Material Culture of the Loretto School for Girls in Hamilton, Ontario, 1865-1971

By Lei, Christine | Historical Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Material Culture of the Loretto School for Girls in Hamilton, Ontario, 1865-1971


Lei, Christine, Historical Studies


The material culture at Mount St. Mary (the site location of the Loretto School for Girls and Loretto Academy) in Hamilton, Ontario from 1865-1971 espoused the values of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM, popularly known as the Loretto Sisters) in the education of young girls and women. This paper examines how the Loretto Sisters operated the school in relation to material culture, the analysis of archaeological and architectural documented sources of the buildings, site, location, and interior and exterior structures of the Loretto Hamilton house and school.(1) The result of this study is to reveal what the Sisters' values were in the context of the Hamilton house and school, and within the broader context of the secular world and sacred society dominated by male clergy.

The IBVM was instituted by Mary Ward (1585-1645) in seventeenth-century England. Ward utilized her own extensive education in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and music as the basis for a specific Catholic female education for upper-class English Catholics. The Loretto Sisters were initially a small group of voluntary exiles from Post-Reformation England who dedicated their lives to work in education in St. Omers, Belgium, and throughout the Continent. It was Ward's tenet that a Christian education, instilled in future mothers of Catholics, could save Catholics from paganism and immorality. In addition to their pedagogy and practice, the IBVM declared themselves Catholic educators via architectural religious symbolism, and spoke as Catholics in a predominantly Protestant society.

There are a number of factors that account for Hamilton being chosen as the location for an addition to the growing number of Loretto schools in the province. The Irish teaching order of Sisters was desperately needed in a city with a burgeoning illiterate and impoverished Irish Catholic population. Around 1830 several major public works had been in need of labourers to complete construction on the Welland Canal (1824-1833), the Burlington Bay Canal (1826-1830), and the Desjardins Canal in Dundas (1926-1837). The Irishmen who worked on the canal projects and their families, numbered about 133 in the town's population of 1,075 inhabitants.(2) The 1840s witnessed the doubling of the Irish Catholic population for a number of reasons: there was a decrease in transiency among Irish emigrants because of a general economic depression; the exodus of Reform sympathizers and American patriots to the United States following the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837-38 included very few Irish Catholics; the Irish had put down roots in the southeast section of Hamilton, an area that would come to be known as "Corktown." In terms of ethnic settlement in Hamilton, ethnicity played no role in the determination of block settlement configurations before Confederation. As several researchers have noted, Hamilton showed no evidence of class or ethnic residential segregation: the Scots lived alongside the Irish, and the rich beside the poor.(3)

In 1847, Bishop Michael Power of Toronto had complained of "the members of his flock, in many sections, [who] were inadequately fulfilling their duties as true children of the Church,"(4) and "yearned with affectionate solicitude to procure religious instruction for the little ones of the flock.(5) In 1865, Hamilton' s Irish Catholic community accounted for approximately 25 per cent of the city's total population.(6) Through population growth, employment opportunity soared in Hamilton between 1851 and 1871. In these 20 years, however, the Irish Catholic population in the work force had decreased from 25 per cent to 12 per cent and if they were employed, they continued at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy in unskilled labour in canal and construction work. In Hamilton, "the Irish Catholics faced discrimination, which made it extremely difficult for them to escape poverty."(7) There also occurred a gender imbalance among the Irish Catholics, according to Michael Katz, whereby the number of married immigrant Irish Catholic women decreased from 71 per cent in 1851 to 52 per cent in 1871. …

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Material Culture of the Loretto School for Girls in Hamilton, Ontario, 1865-1971
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