Catholic women religious (“sisters” or “nuns”) played a significant role in laying the foundation of the province’s education, health care, and social service systems. Hundreds of members of over 30 different religious orders established schools and hospitals during the pioneer era, and today continue to serve in a wide variety of ministries. While most of the pioneering nuns came from Europe, their numbers quickly grew as prairie girls “entered the convent” taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—thereby dedicating their lives to the service of God through the education of youth and care of the sick, aged, needy and poor.
By the 1930s nearly forty boarding schools had been established in Saskatchewan by various teaching orders. The first nuns to come to this province were three Sisters of Charity of Montreal (“Grey Nuns”), who opened a school in Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1860 and also ran an orphanage. They were followed by the Sisters of the Assumption, who came from Nicolet, Quebec in 1891 and taught in a Residential School at Onion Lake until 1972. They also had boarding schools and taught in Battleford (1893–1962), Thunderchild (1901–48), Biggar (1927–68) and Val Marie (1939–82). Les Filles de la Providence came in 1897 from Brittany, France to Prince Albert, where they opened a boarding school for girls. Later, they built similar schools in Prud’homme, St. Louis and St. Brieux, and taught in almost twenty public schools in the area.
The Grey Nuns taught in Indian Residential Schools in Lebret (1884–1975), Lestock (1897– 1932), and Beauval (1927–71). The Sisters of the Presentation of Mary came from Quebec in 1903 to work with the Oblates in the Residential School for Cree First Nations in Duck Lake, and later expanded their educational work to twelve schools in Prince Albert and the surrounding region. In 1904 the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion came from Paris to Prince Albert, where they ran a boarding and day school for girls until 1951, when it was turned over to the Presentation Sisters. The Sisters of Our Lady of the Cross came from Grenoble, France in 1905 to open a boarding school in Forget (1905–64), followed by others in Montmartre (1920–70), Wauchope (1917–64), Redvers (1964– 80), and Cantal (1940–64). In 1905 the Sisters of the Cross came from LaPuye, France and ran boarding schools in Bellegarde (until 1964), Lafleche (1915–58), and Willow Bunch (1914–63). They taught in several public schools as well.
The next group of Sisters came just before World War I. In 1913 the Sisters of Notre Dame came from Auvergne, France to Ponteix, where they ran a boarding school until 1952 and taught in six public schools (1940–76). The Sisters of Sion also ran boarding schools in Moose Jaw (1914–91) and Saskatoon (1919–66), operated a women’s residence in Saskatoon (1917–76), and taught in several elementary schools in both cities. In 1913 the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis came from Quebec to open a school for boys in Moose Jaw, followed by schools in Radville (1915–73), Wilcox (1920), Swift Current (1920-61), and eight others in the southern region of the province. The Ursuline Sisters, a teaching order founded in Italy in 1535, came from Germany to this province in 1913 and opened boarding schools for girls in Bruno (1922–82), Vibank (1923–70), and Prelate (1919–). The Ursulines taught in over 100 locations throughout Saskatchewan. By the mid-1960s the Prelate Ursulines alone had ninety teachers in villages and towns, mainly in the western part of the province. In 1921 the Loretto Sisters came from Toronto to Sedley, where they operated a girls’ boarding school for seventy years, with seventy Sisters serving there during that period. In addition, they taught in numerous schools in Regina, Weyburn, Estevan and Saskatoon.
Other teaching orders and their major schools included the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (Lebret 1899–74 and Regina 1926-69), the Sisters of the Child Jesus (Prince Albert 1915 and North Battleford (1925–82), School Sisters of Notre Dame (Leipzig, 1926-69), Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto (Rosetown 1935–70), Sisters of Jesus and Mary (Gravelbourg, 1915–70), Missionary Oblates (Gravelbourg 1918 and Lestock 1932–79), and the Ukrainian-rite Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate (Yorkton 1915). In most of the Sisters’ schools, choral singing, piano, drama and art were given a major place in education, thus contributing to the rich cultural life characteristic of the province today.
The first Catholic hospitals were opened in 1907 by the Grey Nuns in Regina and Saskatoon (with schools of nursing attached), followed by others in Biggar (1923-67), Rosthern (1927–35), Gravelbourg (1928–2000), Ile-à-la-Crosse (1927–2001), La Loche (1943–81), Zenon Park(1972–73), and Esterhazy (1987–89). In 1906 the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception came from Saint John, New Brunswick to Prince Albert, where they opened St. Patrick’s Orphanage (1906–73) and Holy Family Hospital (1910–97). In Regina they also ran a school for girls from 1921 to 1968. In 1911 three Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth came from Austria to Humboldt, where they opened a hospital and a school of nursing (1923-69), as well as hospitals in Macklin (1922), Scott (1924–32), and Cudworth (1924); they later served in Seniors’ Homes in Saskatoon and Humboldt. A hospital was opened in Moose Jaw by the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul from Kingston in 1912, and in Estevan by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peterborough in 1937. The Notre Dame Sisters ran hospitals in Ponteix (1918–69), Val Marie, and Zenon Park. Homes for the Aged were founded by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Cross in Whitewood (1920–68), Marcelin (1944–56), Prince Albert (1956–92), and Weyburn (1953–70).
Other religious orders engaged in social work. The Sisters of Service who came to Saskatoon from Toronto (1946–76) ministered among families in crisis. They did similar work in Regina and carried out an extensive Home Religion Program by correspondence from 1934 to about 1980. They also conducted workshops to train catechists in the rural areas of the province. The Sisters of Social Service of Hamilton came in 1923 to Stockholm to minister to the Hungarian Catholic community, and in 1949 to Regina where they engaged in parish work and teaching. In 1951, Father G.W. Kuckartz, OMI, of Battleford, founded the Sisters of Mission Service to serve in a wide variety of ministries.
The province owes much to these hundreds of nuns who devoted their lives to the education of youth and the care of the sick and needy, often in situations of extreme hardship and poverty. They served as apostles of Catholic faith as well as founding mothers of the province’s education, health and social service systems, thereby helping to shape a more gentle Saskatchewan culture.