The History of Women at St. Francis Xavier University


Mount Saint Bernard



I.  Introduction: A Tribute to the Early Women of St. Francis Xavier University

As a university student in the 1990s, one often forgets just how easy things are. We may complain of rising tuition prices, noisy residences, and too many papers with so little time to do them, yet we do not realize how lucky we are to have the opportunity to freely pursue an education. This is true particularly for female students like myself who forget about the women who came before us and allowed us to have the opportunities we have today. Up until little more than a century ago, women had few options, if any, of pursuing a university education. Female students also had to contend with gender restrictions at St. Francis Xavier University, but with the beginnings of a womenís college at Mount Saint Bernard through its expansion and subsequent affiliation with the menís college at St. F.X., women came to be part of the rich and unique history of this institution.

II.  The Early Days: Women at Mount Saint Bernard

The education of women at St. Francis Xavier University began in 1883 when St. Bernardís Convent School was  opened by Bishop John Cameron. This school was to be run by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, whose goal it was to educate young girls in subjects which would allow them to become proper young women. This notion of educating proper young women, who embodied the feminine virtues of kindness, endurance, charity, and a generous giving of self while realizing their responsibility to the home and family, which were central to Christian social life, would become the main focus of womenís education for years to come (Aims of Mount Saint Bernard).

As St. Bernardís Convent School grew in its student population, so did its status. In 1886, after a visit from the Superintendent of Education, St. Bernardís School qualified for government subsidies and became known as St. Bernardís Young Ladies Academy. It was to function with St. Francis Xavier Academy as a Department of the County Academy (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial 1883-1983, 19).  It was also at this time that the school was expanded to include grades nine through twelve as well as one through eight (Cameron, 78)

Within six years, students began to express an interest in continuing their education, with a number of them returning for course work at the post-secondary level, being accommodated as "special" students pending arrangements for degree granting privileges. Arrangements were made by the Superior, Sister St. Maurice with Bishop Cameron, whose "Victorian beliefs" that women had a "keener sense of Christian faith and morality than men", helped him make his decision to extend opportunities in higher education to women (Cameron, 96-97). Thus in 1894, St. Bernardís Academy became affiliated with St. Francis Xavier College, thereby allowing women to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree (Cameron, 96-97).

The year 1897 proved to be a landmark year in the higher education of Catholic women. It was in June of this year that four young women graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, thus St. Bernardís Academy, in affiliation with St. Francis Xavier College, became the first Catholic college in North America to grant degrees to women, a truly momentous event for women of the Catholic faith (Cameron, 97).  Prior to this, Protestant women had been attending Protestant universities, with the first woman to graduate from university in the British Empire, graduating from Mount Allison in 1875 with a Bachelor of Science degree (Prentice et al., 174).  Women had also been attending various other colleges and universities before the first Catholic women graduated from Mount Saint Bernard, nevertheless, one must not overlook

The first graduates of Mount Saint Bernard College (1897):

Left to right: Florence MacDonald, Mary E. Bissett, Lilian MacDonald, and Margaret F. MacDougall.

From: Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 1883-1983.

III. The Education of Proper Women

From the beginning, 1883 onward, the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame took pride in the education of proper Christian women, and students were to receive a "thorough female education". The aim of each teacher was to form her students to habits of order, economy, simplicity, and to inculcate that labour of love and Christian devotedness were the make and mark of true women (Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1894-95).  At first young girls were taught English, French, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, geometry, geography, the use of globes, ancient and modern history, rhetoric, botany, philosophy, chemistry, music, drawing, painting, and needle work (Cameron, 76-78).

By 1894, the year of St. Bernardís affiliation with St. F.X., the curriculum evolved into three levels: 1)Elementary, in which students were instructed in Christian doctrine, reading, writing, linear drawing, language, recitations, spelling, arithmetic, sacred history, geography, hygiene, object and information lessons, word forms (grammar), sewing, French, calisthenics, singing, and politeness, 2) Intermediate, in which students continued their elementary classes and were taught history, bookkeeping, algebra, geometry, and rudimentary natural sciences, and 3) Senior, in which they further developed their earlier lessons so that they had a deeper understanding of the natural sciences (classification of plants, animals, minerals), a fuller insight into Christian morality, and a more comprehensive study of English literature (Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1894-95).

