Sr. Mary Mercedes and the St. Michael’s Junior Band, Belleville, Ontario in 1938.
BY VERONICA STIENBURG
Music has a long history as an important ministry of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. From the 1880s until today, Sisters of Providence have shared and continue to share their musical talents with the communities they serve.
When the Congregation opened its teaching mission in Perth in 1892, St. John’s Convent was staffed with five sisters: the local superior, three school teachers and a music teacher. This set the precedent for approximately 20 teaching missions that all had a music teacher on staff. The music teacher would teach music to private students, direct parish choirs and play the organ in the parish. It would also include teaching music in the school, including leading school choirs and bands. Sometimes the music teacher was also the sacristan for the parish. The music teachers were integral to the success of the teaching missions. Each convent had to support itself and, as the teachers were not paid a lot, it was often the income from the teaching of private music students that enabled the mission to make ends meet.
Teaching music was not without its challenges. In the 1920s in Arnprior, Sisters Mary Gerard and Mary Carmel Teresa taught private students in the front lobby of Sacred Heart Convent at two pianos that stood side by side. They counted out loud to help their students concentrate while the nine other Sisters in residence passed by them on their way in and out. In another case, in her early days teaching music, Sister Mary Carmel Rose wrote out music for her students as music books were not provided and there was no particular curriculum to follow.
The music teachers offered more than just piano lessons. They conducted bands, taught singing, piano, violin, guitar and more. The various convent studios were known for their musical recitals. In the June 1922 issue of the Guardian magazine, Jessie Keith of Trenton describes a recital given by Sr. Mary Germain and the music students of St. Peter’s Convent Trenton in which she both sang and danced: “The Cantata ‘Wildwood Flowers’ was a grand number and received enthusiastic applause…We may thank our kind teacher Sister M. Germain who composed the Cantata and trained us to sing it with such success.”
The Sisters were known for the bands and orchestras they led. On May 23, 1930, the music students of St. John’s Convent Gananoque put on a ‘Musicale’ which included a Convent Orchestra and the first appearance of the Harmonica Band.
Teaching music was an active part of the Sisters’ ministry in Kingston. The House of Providence had a well-known music studio. Sister Mary Genevieve and Sister Mary Hildegarde developed and taught the music curriculum at St. Mary’s and St. John’s Schools in Kingston, as well as being vital to the music studio at the House of Providence and integral to the Sisters’ legacy of music in Kingston. Several sisters had music studios at Providence Motherhouse.
As the Congregation gradually withdrew from teaching in schools, the music teachers continued to teach private students and be involved with parish music ministry. In Picton, for example, while the last Sister taught in the separate school in 1978, a Sister continued teaching music at St. Gregory’s Convent until 1997. Music is still being taught today by Sister Rita Gleeson in Edmonton and Sister Marie Dundon in Kingston.