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Manitoba History: A Promise of Redemption: The Soeurs du Bon Pasteur and Delinquent Girls in Winnipeg, 1911-1948

by Tanya Woloschuk
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 51, February 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

In 1911, five French-speaking nuns of the Soeurs du Bon Pasteur order left Montreal and came to Winnipeg to work with delinquent girls. Despite anti-Catholic sentiment in the province, their establishment in the prairie city was facilitated by the initial request and support of Thomas Mayne Daly, the first judge of the Winnipeg Juvenile Court. For many girls judged delinquent, the final stage of the juvenile justice system was incarceration in a reform institution where they were subjected to training based on appropriate class and gender roles. The reasons for admission varied, but the resultant experience was similar: girls underwent a re-socialization process that consisted of surveillance and discipline.

The Leacock Estate. Marymound facilities at 442 Scotia Street, Winnipeg, circa 1911 to 1916. Moving from inadequate space on William Avenue, the Sisters purchased the 23-room former residence of E. P. Leacock MLA, uncle to author Stephen Leacock.
Source: Marymound.

There were few institutions for the care of delinquent girls in the province. Provisions for delinquent Catholic girls fell exclusively to Marymound, the earliest Catholic reformatory for girls in early twentieth-century Winnipeg. The institution opened at 373 William Street in April 1911. The number of girls admitted to Marymound rose quickly, necessitating a move to larger quarters in September 1911, when the sisters moved to the periphery of the city and established the reform school in the old Leacock estate at 442 Scotia Street in West Kildonan. This building was a more substantial two-storey house with a large veranda and several acres of fenced-in property situated on the bank of the Red River. The geographical removal of the girls from the city is both significant and symbolic. Removing the girls from the city, which was generally considered to be a hub of western “wickedness,” to a pastoral setting was regarded as greatly assisting in correcting the deviant behaviour acquired in the city.

By 1916, the building again proved too small to accommodate the rising number of girls and the decision was made to establish two separate, adjacent institutions. A temporary frame building was erected at the north end of the existing building to house orphaned and neglected girls and construction began on a three-storey building. Starting in 1921, the sisters admitted a small number of girls to the temporary frame building. Completed in 1925, St. Agnes Priory began to take in increased numbers of orphaned and neglected girls.

Marymound and St. Agnes Priory admitted different categories of girls: those charged with criminal acts, and those in conditions of poverty and neglect. While St. Agnes and Marymound were distinct institutions with separate purposes, some social agencies tended to refer to them as a single institution. As a result, delinquency and poverty became merged, highlighting a popular contemporary sentiment that poverty and crime were largely interchangeable terms. As Barbara Brenzel and Joan Sangster have argued, the criminalization of poverty was reflected in reform institutions, especially since the majority of the inmates came from the working class and were likely guilty of delinquency or becoming delinquent. [1]

The program at Marymound was designed to treat and rehabilitate girls through instruction, employment and reformation. Within Marymound, girls were regulated according to middle-class values. These stressed, among other things, independence, academic achievement, respect for property, as well as control of aggression and sexuality. Regulating sexuality was based on notions of morality and girls were judged by the standards of the Catholic religious tradition. The idea that girls’ morality could be “preserved” through religious training and discipline is evident from the way the sisters distinguished between different types of delinquency and categorized the girls. Delinquent girls were considered to be the most in need of reform while neglected girls were seen as exhibiting pre-delinquent behaviour and in need of pre-emptive reform. To maintain this distinction, the sisters designated a wing to house orphaned, abandoned and neglected girls.

Marymound was separated from the newer St. Agnes Priory building by fire doors. Each institution had separate dormitories, lavatories, dining halls, work rooms, laundries, recreation, and chapel arrangements. In a 1928 report written following their visit, the Royal Commissioners described the dormitory as “one large airy room, with lavatory and bath room accommodation off it. There are single beds, scrupulously kept by the girls themselves, with individual basins, cupboards, etc.” [2] The Commissioners reported that the dining room was “bright and attractive” but was “not as finely appointed as is that of the Priory, and provides for the girls being arranged all in one direction.” [3] Provisions were made for the “solitary diner” when necessary.

The length of stay at Marymound varied from six months to four years. In the 1910s, the average stay was sixteen months; by the late 1920s this had fallen to slightly under nine months. Sentences were often indeterminate for those girls judged delinquent by the juvenile court but were usually two years. The decreasing average length of stay was due in part to the number of voluntary admissions accepted by Marymound, since the majority of these cases were not processed by the juvenile court; parents and social agencies could admit and remove girls from the program at will.