Upon affiliation with St. F.X in 1894, women had an opportunity to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, with some University professors teaching courses at Mount Saint Bernard (not at St. F.X. itself) in philosophy, physics, and the classics and with the Sisters teaching the remaining subjects of the Arts program. Eventually more programs opened up for women as Mount Saint Bernard began to offer two year diplomas in Secretarial Science and Household Arts. In 1931 students could work toward a Bachelorís degree in Household Science or Home Economics, (Cameron, 202) in which students could either take a two year diploma (up to 1940) or a four year degree, both of which entitled them to a teaching certificate (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 36).  The Home Economics degree included classes in cooking, meal planning and serving, sewing, dressmaking, interior decorating, laundry, child care, and nutrition, as well as arts and science courses like English, French, History, Biology, Chemistry, etc. This program was considered appropriate for young women because it was beneficial for the role which they would assume as a Christian wife and mother. Programs such as the Secretarial Arts program (which possibly began in the early 1900s and became a degree program for a Bachelor of Secretarial Arts in 1968, lasting into the 1980s), the nursing program offered through the Saint Marthaís School of Nursing, and the courses in Library Science established in 1953, trained women in professions considered suitable for them. Women also took classes in the various womanly arts in addition to their academic courses, like various music classes (which, in the 1950s could lead to a Bachelor of Arts in Music) and fine arts courses as well (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 34-35).  They could also participate in a Physical Education Program which included some sports like basketball and tennis, but also trained young women in health, sanitation and hygiene, nursing, first aid, poise, and dancing (Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1947-48).  All these courses were suitable for young ladies.

Many Sisters, like Sister St. Catherine Martyr, and students expressed their belief that women did not belong in Arts or Science programs, unless they planned to pursue a teaching career(which many women did) because they were useless as they did not prepare women for proper careers or as wives and mothers. As one of the goals of the post war era was to keep women in the home, there was a great deal of effort put into educating women as homemakers. The 1950s at the Mount were no different. Many Sisters were concerned that women were not benefiting from their education as they would if they were in a non co-educational institution taught only by women. Also not all women were benefiting from the Home Economics program, which at least should be strongly recommended for women, if not mandatory (Letter from Sister St. Catherine Martyr, Mount Saint Bernard Superior, to Fr. P.J. Nicholson, St.F.X. President, 1951). This attitude was also expressed by many students, who felt that a Home Economics Degree was more beneficial to them than a regular arts degree:

Home Economics is the best course for any girl to take; even if you never use it commercially, you can use it professionally. Home making, "an important profession". Ö Iím not really prejudiced about it, but I canít help gloating. While my friends are learning about what caused the fall of the Roman Empire, we learn practical things like interior decorating... ("Diary of a Home Eccer") . Much of the focus of womenís education was on creating proper wives and mothers who could function properly within society and therefore constitute a stabilizing influence. There were proposals for courses to address this issue, for example in 1953, the Sisters proposed a course called "Hygiene and Psychology of Wholesome Personality: Its Implications for Women and Home and Family Living", through which women were to be taught about health, hygiene, and development of a "wholesome" personality and also about the negative effects of personality breakdown on the family and society (Syllabus for "Hygiene and Psychology of Wholesome Personality").

This education of proper women also extended beyond the classroom. Through the Extension Programs run by two Sisters of Saint Martha, Sister Marie Michael and Sister Irene Doyle (Sister Mary Anselm), the Sisters could travel throughout the community to educate women in home making, nutrition, better buying, self-sufficiency in food provision, and making handicrafts for both home use and commercial purposes (Sister Irene Doyle). This also served a motivation for women to become involved in the community.

Despite progress in the educational opportunities for women, womenís role was still perceived as that of wife and mother and this is what their education primarily aimed at producing.

Early Class at Mount Saint Bernard.

From: Patrick F. Walsh, The History of Antigonish (Antigonish, 1989).

