WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Srs. Pat Halpin and Yvonne McKinnon are two of the six retired Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus currently living in Edmonton.
As the Edmonton Catholic School Division marks its 125th anniversary this year, the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus are also marking 125 years of their arrival in Edmonton to teach in the system.
The sisters were in fact the first teachers in Edmonton's Catholic schools.
In August 1888, Catholic parents applied to organize a separate school district for their children. In October that year, five sisters from the order Faithful Companions of Jesus arrived from Calgary to open a convent and a school in Edmonton.
That first year the sisters taught 23 students. Today Edmonton Catholic Schools has almost 90 schools with more than 35,000 students.
"There was a board (of education) but no teachers; we were the first teachers," explains Sister Pat Halpin, who taught from 1964 to 1992 - the last FCJ sister to teach in the system. "We came to support faith through education."
About 130 FCJ sisters have served as teachers and homemakers in Edmonton over the past 125 years. Currently there are six retired sisters in Edmonton and 18 in Calgary.
Altogether, there are 250 FCJ Sisters in 140 countries today. At one point, the FCJs had 1,500 sisters around the world.
"We are celebrating 125 years of service and presence in the Edmonton Archdiocese," noted Sister Yvonne McKinnon, the congregation's local leader.
The sisters will celebrate their Edmonton anniversary Sept. 8 with a Mass of thanksgiving at 2:30 p.m. at St. Joseph's Basilica.
The Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus were founded in France in 1820 by Madame Marie Madeleine Victorie d'Houet, a mother and wife. Their goal was to provide education to poor children and factory workers and to meet societal needs.
The congregation spread quickly around the world and in 1883, at the request of Bishop Vital Grandin of St. Albert, they came to Canada and began serving at the mission school of St. Laurent, some 50 km south of Prince Albert, Sask.
In March 1885, Grandin transferred the sisters to Calgary. However, the Riel Rebellion had broken out and the sisters ended up in Batoche under the protection of Louis Riel. After the rebellion had been crushed, the sisters were finally able to make their way to Calgary, were they started convents and schools.
From their Calgary base, they dispatched sisters to Toronto and Edmonton, where they came in late 1888. The following year the congregation sent sisters to Lethbridge, where they opened a Catholic school with 40 pupils.
In Edmonton there were no schools when the sisters arrived, so they began teaching in their own convent. When schools were built, the sisters taught in many schools including the old St. Mary's High School, Grandin School, St. Joseph's High School, Sacred Heart School and Louis St. Laurent.
Halpin, for instance, taught at St. Joseph's and O'Leary High and served in the central administration office.
The FCJs also taught at their own FCJ Convent School, a private school that operated from 1950 to 1966, teaching mainly students from outside the Edmonton Catholic School District.
"For a long time we were thought of only as teachers and it was very rare that anybody did anything else," explains Halpin. "That's not true anymore. We have diversified tremendously."
Over the years the sisters also offered hospitality to female university students and did rural catechetics and pastoral ministry in the Edmonton Archdiocese, recalled McKinnon.
Currently the FCJ Sisters minister at L'Arche and at the Women's prison, offer pastoral care at hospitals and the Cross Cancer Institute and tutor new immigrants through Catholic Social Services.