St. Agnes Priory. The three-storey building of the Priory, seen here soon after construction in 1925, would one day house over a hundred neglected children.
Source: Marymound.

The number of voluntary cases did not help alleviate Marymound’s financial difficulties. Throughout the 1911-48 period, voluntary cases fluctuated from as low as 7 in 1911 to as high as 53 in 1924, reaching a high of 85% of the total admissions in 1946. Since the province did not finance voluntary cases, parents and referring social agencies were required to pay monthly maintenance. This was determined on a per case basis, with fees averaging from $10 in the 1910s to $24 by the 1930s and 1940s. Voluntary cases were not refused based on inability to pay, however, and many parents often fell behind in their maintenance. Marymound’s fees were at cost per girl but non-payments by parents and partial payments from the government for girls committed by the juvenile court required the sisters to rely increasingly on income from the commercial laundry and charity in order to meet the financial demands of running their institution.

Overcrowding was frequently a problem at Marymound. The institution had a population capacity of approximately 45 girls, but its numbers, which had peaked at 84 in 1924, tended to average around 51 girls. Despite frequent overcrowding and the financial difficulties that plagued Marymound from its inception, the province deemed it appropriate to incarcerate delinquent girls in the private and under-funded Catholic institution. The sisters were generally dissatisfied with the dormitory arrangement, stating that more provision for privacy and segregation was an “urgent need for this type of older and difficult girl.” [4] Among a variety of proposed improvements, they were particularly interested in making changes that would allow for the separation of different types of offenders. [5] The sheer number of girls at Marymound made segregation and individual bedrooms out of the question and the institution’s financial difficulties delayed the implementation of any changes.

On being sentenced or voluntarily committed to Marymound, the girls underwent a medical examination process that included mental and physical testing. The variety of tests allowed for “defects” to be identified, although as Mona Gleason has found, mental testing offered psychologists an opportunity to apply a label but little else. [6] The case files of girls sentenced to Marymound by the juvenile court contain summaries of their physical and mental examinations. The results of these exams ostensibly offered an explanation not only for the girls’ recent behaviour and inclination towards delinquency but also how much care they required once placed in the reformatory.

Treatments were heavily influenced by the results of mental and physical examinations. In the case of sixteenyear- old Amélie, her theft at Eaton’s of a customer’s purse containing fifteen dollars resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court. When it was discovered that she had also been away from home without permission, her offence took on a sexual nature and she was ordered to undergo a physical examination. When she was given a gynaecological exam on 6 November 1942, Dr. W. R. Gorrell found her to have a ruptured hymen and syphilis. He determined that she needed eighteen months of medical treatment. Seven days later when Amélie appeared before juvenile court judge, D. S. Hamilton, she was sentenced to two years at Marymound not for the theft, but for her offence of sexual immorality. [7] This case is illustrative of how the juvenile court relied on the results of physical exams and expert medical opinion when determining the appropriate treatment and length of sentences.

Once committed to Marymound, girls could expect a structured environment. Obedience was both expected and enforced through strict supervision. The girls were out of bed early to finish morning chores before breakfast and school. Talking between the girls was forbidden after lights out and was monitored by two sisters who provided close supervision of the girls at night. Corporal punishment as a form of discipline was not officially endorsed at Marymound. Instead, girls were often placed in solitary confinement, known as a “reflection cell,” for disciplinary infractions.

Laundry for bread. Marymound supported its programming through the operation of St. Joseph’s Laundry, seen in this 1925 view. The Fort Garry Hotel was a major supporter, exchanging bread for laundry service.
Source: Marymound.

Marymound was an incarceration facility characterized by convent boarding school discipline. The religious atmosphere was a powerful reinforcement of religious and moral values. The sisters regarded their role as occupying a middle ground between incarceration and the training and care functions of a reform institution. As a result, though they were given certain recreation and other privileges, the girls were kept in fairly close confinement. The Mother Superior and her assistants oversaw all the activities of the girls at Marymound. All entrances and exits from the institution were recorded in the logbook along with the date, reason and name of the accompanying guardian. Curiously, there were only two recorded instances of successful runaway attempts in the case files. Between April 1934 and July 1935, eleven-year-old Aisling ran away twice. In one of these cases the sisters noted that she was able to escape by “[taking] advantage of the parlour being open on Friday at an unusual hour. (An out of twon [sic] visitor had come to see some of the children).” As a result, the sisters determined she required constant and close supervision. [8]

The program at Marymound focused on two main areas: academic and domestic training. Girls lacking sufficient knowledge of English or French were given lessons in addition to the regular academic subjects appropriate to their respective grade levels. The sisters delivered a curriculum that followed that of other public schools in the city. Catechism was also a fundamental part of the school curriculum at Marymound since a religious education was considered essential in the “moral formation of the child.” [9] A chapel formed a part of the institution and by 1918 the staff consisted of a Mother Superior with fifteen sisters as assistants.