IV. Women in University Life

Whatever the proper education for women was, women still attended university in ever increasing numbers. As a result, women became more and more involved in university life. Women were able to compete in a variety of sports, including basketball, field hockey, and gymnastics, and they also competed widely in debating tournaments after the Mount Saint Bernard Debating Society was formally organized in 1924. Women students could also express their ideas through writing in The Memorare, a quarterly publication by students and faculty which was introduced in 1913 by Sister Mary Aloysius and continued until 1934 (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 26).  From 1928 to 1970 secretarial students had their own publication, The Spectator, which detailed various events at the Mount and reported on the jobs, marriages, comings and goings of the hundreds of secretarial students who studied at the Mount (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 36).  Also, by 1936, Mount students could write in the St. F.X newspaper, the Xaverian Weekly which then included a Mount Saint Bernard Editor and a column specifically about the Mount (Xaverian Weekly, Oct. 24, 1936, pp. 4, 7).

Accompanying womenís greater contributions to campus life was the question of whether or not women should be able to vote in Student Union elections. In the early 1940s, some Mount students began to ask about "getting the vote", however because the Mount was separate from St.F.X with its own student organizations, many students, both women and men, felt that it was not appropriate for women to participate in the St.F.X. elections (Xaverian Weekly, Feb. 13, 27, 1943, March 19, 1949).  However, articles in the Xaverian Weekly demonstrate evidence of womenís voting in student council elections, although possibly just in the Mount Saint Bernard elections. It is not clear how much power women had in voting in the St.F.X. student union elections, or if they had any at all, at least up to the mid 1960s, when in 1966 the councils of Mount Saint Bernard and St.F.X were amalgamated (Xaverian Weekly, Jan. 14, 1966, p. 1).  Therefore although women had more opportunities, they clearly did not equal those of the male students.

Mount Saint Bernard Dormitory at the Turn of the Century.

From: Patrick F. Walsh, The History of Antigonish (Antigonish, 1989).

V. Women in Residence Life

As womenís roles in student life changed, so did their way of living. In the early years of Mount Saint Bernard College and Academy, students followed a strict program of prayer and religious practice and they were always under the watchful eyes of the Sisters. Each day began and ended with a prayer and students were expected to participate in the various religious ceremonies which took place throughout the years, as well as attend Church regularly (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 38).  According to the St. Bernardís Academy Calendar of 1894-95, all letters written or received by the students were subject to the inspection of the Mother Superior and all students were required to possess certain items of clothing, including a blouse of blue flannel for calisthenics, a plain black costume to be worn on Sundays, and a pure white dress for commencement exercises (Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1894-95).  Strict control was maintained over studentís comings and goings at all times, with "campusing" penalties for late arrivals and no evening permissions except on rare occasions. Even senior students only had one late leave (11:00 p.m.) per week and anything extending beyond midnight was reserved for special occasions three or four times a year, like "prom"nights (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 38).

Mount Saint Bernard Girls Going for a Walk to Town.

From: Patrick F. Walsh, The History of Antigonish (Antigonish, 1989).

Control over students remained quite strict until the 1960s, when students began to complain of the rules. In 1964 students were allowed to go out on weeknights and there was an extension on weekend curfews (Xaverian Weekly, Nov. 19, 1965, p. 1).  In 1968 further concessions were made as students were granted later late permissions, they were allowed to stay out until 1:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, they were allowed five late permissions (until 2:00 a.m.) per year, they could attend off-campus parties, drive in cars, wear pants, and smoke in their rooms (Xaverian Weekly, Nov. 1, 1968, p. 1). Times were changing.

Rules Change for Mount Saint Bernard Students.

 From: Xaverian Weekly, November 1, 1968.

VI. Conclusion

Today Mount Saint Bernard remains a symbol of the history of women at St. F.X. Although in the late 1970s the programs offered by the Mount gradually became more integrated into the academics of St.F.X itself, beginning in 1976 when the music facilities of the Mount and St.F.X. were merged. Also in 1976, the Home Economics department moved from the Mount to the new J. Bruce Brown building with the program being re-named "Nutrition and Consumer Studies" in 1979, the same year the Secretarial department moved to Nicholson Hall on the St.F.X campus (Mount Saint Bernard Centennial, 35-37).  Yet despite these changes and the fact that Mount Saint Bernard was no longer a separate academic institution, the Mount continued to exist. Today the Mount still functions as an independent residence for young women and provides more "closed" and private living accommodations, though not as strict as they once were. When one thinks of Mount Saint Bernard today they must not just think "no men allowed", but they must also consider the rich history of womenís higher education which the Mount symbolizes and the opportunities which it gave women when they had few opportunities before.


