PRINCE ALBERT — It’s not easy to give up a school when you belong to a teaching congregation, Prince Albert’s bishop told the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary at an event marking the transfer of Rivier Academy to the Prince Albert Roman Catholic School Division after a 65-year educational legacy in the city.
The sisters had not anticipated that hundreds of supporters and well-wishers would take up their invitation to share the occasion with them. “I expected maybe 20 people to come,” said a visibly moved Sister Suzanne Papen. “It’s so good for the heart!”
“The sisters are passing the torch,” said Bishop Albert Thévenot at the eucharist concelebrated with Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB, of Muenster and seven diocesan priests on Aug. 23. “It will be different, but we walk in faith.”
Thévenot praised the dedication, patience and love with which the sisters served at the school, dating back to 1951 when they acquired the academy previously run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. “Today we celebrate what they have given to the Catholic school system, to your children, to your grandchildren.”
Among those at the event were former staff and students, Catholic school division staff, Rivier Academy Inc. board members, friends of the sisters, and members of the broader community.
“We celebrate our hope,” said Sister Lise Paquette, provincial superior, “that by God’s grace this school will serve many more years of dynamic and engaging education.”
At a 90-minute program emceed by former vice-principal Claude Jalbert, various speakers outlined the sisters’ history in education in Western Canada since 1903. Their immense contributions to education and culture in Prince Albert alone were highlighted in presentations about the impact of Rivier Academy (formerly Academy Presentation of Mary), the Marion Aquatics pool operated by the sisters since 1977, the music studio they ran from 1951 to 2011, and their past work as teachers in the city’s Catholic schools from 1925 until the 1980s.
Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne said the sisters “have made Prince Albert a better place” through their service at Rivier Academy and Marion Aquatics. As a new city councilor 14 years ago, he began to stop in for tea with the sisters and became an admirer. “I learned how humble the sisters are. They’re givers, not receivers.”
Dennis Ogrodnick, who attended Academy Presentation of Mary in the mid-1970s and now teaches at St. Mary High School in Prince Albert, credited several sisters for influencing his life and being powerful witnesses of faith and social justice. He shared fond memories of Sister Jean Leier’s practice of inviting students to mass during Lent and afterward serving them hot cups of cocoa with the quip, “Our hearts were warmed by God during mass and now by a cup of cocoa!” Having continued the practice with his own students, he ended his presentation by raising a thermos of cocoa in her memory.
Former student Elizabeth Rybinski, who served on the Rivier board and is the mother of two girls who attended Rivier and a daughter who taught there, said she first arrived at the school as a shy girl but “was encouraged to be all that I could be” and gained the confidence to take on leadership roles. “Rivier’s legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of numerous staff and students,” she said.
Joanne Sander, who taught at Rivier Academy for the past 18 years, often accompanied the school’s travel group to France, home of the congregation’s foundress. Recalling memorable moments from those pilgrimages, she said, “Marie Rivier would be proud of the life lessons passed on to students and staff here.”
For most of its history since 1951, the academy was run as a private girls’ school, except from 1970 - 1976 when it became co-ed under the Catholic school division. Renamed Rivier Academy in 1976, it was established as an associate school of Prince Albert Catholic Schools in 2001 and became co-ed again in 2011.
Earlier this year, the sisters and the school division agreed to terminate the associate school memorandum of agreement, effective June 30. Although staffed entirely by sisters in the early years, the school by the time of the transfer only had one sister left on staff: Sister Mary Woodward, who began teaching there in 1968 and was principal for the past 20 years; she is now retired. The school had 11 graduates in June.
At the recent celebration, greetings were brought by Sister Jacquie Lambert from the congregation’s United States Province and by Sisters Monique Parent and Gisele Patenaude on behalf of the members in Quebec. A message was also read from Mother Angele Dion, the congregation’s Superior General in France.
In the closing ritual, the provincial superior passed a burning candle to Lorel Trumier, director, and George Bolduc, board chair, of Prince Albert Catholic Schools. “I bequeath to you the charism of Marie Rivier to continue what Marie Rivier and the sisters have begun,” Paquette told them. “We will continue with you in prayer and in encouraging presence.”
Paquette recalled with gratitude all the sisters past and present who contributed to the congregation’s educational legacy in Western Canada, and asked the sisters in the auditorium to stand or raise their hands. The gesture prompted a standing ovation from the hundreds of lay people gathered to celebrate and grieve with them.
The former Rivier Academy is now known as Blessed Marie Rivier Catholic School and will continue to serve students in Grades 7 - 12. Robert Tessier is the new principal.