied history of the former convent to him. He was thoroughly impressed and felt the current residents of the building would find this historical insight about their building interesting, so he invited her to share her story with current residents.
“We started talking about the history of the building and the next thing you know, four hours had passed. I suggested they come and share their story with us. To explain the fascinating history of our building,” he said.
“The Haileybury convent had been a home, a place of learning, a haven for prayer and religious retreats for over 80 years,” explained Sister Lemire.
It was clear throughout the hour-long talk that both nuns had special memories attached to the building which is now called Place Sainte Marie. The building was purchased in 2004 by Skyline Inc. and then developed into an 48 suite apartment complex.
“We had a very good working relationship with Skyline. They asked us to help them name the building and they took our suggestions to heart. It was a bittersweet day for us when on September 30, 2005 we moved out of this building,” said Sister Lemire.
She was pleased that they kept the name Sainte-Marie in place.
The convent/school had helped to educate more than 2,660 students with 1,990 graduates over the years.
In 1910, the original Académie Sainte-Marie opened because the Quebec-based Bishop Latulipe wanted to open a francophone school to serve students of Northern Ontario in Haileybury.
The convent served as a boarding school and place for religious studies until it burned to the ground on October 4, 1922 during the Great Fire. The Great Fire of 1922 destroyed the convent and nearby church as it swept across southern Temiskaming. It was noted at that time that younger students were sent to nearby Cobalt to take refuge from the fire and the nuns and older students headed to Lake Temiskaming to escape the sparks and flames of the fire. In 1925 the Sisters decided to rebuild their convent and construction was completed in 1928.
In 1957 the convent underwent a major renovation and expansion.
The sisters pointed out that the building had served as a teaching institution, an elementary and secondary school taking in boarders, day students and pupils studying commercial courses.
Its original mission was the education of girls, but over time male students were accepted.
In 1968 the Académie Sainte-Marie lost its private school status when the Ministry of Education introduced a new model of education reform that did not support funding for both a religious and a French-language only school.
That’s when the convent became a French Public High School called Ecole secondaire Sainte-Marie, marking the first time the nuns received a salary for teaching.
The school was placed under the jurisdiction of the Timiskaming Board of Education.
In 1969 a lay principal and lay teachers were hired to teach 547 students enrolled at the school.
After a few years it was decided that a new French-language high school should be built in New Liskeard to replace the aging Haileybury school. In 1973 students and staff then moved into what is now called Ecole catholique secondaire Sainte- Marie, located at the end of Hessle Avenue.
The exit of the students to the new high school meant the sisters had to reinvent a purpose for the old school.
For a number of years between 1977 and 1995 they say it was used as a spiritual resource centre for the diocese and organizations in Northern Ontario. The academy was renamed Accueil Sainte-Marie.
After a few years the sessions started dwindling and the sisters entertained the possibility of selling the building.
Sister Lemire was President of the Corporation responsible for the decision to sell the building.
She said she met with Century 21 realtor Eveline Gauvreau to go over ideas on how to sell the convent.
At that time it was suggested the Town of Haileybury purchase the building but the municipality could not come up with a successful plan for the building.
“A bid by the Northdale Manor Board was also considered and that didn’t pan out,” said Sister Lemire.
Fast forward to 2004 when Skyline Inc. came up with an offer of purchase.
“They had been looking at the building, asking questions and showed lots of interest,” said Sister Lemire.
She said on September 30, 2005 the final sale went through and Skyline Inc. became the new owners of the convent.
The last fourteen sisters left at the convent had to pack over 80 years of furniture, books, bedding, desk, chairs etc.
They held a huge yard sale and with the help of several volunteers they managed to sell off the contents of the building.
“It was a bittersweet day for us when we eventually had to leave the building but we are pleased with how it has been transformed,” said Sisters Lemire and Tremblay.
With just the slightest hint of sadness in her eyes she said, “It was the end of an era for us…for you the beginning of one.”
Both nuns are now enjoying their retirement years, but said they are very pleased with the way their convent has been renovated to fit modern-day lifestyles.