The legacy of the Daughters of Wisdom

On March 8, 2012, Covenant Health announced that it was naming its new seniors’ care facility Villa Marie in honour of the Daughters of Wisdom (Filles de la Sagesse).

It is a wonderful acknowledgement of a congregation of women who devotedly served our community for more than 100 years.

The Filles de la Sagesse were co-founded in 1703 in France by St. Louis-Marie de Montfort and Marie Louise Trichet. The Sisters of the Congregation dedicated their lives to serving the poor and the community as a whole. In particular, they devoted themselves to the areas of education and health care.

In 1907, Father Henri Voisin, the Alberta head of the Peres de Ste. Marie de Tinchebray, travelled from Red Deer to France. He secured the assistance of the Filles de la Sagesse with a regional Roman Catholic mission in Central Alberta.

In 1908, St. Joseph Convent was constructed on the brow of the Red Deer’s North Hill, next to the Tinchebray Fathers’ presbytery.

The Convent was not quite finished when the first six Sisters arrived on Oct. 8, 1908. Nevertheless, the Sisters quickly made it their home. They cleaned up the lime, plaster, sawdust and shavings. They improvised to create many of the first furnishings, using crates, pieces of lumber, etc.

On Jan. 8, 1909, the North Red Deer Roman Catholic Separate School District #17 was formally established.

Classroom space was provided by the Sisters in the Convent. Sister Marie Aimee served as the first teacher.

The first winter was a brutal one. The Convent’s furnace was defective. It failed to heat many of the rooms. The laundry and kitchen areas on the west side were particularly cold. They were soon covered in icicles, reminiscent of the stalactites and stalagmites in a limestone cave.

Springtime brought new challenges. The Convent’s dog went missing. When the water from the well got a bad taste, it was found that the poor animal had fallen in and drowned. Later, a skunk met the same fate and added another unique flavour to the water.

Nevertheless, the North Red Deer Mission continued to grow. In 1912, a large three-storey addition was constructed onto the west side of the Convent to accommodate the growing number of students and boarders.

A small cottage hospital was also constructed north east of St. Joseph Convent. However, the Sisters had constructed Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital in Castor in 1911.

A decision was consequently made to concentrate on education in Red Deer and health care in Castor, although a small Catholic school was also constructed in Castor in 1913.

Hence, the Red Deer cottage hospital was used as an infirmary for the students. It was also used as an isolation hospital during epidemics, such as the terrible Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Much later, the cottage was moved to the west side of the Convent where it was used for additional classroom space and as an art studio.

By the late 1950s, it was obvious that the classroom space in St. Joseph Convent was no longer adequate. In June 1960, all the classrooms at the Convent were permanently closed. The student boarding program at the Convent came to an end in 1962.

Several of the Sisters continued to teach for the Red Deer Separate School District for many years. Other Sisters worked as nurses at the Red Deer General Hospital. A growing role for the Sisters was the provision of pastoral care, as treatment of the soul is often crucial to the restoration of physical health.

Like many congregations of nuns, the numbers of Daughters of Wisdom have declined significantly in the past several years. In January 2012, the last of the Daughters of Wisdom, Sister Harriet Hermary, moved from Red Deer to Edmonton.

An era of service has come to an end, but fortunately, the tremendous contributions of the Daughters of Wisdom will continue to be remembered with Villa Marie.