Manitoba History: A Memoir of Old St. Paul’s College
by Fred McGuiness
I returned to my room one day after class and found a note pinned to the door. “Please come to the rector’s office.” This was my introduction to Father Sutton, a brisk, floridfaced, no-nonsense type who moved quickly and gave the impression of always being in a rush. There was no salutation, rather he launched right into the purpose of this meeting:
I did not respond immediately, mainly because of the shock. After all, I was not in great shape. I had been involved in a shipwreck. I had spent eleven months in bed in hospital. I had lost forty pounds. I had a heavy brace on one leg. To get around I needed a walking stick. Does this man think I’ll try out for the football team?
I mumbled something about mobility problems, but I was cut short by this impatient man. “I know all about your condition. Despite that, there is something you can do in the sports field. I suggest you see the director of athletics right away.” With this, he turned to the stack of files on his desk as I limped away.
Within minutes I had introduced myself to the athletics man and, after a helpful chat, I was appointed manager of the senior hockey team. Yes, I was still on the limp, but I certainly was well enough to buy hockey sticks, make bookings for games, and order a bus if the team was playing beyond the reach of the Winnipeg street cars.
In the office next to the rector’s was the man I always felt really ran the institution: Father Charles Joseph Kelly. He was the bursar. This was a non-academic specialist; he had to pay the bills, a daunting task. He employed wondrous ways of raising cash. When someone dropped a dish in the refectory, he charged a nickel to the account of every boarder. If there were two hundred of us, and that’s only a guess, he was coining money, dish by dish. One boarder suggested that Father Kelly had no time for the gold standard; he was doing just fine on the crockery standard.
In two years at the old St. Paul’s I passed the exams for grades nine, ten, and eleven at the same time I became a cheerleader for those black-robed men who comprise the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits.
The old St. Paul’s was located a long block north of The Bay. There were three buildings along with a large playing field. One small older brick house was the residence of the priests. A second old structure was residence for older students, mainly those at the university level. The third was a combination school building with numerous dormitory rooms for young scholars.
There were some youngsters of eight or nine years. A number of them had parents who lived in remote mining settlements, or hydro generating stations. The rest of the student body could be divided into two groups: Roman Catholic lads from small towns in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and northwestern Ontario, and a large group of day students from Winnipeg. There were always a few strays: a student expelled from the Winnipeg school division could apply for admission at St. Paul’s.
Once each year, at the beginning of a new term, we had a splendid demonstration of the tolerance at this institution. Non-Catholic boys were told to attend a meeting in the common room. Father Sutton always took these brief sessions. I can paraphrase his lecture which took all of two minutes: “You boys don’t go to our church so we ask you for a courtesy: When the Catholic boys are in chapel, please don’t make a noise so that they might wish they were on the playing field. Class dismissed!”
St. Paul’s had its full share of characters. A seriously crippled man named McNulty was the night watchman. We were told he had jumped from one of the upper floors of St. Boniface College years earlier during a disastrous fire.
A favourite friend of mine was Father Eric Smith, Latin teacher. He agreed to give me tutoring for final exams, but he would never specify the amount I owed him. One day when I pressed him on this topic, he had a delightful explanation: he said if I gave him money, he was bound by Jesuit law to give it to the bursar, Father Kelly. However, if I gave him something in lieu of cash, different rules applied. He then mentioned that he had a sweet tooth, which responded well to chocolates, and he had a special interest in wine of the grenadine type. I kept him well supplied with both.
A rarity was Father St. Jacques, a history teacher currently serving as a chaplain in the RCAF with the rank of squadron leader. He wore the uniform with a Roman collar.
He knocked on my door one evening and invited himself in, and closed the door behind him. I thought this unusual, but so was his request. He told me that I was the only person in the residence old enough to have a liquor permit, and was there a chance that I had enough points for a bottle of whiskey. I said yes, I had those points, but I could not possibly take time to go the liquor store, because my final history exam was scheduled for the next morning, and Father St. Jacques should know that; it was his class. He cut off further discussion by making a proclamation: I was to get into his car immediately. As to that final exam, I was to stop worrying about it; I was going to get a B-plus. Sixty years later, I still kick myself for not negotiating for an A.
An object of much discussion was “Braithwaite’s Virgins.”
