Tuesday, 19 February 2013

St. Agnes School

I have been working on my collection of postcards of Guelph and decided that a blog would be a good way of sharing them with the community.  My plan is to scan and post pictures of Guelph from times gone by, as recorded in postcards.  My hope is that these images and commentaries will provide an interesting window onto the history of the city.

Shout out to Postcards Then and Now on which this blog is modeled and to Parisian Fields where you can find fascinating postcards of Paris along with other information about the City of Light.

My first posting is about St. Agnes School.  Here is an image from a postcard postmarked in 1913.


The postcard was printed by Valentine & Sons United Publishing of Toronto and Winnipeg.  According to the Toronto Postcard Club, the Valentines were Scottish photographers whose company eventually expanded to include postcards of Canadian scenes, around the turn of the 20th century.

The postcard shows St. Agnes school viewed from Cork St. W., near the intersection with Dublin St.  The text printed in the upper right corner identifies the building as "St. Agnes School, Guelph, Ont., Canada".  In the lower right corner is "106,384 (JV)", perhaps a numeric identifier and the initials of one of the Valentines.   There is a cancellation mark in the upper left corner, across the top of the school tower.

The book Guelph: Perspectives on a century of change 1900-2000 contains some interesting facts about the school.  It notes that St. Agnes was an elementary girls' school  paired with the elementary boys' school St. Stanislaus alongside the Church of Our Lady on the City's so-called "Catholic Hill".  Boys and girls were rigourously separated (p. 13):
The girls were not allowed to walk home past the boys' school.  If they lived on that side of town, they had to go the long way around.
The postcard shows a young woman standing in the doorway to the right of the tower, perhaps considering which direction she would rather set off in.  The book notes that St. Agnes acquired its second story in 1909, suggesting that the postcard photo dates from between then and 1913.  In 1932, the Catholic schools were reorganized, at which time primary boys' and girls' classes were located at St. Agnes, while senior boys and girls went to St. Stanislaus (p. 33).  The school was closed around 1953, perhaps in favor of the new and larger Holy Rosary School.

Built in 1877, the school was built in a version of the then-popular Second Empire style, with its high mansard roof and dormers.  The building is still quite recognizable now, although the dormers in the tower have been removed, as can be seen in the Google Streetview image here:


The Guelph Mercury notes that St. Agnes may soon face the wrecker's ball, in spite of some interest in it, due to its poor condition:

Noon [Pastor of the Church of Our Lady] said there are no immediate plans for St. Agnes School, a vacant building along Cork Street, just west of the new Guelph Civic Museum. A number of interested parties have taken tours of the building, but all declined to make a bid because of the costly renovations needed. It is not a heritage building.  A condominium developer, a fitness club, and a law office all expressed interest, “but backed away when they saw the amount of work that needed to be done in there,” Noon said.“It’s just sitting there now. We put interest out, but we got very little response.”
The Streetview image shows metal bands attached to the right-hand corner of the building, testifying to its rough condition.  Even so, it is a lovely building, redolent with local character and in a prime location.  I can only hope that some means for rejuvenating it can be found.

The Guelph Civic Museum (now housed in the Loretto Convent next door) has a photo of St. Agnes from 1979, showing its dormers, crest rails and cross still intact.  Was it still in use at the time?

Besides its subject, the postcard also contains a message.  It was addressed to a "Miss Edna Wilson, R.M.D. Guelph, Canada."  (If anyone knows what R.M.D. stands for, please note it down in the comments!)  Here is the text:
45 Woolwich St.
Dear Cousin:
I am sorry I didn't write before this.  I am back to school again.  You would hear that Papa went west.  I heard from him last week.  Are you at nonies' [?] now?  Write soon.
Regards to all.  Ethel
There is an Ethel Maud Wilson of Guelph (daughter of Cornelius Wilson) listed in the 1911 Census, as well as an Edna E. Wilson of Eramosa (daughter of David H Wilson) who may be the correspondents.  Ethel was born in 1887, and so would not have been a student at St. Agnes, so it is unclear what school she is referring to in her note.

The address of 45 Woolwich St. no longer exists; it is now the approximate location of the River Run Centre.  However, from Vernon's City Directory of Guelph from 1917, it appears to have been the residence of Frank Taylor, a tailor!  Did Mr. Taylor rent out rooms?

Also intriguing is the fact that Ethel's father "went west".  Where to, for what purpose, and for how long?

I note that both originating and delivery addresses are in Guelph.  It appears that neither woman had easy access to a telephone and would not have had the opportunity to speak face to face.  In any event, the card illustrates how postcards were often used to convey short notes intended to stay in touch, as opposed to the later norm of sharing special places that the sender had visited.  Besides, in those days, mail within the city could sometimes be delivered on the same day that it was sent, so that messages sent by postcards could be much more immediate than you might expect today.

That's all that I have for now.  Comments welcome!



30 April 2016: Further details about the history of St. Agnes—and some corrections—can be found in my article about the school.

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