Novitiate Garden at St. Ann’s Academy

Credit: Lynne Milnes: Contempory images; Archival photos courtesy the Sisters of St. Ann Academy

PLANTS OF VIRTUE After completing her two-year novitiate studies, a Sister takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I represented these vows with basil, veronica and sunflower respectively. The novices also studied the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Faith was represented by yew trees planted around the perimeter of the building and also by a passion vine that I began to train up a balcony pillar. Hope was represented by purple bearded iris that had naturalized on a rocky slope on the Academy Grounds and which I salvaged to replant in the Novitiate Garden. The virtue Charity was represented in the garden by white regal lilies. Along with theological virtues, the novices also studied the cardinal virtues of temperance (rosemary, sage), prudence (lily-of-the-valley), justice (rudbeckias) and fortitude (wallflowers). (Zones indicate the coldest the plant is hardy to.) Oath to St. Ann’s

  • Poverty Basil (Ocimum basilicum) – zone 9
  • Chastity Veronica (Veronica prostrata) ‘Trehane’ – zone 4
  • Obedience Sunflower (Helianthus x multiflorus) – zone 5

Theological Virtues

  • Faith Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.) – zone 5; Passion flower (Passiflora caerulea) – zone 8; Yew (Taxus brevifolia) – zone 7
  • Hope Iris (Iris spp.) – zone 3
  • Charity Regal Lily (Lilium regale) – zone 4

Cardinal Virtues

  • Temperance Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – zone 7; Sage (Salvia officinalis) – zone 5
  • Prudence Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis ) – zone 4
  • Justice Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia fulgida) – zone 4
  • Fortitude Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) – zone 5

Every Monday I spend a few hours with loyal volunteers maintaining the historic Novitiate Garden at St. Ann’s Academy in downtown Victoria.

Tending the grounds of this former convent and Catholic school is not work to us, so much as a quiet meditation or a revitalizing way to begin the week, as we remember and honour all the devoted women who lived, studied and worked at St. Ann’s over the past century and a half.

St. Ann's AcademyToiling in the garden allowed the novices a welcome break from their studies.

I am fortunate to have been involved with the site since 1998, when I was asked by the Chair of the Provincial Capital Commission (PCC), Pamela Charlesworth, to design the Novitiate Garden, which was once the secluded portion of the Academy grounds used by the young novices or nuns in training at St. Ann’s. Part restoration, part redevelopment, the project was not an attempt to recreate the garden exactly as it was in the 19th century, as the trees had matured and present needs had changed. Instead, we sought to keep the integrity of the original Novitiate Garden while planting a space that could provide cut flowers year-round for the chapel, and provide a beautiful setting for a wide range of public and private outdoor events. From its founding in 1858 until it closed its doors in 1973, St. Ann’s Academy educated 36,000 elementary and high school students and was home to hundreds of novices and later Sisters of St. Ann, whose pioneer work in the health and education fields took them all over the province of B.C. and into the Yukon and Alaska. In 1984 the buildings were declared a provincial Heritage site, and in 1993 the PCC announced it was financing a redevelopment proposal for St. Ann’s with a pedestrian connection to adjacent Beacon Hill Park. The building is now used to house the provincial Ministry of Education, while the de-consecrated chapel and grounds are open to the public and rented out for special events. While the lay students of the school, boarders from small northern communities and local day students once freely roamed the front garden with its avenue of poplars, orchard and arboretum, the novices had their own smaller space in the back of the building adjoining Beacon Hill Park. Dominated by two Queen Anne cherry trees, the Novitiate Garden featured a cool summerhouse, a kitchen garden that contributed to meals in the convent and a variety of flowers that were grown to bedeck the chapel altars. Here, the novices were protected from the outside world by a fence, but were in full view of the older nuns who sat on the open balcony overlooking the garden outside the chapel.

Lilium regaleLilium regale

Not being raised a Catholic, I began the job of restoration by talking to Sisters who had been novices at St. Ann’s and by going through the meticulous records in the St. Ann’s Archives. Sister Margaret, who is in charge of the Archives, patiently explained to me what life was like for a novice and showed me wonderful photos of novices laughing in the garden, picking flowers and enjoying quiet moments in the summerhouse reading mail. “Our lives were very structured as novices,” remembered another nun, Sister Monica. “From 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. we were part of a community that prayed, prepared and ate meals, studied and worked. We had little free time. The garden with the summerhouse was the only place we could go as novices to read our mail and get away. That is why we all have such fond memories of it.” Archival photos show the original 1925 summerhouse, an open-sided pavilion where the Sisters and novices sat shelling peas, sewing and performing housekeeping tasks. Over the years the summerhouse had become too dilapidated and unsafe to be salvageable, however the PCC made detailed drawings of the building prior to its removal and these were used to build an exact replica of the original structure.