Kitty-corner to the Bay on Portage Avenue was Braithwaite’s Drugs, a pharmacy with a lunch counter. This was the closest thing to a hangout available in that busy downtown area. For reasons never enunciated, the waitresses were recruited from the Mennonite Belt of southeastern Manitoba. This was a collection of happy, friendly farm girls with names like Katie, Rosie, Agatha, Aganetha, last names unknown. They all lived in large old boarding houses close to the college. On warm evenings, they would sit outside on the steps. Students passing who stopped for a chat were often invited inside for some carefully prescribed necking. As reported to me, these young women had a literal definition of the word “necking.” Contact was restricted to the neck and above. I thought it sad that there was no courting; their religion frowned on both movies and dancing. Those students who had visited the girls in their rooms had reached a conclusion; not only were they virgins, but they were going to maintain that condition until they married.
I do not believe that anyone ever saw the name of St. Paul’s in any Michelin Guide to Fine Dining. Just let me say that it was plain fare and no one ever died of malnutrition.
The kitchen crew were members of an order of nuns, and English was not their mother tongue. Contact was limited to the one young nun who placed the serving dishes on the pass-through. The only priest to eat with the rest of us supervised the table of the little kids. The rest of the faculty ate their meal in a separate room. I thought it was an interesting custom that they ate in silence, while listening to one of the young scholastics as he read aloud from current literature.
There was a standard evening meal each Friday that many of us avoided. There is something unexciting about a pair of soft-boiled eggs rolling around on a dinner plate, so we escaped whenever the exchequer would bear it. My roommate one year was Albert Ninian McCruden from Wabowden, a man of sparkling wit. Our favourite eating-out spot was Jimmy’s Steak House, opposite the Marlborough. After I had ordered a T-bone, McCruden would tell the waitress that he wanted a whale steak. When he was advised there was no such item on the menu, he would throw up his hands and say, “Oh well, I tried to have fish on Friday, but they wouldn’t let me. Bring me a tenderloin.”
In my second year, Father Kelly put me in a private room next to the sacristy where the priests and altar boys robed. There was one more room next to me, but I never saw the occupant.
What solved this mystery was the night I had company. Two of my shipmates from HMCS Alachasse were in town as members of a naval tattoo. They telephoned my home in Brandon and learned I was in Winnipeg, and they came calling. As is often the case with sailors, there were occasional rough touches to the hilarity. In the middle of the evening, the door next to mine opened and out came a Jesuit. After my company left, I apologized to my neighbour for the noise we had made, especially for the rough talk. He smiled and told me to forget it. He then introduced himself as Father Deslaurier. About the profanity, I was to forget it as well. He said he had heard it all before. After all, he was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
There was one dominant non-academic topic on the Old St. Paul’s campus and it was followed with religious zeal: football. It always struck me as curious that numerous students, coming to Winnipeg from remote areas, had never seen a pointed football in their lives. Despite this, they took to it like that proverbial duck on a prairie slough.
A big question each autumn concerned the candidates for quarterback. That exalted position turned an average student into the BMOC. The coach was Greg Kabat, of the Blue Bombers. I never confirmed this, but certainly I was told countless times that, before each game, he lectured his enthusiastic young charges with a pep talk which reportedly included the injunction, “Always remember that you are the Crusaders of St. Paul’s; play hard, play like gentlemen … once you are three touchdowns ahead!”
Friday night was game night. We abandoned the campus en masse from youngest kid to oldest priest. We walked around the corner of The Bay to the Osborne Stadium. While we were waiting for the opening whistle, a pair of Winnipeg police officers would pass by and one of our cheerleaders would call out, “Where does your old man work?”
The response from several hundred of us was, “My old man don’t work … he’s a cop!”
One of my favourite characters from the student body was a young man from Ste. Rose du Lac. Gildas Molgat was fifteen when he came to St. Paul’s and he soon went on to become a gold medalist at the University of Manitoba. After a stint in the travel industry, “Gil” became an MLA, and soon after was appointed to the Senate. Via correspondence and the telephone, we kept in touch until his death.
Interesting fact: in two years at St. Paul’s I think I never heard the word failure. It wasn’t in our lexicon. I do not believe the faculty would let this happen. Their assignment was to prepare you for university. And they made certain all their students were suitably qualified.
Page revised: 4 July 2014