A summer day in the pool. Children play in the pool on the grounds at Marymound, circa 1948.
Source: Marymound.

Domestic training was also important and the program at Marymound focused heavily on this area. Since most of the girls did not have any training they were instructed in various aspects of domestic science: cooking, gardening, sewing, laundry work, skilled embroidery, shoe mending, and cleaning. All of the girls provided for themselves in regards to their clothes, beds and meals and were regularly employed in a variety of different activities within the institution but two in particular: the garment room and the laundry. In what the Royal Commissioners described as “fine modern units, excellently equipped, light and airy … under conditions somewhat similar to factory employment” the girls learned hand and machine sewing and personal and commercial laundry work. [10] This type of “energetic” employment was considered highly constructive since it prevented “idleness that allows for morbid gossip and exchange of experiences.” [11] The purpose of teaching the girls domestic tasks was twofold: it prepared them for their future lives as domestic servants and served to reduce the operational costs of the institution. The girls made their own clothing and performed all of the daily work of the institution under the supervision of the sisters. The girls grew vegetables in the garden at Marymound and the commercial laundry augmented the institution’s revenue and provided girls with what the Commissioners referred to as “constructive work.” [12]

Girls’ experiences at Marymound were determined on their ability to “make good.” Girls who followed the program of reform and demonstrated a willingness and ability to change their “delinquent” behaviour often won the sisters’ support for early release. In the case of Anastazja, a fourteen-year-old girl committed to Marymound in 1927 for five years, the sisters wrote to her probation officer on 1 July 1930 supporting her early release. They noted that Anastazja had “outgrown” the other girls at the institution, was “well developped [sic] mentally and physically,” and had “good aptitudes for all kinds of work.” [13] Marymound’s records indicate she was discharged on 4 August 1930. Early releases occurred infrequently since girls sent to Marymound by the juvenile court were usually required to complete their sentences. The support of the sisters reduced the level of surveillance girls endured as they completed their sentences. For those girls who resisted resocialization, however, the level of surveillance remained high.

In the early twentieth century, delinquent girls were placed through the juvenile court or voluntary commitment in Marymound. The number of girls who “made good” at Marymound are difficult to determine since the sisters did not publish records detailing their successes and failures with delinquent girls. While funding and facility size were important factors in the decision to send girls to Marymound, delinquent girls were ultimately incarcerated there because it was the only religiously-based reform institution for Catholic girls in the province. Because of the religious nature of the institution, the “offence” of “immorality” was enough to keep a girl locked away for years.

The loser gets wet. Marymound once had an active fencing instruction program.
Source: Marymound.

Notes

1. Barbara Brenzel, Daughters of the State: A Social Portrait of the First Reform School for Girls in North America, 1856-1905. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983, p. 70; and Joan Sangster, Girl Trouble: Female Delinquency in English Canada. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002, p. 106.

2. Manitoba, Royal Commission Appointed by Order-in-Council Number 747/28 to Inquire into the Administration of the Child Welfare Division of the Dept. of Heath and Public Welfare, 1928, p. 9.

3. Ibid, p. 10.

4. Manitoba, Royal Commission Appointed by Order-in-Council Number 747/28 to Inquire into the Administration of the Child Welfare Division of the Dept. of Heath and Public Welfare, 1928, p. 9.

5. Ibid, p. 11.

6. Mona Gleason, Normalizing the Ideal: Psychology, Schooling, and the Family in Postwar Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 23.

7. Marymound Case File, no. 1227A (November 1942).

8. Marymound Case File, no. 492 (April 1934).

9. Alexander Gregor and Keith Wilson, The Development of Education in Manitoba. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 69-95, 2.

10. Manitoba, Royal Commission Appointed by Order-in-Council Number 747/28 to Inquire into the Administration of the Child Welfare Division of the Dept. of Heath and Public Welfare, 1928, p. 10.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Marymound Case File, no. 214 (5 June 1927).

Postscript

Marymound celebrates its ninety-fifth anniversary in 2006. Today, Marymound provides therapeutic and educational services to more than 1,200 young people and their families annually. Services have evolved significantly over the years and the agency now provides services to males and females.

Page revised: 22 December 2015

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