Rudbeckia fulgidaRudbeckia fulgida

I began to create the garden by marking out the beds with string and chalk around the newly constructed summerhouse. A bobcat removed the grass and spread the topsoil, well-rotted manure and leaf mulch that is the basis of any decent garden. A long herb garden was created beside what was once the kitchen. From the chapel balcony overlooking the garden the diamond shapes of Lavandula augustifolia ‘Hidcote’ marked by a centrepiece of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) reveal a tight formal design that fittingly honours the novices’ structured cloistered life. On one end of the herb garden beside the former kitchen, I placed all the tea herbs, such as chamomile, lemon balm, bee balm and strawberry leaves. It was here below the chapel steps that the Sisters always kept a pot of soup available for those in need. From a prostrate rosemary originally planted in the 1920s, we made cuttings and placed these along the raised edge of the herb garden in honour of their mother plant. Along the west side of the building, now leased as offices, a perennial border features climbing roses and clematis covering the balcony, a looser planting that commemorates the Sisters’ risky work in the far-off reaches of the north. Shrubs were placed at the right-angle corner and along the steps. Witch hazel, lilac, abelia, red currant, rhododendrons and azaleas were remembered fondly by the Sisters. “I remember the smell of lilac coming down the balcony steps,” one nun told me, and I dutifully planted a Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’ in this exact spot. To choose the perennial species I went back to the medieval tradition of cloistered life and found plants representing the vows and virtues to which the novices had dedicated their lives (see sidebar).

St. Anne's AcademyPicking cherries for the convent kitchen was a popular summertime chore.

As an 18-year-old myself, the average age of a novice, I rarely spent any time thinking about virtues, cardinal or otherwise. After talking to the Sisters and hearing their stories, I realized how brave and fearless these young women must have been as they prepared for faraway missions to start hospitals and to teach. In honour of their daring, I planted black tulips in the perennial border, which look dramatic in the spring light with their straight stems and impressive appearance, complemented by lady’s mantle, Queen Anne’s lace and Lenten roses, all named for Catholic observances. Beside the summerhouse, now in full shade because of the growth of the locust trees, I planted hydrangeas, ferns, hellebores, primroses and evergreen honeysuckle. One Sister recalled the scent of sweet peas, and these I chose to grow against the east-facing fence to catch the early morning sun. Wherever possible, I divided plants from my own garden to keep the costs down, and over the years, St. Ann’s garden volunteers have contributed their own treasures. Local gardener Connie Caunt graciously donated a host of shade-loving plants, including meadow rue, mertensia, anemones, astilbe and tradescantia. Another family offered a climbing rose to honour the 80th birthday of their mother who was a former student at St. Ann’s. In a sunny downpour we planted Rosa ‘Alberic Barbier,’ whose French roots pay homage to Esther Blondin, the Quebec foundress of the Sisters of St. Ann. Considering the restoration date of the Academy building (1921), I chose plants such as hollyhocks, foxgloves, daffodils, tulips and crocus that would have been in keeping with gardens of that time. Consultation with heritage-building restoration expert Stuart Stark taught me to realize the importance of these details and to keep as much of the original paving and plant material as possible. However, given the garden’s present-day use as a beautiful place for functions of all kinds I had to remove weedy species and any plants that had become too large. One oversized boxwood was taken away, but a line of small boxwood was replanted to echo the original planting, and hidden under the large boxwood, we discovered the garden’s original brick path. Numerous weddings and outdoor events have taken place at St. Ann’s since our work at the garden began. Office workers and visitors enjoy the garden as a quiet retreat in the heart of the city throughout the seasons. A tour of horticultural therapists last year wondered why I had gone to all the trouble of researching the plants and their associated virtues when few visitors took the time to read the printed material. But I think the value of a garden is often felt subconsciously without the need for conscious recognition. Surely, therapists understand the healing nature of a beautiful living garden with its echoes of the past. The fact that this space honours the work of the former novices of the Sisters of St. Ann and features symbolic references to their religious past and community is but one of the many layers that make up this unique garden. For me, the Novitiate Garden has become my Monday morning meditation, a time when I can recall and honour the history of the strong women of St. Ann’s, plant by plant.

Summer house St. Ann's AcademyThe original 1925 summerhouse has been painstakingly recreated.

To contribute to the restoration of the historic gardens and buildings of St. Ann’s, write to: Kris Anderson, Program Coordinator, St. Ann’s Academy, Provincial Capital Commission, 613 Pandora St., Victoria, B.C. V8W 1N8, tel. 250-386-1428. Or write to The Treasurer, The Society of the Friends of St. Ann’s Academy, 613 Pandora St., Victoria, B.C. V8W 1N8, tel. 250-386-1428. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Laurus nobilis – zone 8 • Lavandula ‘Hidcote’– zone 5 • Rosa ‘Alberic Barbier’ – zone 5 • Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’ – zone 4 Lynne Milnes is a Victoria-based writer/landscaper and environmental fundraiser who finds stress management in the natural world. PHOTOS Lynne Milnes: Contempory images and garden plans; Archival photos courtesy the Sisters of St. Ann Archives