Sisters of St. Ann: 160 Years of Spiritual and Social Leadership

The Sisters of St. Ann are a congregation that has been actively living their mission longer than Canada has been a country. Little Flower Academy is just one of the many active ministries set in motion by these amazing women.
A long and grueling journey by five amazingly courageous women in 1858 would set a path of spiritual and social leadership in our province that has been marked by selfless contribution and commitment for the next 160 years. True pioneers, these Sisters arrived before the railway united Canada, having undertaken an arduous two month journey along the Atlantic coast, crossing the Isthmus of Panama and then up the Pacific coast. They arrived four years before Victoria was even incorporated, to establish a mission on Vancouver Island.

Within mere days of arriving, they had established a school for local children, using their packing boxes as temporary tables and seats for the children. From the first months of their arrival, the Sisters were called not only to educate the children but to also visit homes to care for the sick and prepare the dying.

Thus was laid the foundation for the many schools and hospitals built and run by the Sisters of St. Ann throughout the province and in the north in the decades since they first made their home in western Canada. Mother Mary Providence, a daring and visionary superior in those first days stated:

“A woman’s influence is not limited, life will be mostly what women truly wish it to be.”

In a period when a woman’s role was identified with the home, these women were on the streets and in the businesses fundraising, hiring, directing and praying that God would provide for all that was needed. And God surely did!

The Sisters of St. Ann’s history is interwoven in the history of British Columbia. Emily Carr, for example, was a friend. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Sisters nursed her sister, Lizzie Carr, and in gratitude Emily gave the Sisters a painting, which is now on display in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

The mission of the Sisters of St. Ann soon reached out across our province and into the north. School and hospitals all over British Columbia owe their founding to the Sisters of St. Ann. Eventually, the Sisters of St Ann established or taught in 34 schools across British Columbia, the Yukon and in the States of Washington and Alaska.

Our Legacy with the Sisters
Little Flower Academy was opened on September 8, 1927. From 1927 until 1994, the Sisters shaped the spirit and function of the school through its management; educational leadership; teaching and provision of other staffing; and all capital improvements. In 1994, the Sisters established an independent charitable society called the Jane Rowan Society to be responsible for the management of the school. The Sisters of St. Ann offered a canonical (church) sponsorship of the the Jane Rowan Society so the school could function as a Catholic school. In 2016, the Sisters announced that the process was complete and they passed the last elements of canonical responsibility over to a recognized canonical organization called the Sisters of St. Ann Little Flower Academy Stewardship. In a final gesture of confidence in LFA and as a blessing to future generations of young women, the Sisters also gifted LFA $2.5 million in debt forgiveness and endowment resources.

Little Flower Academy has retained a special place in the Sisters’ legacy as the lone school that stayed on as sponsored ministry for so many years. Similar arrangements were shared with the residential care facility Mount St. Mary’s Hospital, in Victoria, and with Providence Farm, in Duncan, which offers innovative programs for individuals with mental health, brain injury, dementia and developmental challenges.

Ongoing Commitment to Mission
Education and Health Care were the early applications of ministry, but the influence of the Sisters of St. Ann was much wider. They’ve used their considerable influence to make our society better. Though there are increasingly fewer Sisters, they remain vibrant and impactful to this day. In addition to their supportive involvement with LFA, Mount St. Mary’s Hospital and Providence Farm, they actively pursue social justice initiatives for reconciliation and justice for First Nations, environmental advocacy, poverty eradication efforts, and actively work to stop human trafficking.

Sister Marie Zarowny, province co-leader of the Sisters of St. Ann, explains: “The Sisters of St. Ann have played a significant role in shaping the history of BC for 160 years. We continue to serve our communities and province through our prayer and advocacy work for the poor, the homeless, the oppressed and those without a voice in society. We no longer build structures of brick and mortar, but our continuing commitment to creating a more just and caring world furthers the mission to which the Sisters of St. Ann in the Pacific Northwest have devoted themselves for 160 years.”

A Celebration of 160 Years
Back in early June, a special Mass of Thanksgiving was held at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria, celebrating the 160 Anniversary of the Sisters of St. Ann. Special exhibitions were held. The Sister’s original convent and school house, Helmcken House, was opened to the public, as was the Sisters of St. Ann archives. Former LFA Principal and current LFA Foundation Trustee Marcelle De Freitas commented that, “the Sisters of St. Ann know how to throw a party! The BC Museum set the stage for celebrating with old friends and the food, the program and the SSA displays were excellent and evoked gratitude and admiration for all that they have done over the last hundred and sixty years."

