From the archives: Villa Maria: a school with regal connections

From the archives: Villa Maria: a school with regal connections
From the archives: Villa Maria: a school with regal connections

Governor General Lord Dufferin and Lady Dufferin visit Villa Maria school in 1873. L'opinion publique, Feb. 6, 1873 / Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

This story was first published on Sept. 12, 2004, in the Montreal Gazette.


”NOTICE: Mrs. Renaud’s School, having now re-opened for the Winter Session, a Class will be formed for the instruction of Young Ladies who have passed through the regular School routine.”

The Gazette, Monday, Sept. 12, 1854


The years just before Confederation were a time of starts and of false starts for English education in Montreal. The High School of Montreal was founded in 1843; the predecessor of Lower Canada College would follow in 1861. After a shaky start three decades before, McGill University would get its second wind with the appointment of a vigorous new principal, William Dawson, in 1855.

Other ventures were less favoured, especially among the small schools precariously organized by entrepreneurs such as the otherwise unknown Mrs. Renaud.

The day her advertisement appeared in The Gazette, there was another announcing that a certain Mrs. Rhynas was taking over Mrs. Simpson’s school and moving it to Union Ave. Today, all three schoolmistresses are forgotten.

One school opening its doors for the first time that same day in 1854 was fated for better things, yet it was unheralded in the newspaper. A pity: The school was Villa Maria, and 150 years later it is still going strong.

Villa Maria’s roots run deep, to the school, Montreal’s first, that Ste. Marguerite Bourgeoys famously opened in a stable on Le Royer St. in 1658. Over the years, however, the need to accommodate a growing number of pupils, the pressure of the rapidly growing city and at least two fires kept the school on the move.

By the late 1840s, even the large building it was by then occupying on St. Jean Baptiste St. was cramped. The Congregation de Notre Dame, the great teaching order that Marguerite Bourgeoys founded and that ran the school, began looking around.

The answer lay some distance from the city, in the Monklands estate in what is now Notre Dame de Grace. Its Palladian villa was originally built early in the 19th century as a country home for Sir James Monk, a prominent judge.

From 1844 to 1849, when Montreal was the capital of Canada, it became the residence of three successive governors-general. After the capital moved to Toronto, a well known restaurateur, Sebastien Compain, turned it into a fashionable country hotel.

It was a profitable venture for Compain, but he could not hold out against the sisters of the CND. “Heavenly forces were at work,” Helen Lanthier dryly observes in her new history of the school, “which convinced him, with the promise of suitable compensation, to give up his hotel.”

Negotiations with the Monk family went smoothly and on Sept. 8, 1854, the house was blessed by Father Pierre-Louis Billaudele, superior of the Sulpician seminary. Another Sulpician, Father Etienne-Michel Faillon, celebrated the first mass in the new chapel, the former dining room where, Lanthier writes, “the crimson wall hangings of vice-regal days were still part of the decor.”

The school’s first 17 girls arrived four days later, quickly to be joined by nine more from Boston. By Sept. 25, enrolment had risen to 45, of whom 18 were from outside Montreal. All were boarders, and most were English-speaking. But no matter how the balance between the two language groups has shifted back and forth over the years, both cultures have remained honoured.

The new school, like its antecedents, quickly assumed a leading position in Montreal education. By no accident, it was on the itinerary of the prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, during his memorable visit to Montreal in 1860. His younger brother Arthur also called at the school in 1869.

Monklands’s vice-regal past seems reflected in a custom that soon emerged for governors-general to pay official visits to the school. Viscount Monck was the first to do so, presiding over graduation ceremonies in 1862 and 1864.

Frances Monck, his vivacious sister-in-law, heard the mayor remark how chaste the girls looked in their white muslin . George Etienne Cartier, the godfather of Montreal politics, was also there, and his wife, Hortense, retorted that the appearance of chastity probably had more to do with the absence of bachelors than the presence of white muslin.

So connected to Villa Maria did Governor-General Lord Grey apparently feel that he dropped by one March day in 1906 on just 15 minutes’ notice. A student, Ruby McDonnell, described the frenzy that ensued.

“Messages were arriving in legions. Mother St. P- wanted the singers at once; we were to come to the hall at once; we were to go to the dormitory at once; and we were all to remain in our classrooms.”

Ruby and her friends had “but five minutes to brush our hair, get our gloves, our Child of Mary ribbons, … to close the doors of our wardrobes, and to leave our rooms in perfect order.”

The carpet was laid, little flags were hurriedly tacked into place – and suddenly Lord Grey was among them.

“When His Excellency entered, we all arose in one vast expanse of smile, as if we had been standing in that identical spot for the last six months waiting for his regal presence.”

Alas, the most recent governor-general to visit was Georges Vanier, in 1964. But in April of this year, a long series of events to mark the Villa’s first century and a half began with a vice-regal flourish during a ceremony under the patronage of Lieutenant-Governor Lise Thibault.

Since then, there have been an open house and a reunion of graduates, and last Thursday there was a special anniversary mass for the school’s English sector. Later in the year, a gala concert, a reception and two more masses are scheduled [note: this is a 2004 story]. No one is expecting panic of the sort that Lord Grey prompted.

Read more about Montreal’s history here.

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