The Foundation Period
In 1869 Winnipeg was a straggling frontier village in the Red River Settlement. On May 8th of that year, at the request of Archbishop Tache, two Grey Nuns opened the first Catholic school in Winnipeg, St. Mary’s Academy, to serve the English-speaking Catholics on the west side of the Red River across from St. Boniface. The Academy was located in a rented house on Victoria Street near the centre of population between the intersection of Portage and Main and The Forks, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The convent chapel also became home to St. Mary’s Catholic Church until August 1874, when a church was built at the corner of St. Mary Avenue and Hargrave. In the spring of 1873, when the new province of Manitoba assumed responsibility for education, St. Mary’s began to receive public funding.
Because the arrangement with the Grey Nuns had been a temporary one, in 1874 Archbishop Tache recruited the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a teaching congregation from Quebec, to work in education in the diocese. On August 22, 1874, four Sisters of the Holy Names arrived from Montreal to assume responsibility for St. Mary’s Academy. When the school opened on August 29th 19 students came to register; 12 girls and 7 boys. In the weeks to come the enrollment swelled to 126, including 50 boys. The following year, three Christian Brothers came to Winnipeg and began a school for boys on Hargrave Street (the beginnings of St. Mary’s School). Boys were not seen within the walls of the Academy again until 1915 when, by special request from the archbishop, they were accepted into grades one and two until 1950.
The Brick Academy
Enrollment at the girls school increased rapidly and the first St. Mary's Academy on Victoria Street was soon filled to capacity. In 1876 a second small house, called The Annex, was erected, but continued overcrowding necessitated a move to larger quarters on Notre Dame East in 1881, to which a wing was added in 1892. The opening of this second Academy coincided with the period in Manitoba’s history known as The Boom. Despite the fact that the Manitoba School Act of 1890 removed all public support from Catholic schools, forcing them to become private institutions, registration of resident and day students continued to grow at SMA. Once again the facility became inadequate and the Sisters searched for a new location for the third Academy, away from the crowded, noisy, commercial core of the city.
A New Academy in Crescentwood
A fifteen acre site was purchased in Crescentwood for a new Academy designed by Samuel Hooper. On August 31st, 1902, the corner stone for the Wellington Crescent Academy was blessed. The Edward Cass Construction Company took the better part of a year to complete the building at an estimated cost of $75,000. The new Academy, shaped like a “U” was an elaborate structure four stories high with solid brick walls and a mansard roof. The top floor was one large dormitory for students. The Manitoba Free Press questioned why the Sisters built so far out on the prairies. On September 6, 1903 the school opened with 27 Sisters, 148 borders and 48 day students.
In 1904 land was sold to the city of Winnipeg to extend Stafford Street and to the Winnipeg School Division for Kelvin High School.
1909 - 1963
By 1909 another addition was imperative. The 66' x 120' four storey over stone basement, costing about $80,000, was designed by J.A. Senecal and J.A. Hudon and built by Senecal and Smith. The annex was 18' wider than the original building. This change in width was hidden on the Academy Road side by a large tower housing a staircase. The fourth floor was an extension of the dormitories. The south side of the first floor housed the music department with 25 pianos. A substantial amount of piling work was undertaken during the 1930's to address cracking foundations and other damage.
In 1926 St. Mary’s became affiliated with the University of Manitoba and began functioning as St. Mary’s Academy and College. At the time, St. Mary’s was the West’s only Catholic institution where the full college course was offered to women. A pupil entering kindergarten could now continue through college without change of school.
During the 1930's the ever increasing taxes on the property made the financial burden, accentuated by the depression, well-nigh insupportable. However, the school survived and launched on a new period of steady growth in the post-war era.
In June 1960 the boarding school closed, ending a ninety-year old tradition, and the elementary grades and the College were phased out to help reduce crowding. But, as enrollment continued to climb, a third expansion was necessary. The 1964 addition, a large wing including a theatre, library, fine arts studio and gym, was inspired by a desire to enrich the school culturally. By the end of the decade the Academy was a junior and senior high school for day students.
The Last Five Decades
In the last decades of the 20th century other changes were made to keep up with the times and to meet the needs of students. In 1969 the ornate chapel was altered to in accord with the liturgical renewal mandated by Vatican Council II. In May 1971, the Commercial or Secretarial department, which began in 1904, closed and the academic program became oriented more to preparation for post-secondary education. In 1981 the music rooms were eliminated to make way for additional classrooms and home economics labs.
While the school grew it became increasingly clear that the role of the Sisters was changing. In December 1979 St. Mary's Academy Inc. was incorporated in the Province of Manitoba and a Board of Directors, whose members included parents, alumnae, friends of the Academy and Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, assumed responsibility for the school. By the 1980's most Sisters had been replaced by lay teachers, many of whom were themselves alumnae. In 1985 the director/principal administration model was adopted and the first director and lay principal were named. As the century drew to a close, in June 1999, the last few Sisters living in residence moved out.
The space vacated by the Sisters presented the school with new opportunity. In 2002 the 1909 wing underwent major renovations and upgrades once again. Four new science labs were built on the fourth floor and the old labs in the basement were converted into home economics labs. Two classrooms were added and the entire building was air-conditioned and brought up to current building and fire code standards.
In recent years student population has increased, school programs have expanded to meet new demands and another expansion was planned. In the fall of 2010 the new Durocher library opened, along with a visual arts studio, a fitness room and a uniform shop. In the fall of 2013 another large expansion was completed and the new Sheila Chipman Atrium, theatre/music production wing and multi-purpose room opened.
Today, St. Mary's Academy remains the oldest, continuously operating, independent school in the province. The school is noted for its commitment to young women and for providing exceptional academic, religious, and extra-curricular programs.