Sisters of Sainte Marie de Namur and the salvation of a Sandy Hill landmark

Ralph Blaine

They say a cat has nine lives, but the Catholic Order of Sainte Marie de Namur surely comes a close second. Along with their latest incarnation they have given new life to one of the finest heritage buildings in Sandy Hill. In fact, this order has Sandy Hill roots going back to 1920, when they established a house on Daly Avenue and later had communities on Wilbrod and then Stewart Street.

The Order of Sainte Marie de Namur was founded in 1819 in Namur, Belgium, and their lives are inspired by the credo:«Dans la simplicité de mon cœur, plein de joie, j’ai tout offert à Dieu. » After a time the order sent a cohort to the United States. Then in 1886, a group of nuns came up from Buffalo to establish a community in Vankleek Hill. By 1920 the Canadian branch was operating several French Catholic schools in the Ottawa Valley. But in the 1960s both Ontario and Quebec began to expand public financing to the French Catholic communities for their elementary and high schools. The sisters belonging to the Catholic teaching orders found themselves gradually squeezed out of an active classroom role.

But this was the beginning of a new path for the Sisters of Sainte Marie. It is this new pastoral life that eventually led to a massive renovation of a limestone mansion in Sandy Hill. The Sisters of Sainte Marie decided that if they were losing everyday contact with the juvenile student population, they could instead develop programs to enrich the spiritual and communal life of post secondary youth. In a small apartment on Bruyère Street, three nuns and two young women began an experiment in communal living. Their regular prayer groups gradually expanded into a variety of youth centered activities, which eventually found a home in a property belonging to the Ottawa Diocese at 101 Parent, le Centre des Jeunes. Over the next 30 years the sisters who managed this center added Bible studies, personal counseling, silent retreats, humanitarian aid projects and more – all directed towards the French speaking Christian youth of this region.

But in 2018 the Order was dismayed to learn that the Diocese wanted to reclaim possession of the premises at 101 Parent. The Sisters faced a stark choice: either give up the mission they had built over so many years, or find a new building. The search was challenging. When they finally did come across the mansion at 460 King Edward, on the northwest corner of Stewart, they realized they faced a huge challenge due to years of neglect. They found it dirty, damaged, and an unworkable warren of rooms.

But the Sisters Françoise, Mona, Marie-Pierre, and Claudette were determined. They organized the largest fundraising effort that their order had ever undertaken, amassing the funds to buy the building and completely renovate the interior and exterior façade. The grounds have been landscaped; the glorious veranda has been restored; and everything has a fresh coat of paint. What was an inexcusable eyesore at the entrance to our neighbourhood, is now a welcome sight on the west side of our main north-south artery, King Edward Avenue.

In addition to the variety of programs developed at the 101 Parent Street address, the new centre at 460 King Edward has 10 rooms occupied by young Christian women chosen by the order to continue the tradition of communal living, begun so many years ago in the apartment on Bruyère. You will find a complete explanation, en français, of the programs available at the Centre des Jeunes on the web site www.le460.org.