VII. Some Notable Women at St. Francis Xavier University

The Sisters of Saint Martha

In the 1880s, St. Francis Xavier College faced a problem which Bishop John Cameron sought to solve. "Transiency and incompetence" had led to poor general health and cleanliness of the male students and priests. In 1894, Bishop Cameron began looking for women to recruit for an auxiliary religious order which would look after the health and cleanliness of the students and priests of St.F.X. (Cameron, 97, and Walsh, 109).  After being turned down by a number of congregations, Bishop Cameron made arrangements with the Sisters of Charity of Halifax. A number of candidates from Antigonish were sent to Halifax to be trained at Mount Saint Vincent by the Sisters of Charity, however these new Sisters of Saint Martha, as they were called, were a separate group with distinct costume, rules, and regulations. In 1897 the first Sisters of St. Martha left Mount St. Vincent for the new St. Marthaís Convent, now known as Augustine Hall, in Antigonish. The Marthas provided services such as serving meals, doing laundry, making beds, cleaning classrooms, and cleaning chapels for $2.00 a month plus room and board, clothing, and medical expenses (Walsh, 109-110).  This began a new era of hygiene and comfort for St.F.X. students. Along with such luxuries as new kitchen, laundry, and nursing facilities, electricity, plumbing, and hot water heating, the work of the Marthas drastically transformed living conditions. Dormitories now reflected neatness and a home-like atmosphere, and the Marthas radiated comfort and love as they ministered to students in times of sickness and tragedy, and helped them adjust to lifeís harsh realities (Cameron, 102).

The Marthas went on to establish themselves beyond their involvement with St.F.X. They eventually became known for their management of the St. Marthaís Hospital in Antigonish, and their school of nursing, which trained many young women as nurses.

Sister St. Veronica (Mary MacDonald)- The First Woman Professor at        St.F.X

Prior to 1937, many women had been associated with the faculty of St. Francis Xavier University, primarily the Sisters of Mount Saint Bernard who taught the women students of Mount Saint Bernard College, however none of these women were officially part of the University faculty. In 1937, Sister St. Veronica (Mary MacDonald) became the first woman appointed to the St.F.X. faculty as an associate professor of History. Sister St. Veronica had graduated earlier from St. F.X. with a Bachelor of Arts and went on to the Catholic University of America to receive a Masters of Arts in History. Perhaps equally noteworthy was the fact that she was the sister of Angus L. MacDonald, the premier at that time and a graduate of St.F.X. himself. In 1952, Sister Saint Veronica became a full professor of History and she continued to educate students until 1970.

Sister St. Veronica began the tradition of female professors at St.F.X. which increased in number in the years following appointment. By 1960 the number of women faculty members increased from one to fourteen, most of whom were Sisters (Cameron, 324) , and by 1971 they numbered thirty, 18% of the faculty (Cameron, 396). Although the progress was slow, more women did start to become part of the St.F.X. faculty.

 Sister Saint Veronica, the first woman appointed to the St.F.X. faculty.


 From: James D. Cameron, For the People: A History of Saint Francis Xavier University (Montreal; Kingston, 1996).

Sources Used:

Aims of Mount Saint Bernard
Cameron, James D. For the People: A History of Saint Francis Xavier University (Montreal; Kingston, 1996).
"Diary of a Home Eccer", Xaverian Weekly, Oct. 24, 1949, p. 2.
Letter from Sister St. Catherine Martyr, Mount Saint Bernard Superior, to Fr. P.J. Nicholson, St.F.X. President, 1951
Mount Saint Bernard Centennial 1883-1983.
Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1894-95 .
Mount Saint Bernard Calendar 1947-48.
Prentice, Alison., Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchinson, Naomi Black, Canadian Women: A History, (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, l996).
Syllabus for "Hygiene and Psychology of Wholesome Personality"
Xaverian Weekly, Oct. 24, 1936, p. 4, 7.
Xaverian Weekly, Feb. 13, 27, 1943, March 19, 1949.
Xaverian Weekly, Jan. 14, 1966, p. 1.
Xaverian Weekly, Nov. 19, 1965, p. 1.
Xaverian Weekly, Nov. 1, 1968, p. 1.
Walsh, Patrick F.  The History of Antigonish (Antigonish, 1989).

 This page was written and researched by Kristel Fleuren.