Grey Nuns arrived in Alberta in 1863 to teach the Catholic children their academic subjects and faith.


Grey Nuns arrived in Alberta in 1863 to teach the Catholic children their academic subjects and faith.

November 3, 2014

After a modest start in a small wooden school 150 years ago, Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 734 has grown into a modern school system with 16 schools and 6,000 students in St. Albert, Legal and Morinville.

Superintendent David Keohane describes the school system as a welcoming, Christ-centred learning community that offers a strong, loving Christian environment rooted in Catholic principles.

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools was formed in 1995 after the amalgamation of three historic school jurisdictions.

But Catholic education in the region dates back 150 years with the arrival of the Grey Nuns in St. Albert in 1863 to provide schooling to seven orphaned children.

"This anniversary is a very important event for our community for, as many people know, the Catholic culture and the heritage of our Catholic faith is foundational to the establishment of the City of St. Albert as one of the first Catholic missions in Alberta," Keohane said.

"A city and a school district were built around that reality and we just feel very blessed to be able to understand and look at a 150-year legacy and say, 'Wow, this surpasses politics and the establishment of roads and infrastructure and everything else.'"

Keohane said our forebears knew "the most important thing you can do when you set up an establishment is to build an educational organization and incorporate faith within that organization. That's how you are going to build a better society."

"So we feel very blessed that 150 years later we are sustaining that sense of moral purpose."

The St. Albert Roman Catholic Public District No. 3 was formed in 1885 and later became known as St. Albert Catholic School District No. 3.

A legacy of teaching began in the district when the Sisters of Charity (better known as the Grey Nuns) arrived in St. Albert from Lac Ste. Anne in 1863. Construction of a small convent that served as schoolhouse and hospital was completed in 1864.

Students were taught primarily by the Grey Nuns. Instruction in French, English, grammar, mathematics and catechism was carried out. However, it was the sisters' philosophy of practical, moral and religious learning that was emphasized. Boys learned agriculture, woodworking and carpentry while girls concentrated on sewing, cooking and gardening.

The district's heritage of excellence dates back to 1893 when students won several awards at the Chicago World's Fair. The former school district was recognized on many occasions for academic, practical and athletic excellence.

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools was the first jurisdiction to offer a cyber-school. St. Gabriel High School has been providing online learning opportunities for Alberta and overseas students for almost 15 years.

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools was also the first jurisdiction in Alberta to offer the highly acclaimed Learning through the Arts program developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music.

In 2012 legislation came into effect which changed Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools' status from "public" to "separate" and resulted in a legal name change to Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 734.

The board of trustees launched the 150th celebration plans Sept. 19 at the Little White School House, a two-room school where classes were first held. At the site, board chair Noreen Radford described the anniversary as "a significant milestone locally, provincially and nationally as the establishment of education in 1864 predates the city, the province and Confederation."

David Keohane

David Keohane

"The attractiveness of developing a moral compass in our children still resonates and has withstood the test of time in our community for over 150 years," she said.

The celebrations were officially kicked off in October with activities at St. Albert High School and in Legal.

Keohane said each of the 16 schools was designated "key days" when they will showcase learning in their schools.

In November, a 150th commemorative video will be released and festivities will take place at Albert Lacombe and Bertha Kennedy schools.

École Marie Poburan and J.J. Nearing School will celebrate throughout December. Schools will showcase their innovations, technology and history until May. "It's really up to the school community to figure out how to celebrate," Keohane said.


As part of the celebration, the district is also establishing a legacy social justice project with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. This consists of building a school in the Philippines with monetary contributions from all schools.

"We want to demonstrate how we can be Christ for others in meaningful ways," explained Keohane.

On June 11, 2015 a Mass on the Hill will be held followed by the concluding festivity – a 150th anniversary gala on Mission Hill June 13.

The gala will honour the historic site of Mission Hill, the pioneering spirit of the Grey Nuns and faith-based education in the province. The gala will feature exquisite cuisine, entertainment, historic displays and a silent auction.

Tickets for the gala are limited. Tickets for tables of eight can be reserved beginning Nov. 19. Individual tickets go on sale Feb. 2, 2015 pending availability. For more information, email