Upon their arrival in June of 1858, somehow the four young Sisters from Quebec managed to accommodate both day students and boarders in their log cabin school. Mattresses were laid on the floor at night and rolled up during the day. Cooking proceeded on one side of the chimney while school was conducted on the other, with the children perched on rough boards placed over packing boxes. An early boarding school student, Elizabeth Eddy, who came north from San Francisco with her parents for the Gold Rush of 1858, recalled some fifty years later:
“I look back and see how hard those four Sisters worked; they sawed the logs with a crosscut saw, and we children sat on the logs to keep them steady. It was fun for us, but hard work for them.”
A year later, two more Sisters arrived from Quebec. They were Sister Mary Bon Secours, a music teacher, and English-speaking Sister Mary Providence, who at the age of 22 was already well qualified to assume the duties of Provincial Superior. Under her leadership, the Sisters’ pioneer school expanded, flourished, and earned itself an enviable reputation.
One early student discovered this for herself. Dolly Helmcken, the daughter of Victoria’s well-known doctor, completed eight years of classes at St. Ann’s and left at the age of 17 planning to go to England for further studies. However, Dr. Helmcken thought it prudent that first she should spend a year being “finished” in Ottawa, to compensate for any gaps left by her pioneer school education in Victoria. But the Ottawa plan was dropped when, after half a year there, Dolly took top honours and wrote to her father that she was wasting her time!
In 1871, construction began on what was to become the centre section of the Academy as we know it today. In his ceremonial address at the laying of the building’s cornerstone, Father C. Seghers paid tribute to the Sisters’ mission in the west:
“The building .. .[will be} … devoted to a twofold object – charity and education. It is destined to be a school for the education of young ladies …. There will [also} be in this institution an asylum for fatherless children, for needy orphans. One shudders when thinking of the woeful lot that threatened many a forsaken child in this country had not the good Sisters of Saint Ann taken them under their fostering care and maternal protection.”