We spoke with several people closely connected to LFA for their thoughts on the special occasion, many of whom had traveled to Victoria for the occasion. “It is my privilege to say ‘Thank you!’” commented Andrea Law, who was the LFA Librarian from 1997 to 2009. Past parent and Member of the Jane Rowan Society, Lawrence Pillon remarked: “It was simply a beautiful day. While a celebration of what these women of great faith were able to sustain over such long period of time, it was also about the future. We know the Sisters are preparing for the day when they are no longer physically with us. But through their relationships, the gifts they have made, the structures they have set up, and God’s love they continue to share -- the work of their great mission will carry forward.” Knowing the Sisters as well has she has, Marcelle shared how, "the Sisters of St. Ann's legacy continues each and every day and provides us a firm place on which to stand in these shifting times. One hundred and sixty years later, our context has changed profoundly but the Sisters of St. Ann's mission has not."

There was, frankly, a universal admiration and respect the Sisters’ accomplishments. But more so, there was a striking sense of gratitude and love for the amazing women who have blessed our lives. Our current Principal, Diane Little ’88 summed it up: “Over the last 160 years, the Sisters of St. Ann have helped build our province, care for our most vulnerable, and pave the way for future generations to shape the world they live in. As benefactors of this legacy, the community of Little Flower Academy has been blessed by their charism and vision. To each and every Sister of St. Ann, we thank you.”

This article was published prior to the school's understanding of the Sisters of St. Ann role in the residential school system. 

Their history, like our Canadian colonial history, is complicated. They worked closely with Indigenous communities across BC and the Yukon and maintain relationships with First Peoples to this day. The Sisters of St. Ann also taught at several residential schools, including four residential schools identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. The Canadian residential school system has been acknowledged by the Church as “unquestionably wrong” and both the Archdiocese of Vancouver and the Sisters of St. Ann have issued apologies for their role.
In addressing residential schools, we are challenged to put the voices of those who suffered foremost in our teaching. The Indigenous experience in residential schools is chronicled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and excellent education resources are available through the First Nations Education Steering Committee. One book to consider reading is Amongst God’s Own, The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission, which is written by former students of St. Mary’s Residential School, where the Sisters of St. Ann taught. Copies are available in our school library as well as the public library.

The Sisters of St. Ann owned and operated many schools*:
  • St. Ann’s Convent School, Victoria, B.C. (Opened 1858)
  • Broad Street School, Victoria, B.C. (1859)
  • View Street School, Victoria, B.C. (1861)
  • St. Ann’s School, Duncan, B.C. (1864)
  • St. Ann’s Academy, New Westminster, B.C. (1865)
  • St. Ann’s Academy, Victoria, B.C. (1872)
  • St. Joseph’s School, Williams Lake, B.C. (1876)
  • St. Ann’s School and Convent, Nanaimo, B.C. (1877)
  • St. Ann’s Academy, Kamloops, B.C. (1880)
  • St. Ann’s School and Convent, Juneau, Alaska (1886)
  • St. Ann’s Kindergarten, Victoria, B.C. (1888)
  • Holy Cross Mission School, Holy Cross, Alaska (1888)
  • St. Ann’s Academy/Holy Rosary, Vancouver, B.C. (1888)
  • Akulurak Indian Mission School, Akulurak, Alaska (1894)
  • St. Ann’s School and Convent, Douglas Island, Alaska (1895)
  • St. Mary’s School, Dawson City, Yukon(1899)
  • Our Lady of the Snows School, Nulato, Alaska (1899)
  • St. Aloysius Protectorate for Boys, Victoria, B.C. (1899)
  • St. Joseph’s School of Nursing, Victoria, B.C. (1900)
  • St. Mary’s School, Ladysmith, B.C. (1909)
  • Little Flower Academy, Vancouver, B.C. (1927)
  • St. Ann’s Kindergarten and Primary School, Victoria, B.C. (1929)
  • Holy Ghost School, Richmond, B.C. (1947)
  • Holy Angels Kindergarten, Victoria, B.C. (1948)
  • St. Ann’s School and Convent, Penticton, B.C. (1952)
  • Copper Valley School, Glenallen, Alaska (1956)
  • St. James School, Vernon, B.C. (1956)
  • St. Patrick’s School and Convent, Victoria, B.C. (1957)
  • Centennial Annex (Secondary/High School), Victoria, B.C. (1958)
  • St. Mary’s/St. Joseph’s, Andreafsky, Alaska (1974)
*They taught in an additional 18 schools across the province.

The Sisters of St. Ann opened hospitals on the west coast:
  • St. Joseph’s Hospital, Victoria, B.C. (1876-1972)
  • St. Ann’s Hospital, Juneau, Alaska (1886-1968)
  • St. Ann’s Hospital, Douglas, Alaska (1898-1920)
  • St. Mary’s Hospital, Dawson, Yukon (1898-1906)
  • Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Campbell River, B.C. (1926-1957)
  • Sacred Heart Hospital, Smithers, B.C. (1934-1969)
  • Mount St. Mary Hospital, Victoria, B.C. (1941-2000)
  • St. Martin’s Hospital, Oliver, B.C. (1942-1973)
  • Skagway Sanatorium, Skagway, Alaska (1945-1947)
  • Mount St. Francis Hospital, Nelson, B.C. (1947-1997)

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