The story of St. Ann’s Academy is interwoven with the history of British Columbia. In 1857, when gold was discovered along the Fraser River, thousands poured into the region through the tiny port of Fort Victoria. Earlier that same year, Roman Catholic Bishop Modeste Demers, whose episcopal territory stretched from the Rockies to the Pacific and from the Columbia River to the North Pole, had journeyed to Quebec to appeal for help in his missionary work among the indigenous peoples, settlers and Hudson’s Bay Company personnel. There he met with the Sisters of St. Ann, a congregation of women religious founded in 1850 and dedicated to the education of rural boys and girls at a time of high illiteracy in Quebec. Their founder was Marie Esther Blondin, who was born in the small village of Terrebonne, Quebec, in 1809. She became a remarkable teacher and as Mother Mary Ann had formed a group of 45 Sisters by the time of Demers’ appeal.
All 45 volunteered to “go west,” but only four could be chosen. All were from Quebec and for them, Canada’s West Coast was a foreign country. The two-month journey took them from Montreal to the Isthmus of Panama, across the Isthmus by train, then by boat to San Francisco and on to Victoria, where they were housed in a log cabin without light, heat or water. But on June 7, 1858, just two days after the Sisters’ arrival, classes began, with one end of the cabin serving as a schoolroom during the day. By the end of the first year, 56 pupils of diverse backgrounds had enrolled.
From this humble beginning, St. Ann’s Academy grew in stages, as demand increased and funds were raised, to become one of the largest, best-equipped educational institutions in the region. For more than 100 years, the Academy was the west coast headquarters of the pioneering Sisters, who provided schooling, nursing services, missionaries and novitiate training for the province and beyond. Though declining enrollment and high operating costs forced them to close the Academy in 1973, the Sisters of St. Ann continue their ministry in education, healthcare, ecumenical work, and services to the larger community in which they now reside.