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Sisters of Sion molded Catholic feminists

By Darlene Polachic

02/14/2018

SASKATOON — More than 300 people attended a recent reunion organized for former staff and students of Sion Academy, a Catholic educational institution that closed its doors in Saskatoon 50 years ago.

Eleanor Pulles Kennedy, an alumna of Sion Academy, has collected dozens of stories from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix archives pertaining to the school and the Sisters of Sion who operated it.

The sisters came to Saskatoon in 1917. They initially purchased a house on Spadina Cres., and when renovations were complete, they named it Rosary Hall. According to one story, it became a home-away-from-home for Catholic girls attending Normal School and Technical School.

Soon after their arrival, the bishop asked the sisters if they would open an educational institution. With that in mind, they purchased a property on Avenue A North (now Idylwyld Drive) from the city for the price of back taxes. It had a large residence that was converted to Sion Convent School, which opened in 1919 with 30 female students from Grades 1 to 6. Sisters Kathleena and Herbert were the first teachers. Piano lessons were taught by the superior.

In 1923, a stucco annex was added, enabling the school to accept pupils from Kindergarten to Grade 9. The expansion also provided better dormitory facilities for students who were boarders. Enrolment kept increasing, and in 1926 a brick building was built. It became known as the Academy of Our Lady of Sion and included high school.

“Most children educated in the Saskatoon Catholic elementary school system went either to St. Paul’s High School for boys or Sion Academy for girls,” says Kennedy, who attended Sion from 1960 to 1964. “Both had a tuition fee. When I attended, it was $100 a year.”

There were standards, she says. “One was that we had to wear uniforms.

“Sion was considered by Catholic parents to be something of a finishing school,” she adds. “We received more than academic instruction from the nuns. They taught us discipline, deportment, and manners, as well as spiritual, social, and academic instruction.”

After the convent closed in 1967, the Catholic school board operated a special-needs school at Sion. That school was eventually moved to the east side of the city, and closed in the 1980s.

Fifteen of the nuns who taught in Saskatoon over the years were present at the reunion held in 2017 in Saskatoon. One, Sister Rita Kammermayer, NDS, travelled from Jerusalem, where she is currently stationed. Student alumnae came from all over the world.

The Sisters of Sion was one of three orders of religious women to provide teachers in the early years of Catholic elementary schools Saskatoon in, says Kennedy. “The Sisters of Sion influenced the lives of almost everyone in the Saskatoon Catholic community, including the ‘Boys of Sion’ who attended Sion until the elementary grades were discontinued.”

Michael Phillips, who attended elementary school at Sion in the 1940s and later served as Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, shared his memories of his time at the school. “If only every little boy had a chance to interact with nuns (like the sisters of Sion),” he wrote, “there would be more respect for women today.”

Another alumna said: “The nuns taught us to be feminists when there was no such word. The sisters molded me as a Catholic feminist, even though they did not realize it. Their leadership demonstrated a competence that showed women could accomplish much in their community and in the church.”

A 1940s alumna paid tribute to the heart of the school: “My father was dead at 34 and my mother was in the sanatorium with TB. Mother Superior took my sister, a non-Catholic, as a boarder because she had nowhere else to live. She took me in when I was five, a year too early, for the same reasons. . . . My mother remembers her coming down the hall . . . with many children attached to her habit and laughing and smiling at them all.”

Kennedy believes the size and spirit of the recent reunion shows the far-reaching influence the school had. “We are still a close-knit community bound by common beliefs, good memories, and a desire to honour our teachers.”

Since the youngest Sionian is now 69, Kennedy doesn’t anticipate another reunion. However, local alumnae do meet annually for brunch on the second Sunday of September. The Sisters of Sion continue to flourish, with admissions to the order now coming mostly from Third World countries.

This article first appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix Feb. 3.

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