St. Ann’s spiritual walking tours bring new twist to history

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The inside of St. Ann’s Academy, once crumbling from rot and disuse, now paints a warmer picture of growth and renewed importance. Although the 1920s-themed interior is the product of a $16.7-million renovation project started in 1993, and not an actual legacy of the academy’s past, history is an important thing there.  Designated a heritage building and owned by the Provincial Capital Commission, St. Ann’s Academy is a stern reminder of a time of faith and community.

Once, the overwhelming majority of Victorians belonged to religious communities of some kind. Although a trend towards societal secularity has made that connection increasingly rare for Victorians today, the legacy is a poignant one, and of special interest to the group called Friends of St. Ann’s Academy, which helps nurture the history of their institution. The Friends of St. Ann’s is a non-profit body founded in 1997 and composed of community advocates and alumni who seek to honour and celebrate the social and spiritual heritage of St. Ann’s Academy.

In mid-September this year, with funds from the Sisters of St. Ann and members of the Victoria community, the Friends of St. Ann launched Roots to Wings. The project, compiled by volunteers with the help of local historians John Adams and Stuart Stark, is based around four self-guided walking tours. The first tour explores the Humboldt Valley; the second the City Centre; the third Chinatown; and the fourth North Park. Each walking tour includes a handful of stops at various historical locations and the brochure gives a brief history of the spirituality involved.

“We’re looking at the spiritual foundation of downtown Victoria,” said Julie Cormier, executive director of the Society of Friends of St. Ann’s Academy. But the tour is not entirely limited to the past. “People can actually go see, ‘who are the Songhees nation, and what are they doing right now.’ As much as we wanted to bring out the spiritual history, culture, and stories of the mid 1800s, we’re also seeing the value in identifying the present spiritual groups and what they’re doing today, especially in relation to their history.”

The tours, heavy on Catholic and Anglican history and somewhat sparse on other groups, each take 20 to 30 minutes. The first, and longest by a considerable margin, is about 1.5 kilometres. The third, and shortest, is not even a quarter of a kilometre. Touring enthusiasts need simply walk the route described in the pamphlet, and read the description of each historical site along the way. Pamphlets are available in print at St. Ann’s Academy, but there are also downloadable versions on the Roots to Wings website, as well as a mobile version for smartphones.

The apparent goal of the walking tours is to help educate the public on the nature of spiritual institutions in Victoria. “The Friends of St. Ann’s recognized that a tour of spiritual locations was missing from the available resources,” said Ashley Forseille, secretary of the board of the Society of Friends of St. Ann’s Academy. “The Roots to Wings project grew from the desire to fill that gap.”

The society is certainly not alone in creating walking tours of the city—options for historically curious residents and visitors range from the history of Saanich to ghost tours. But, Cormier said, what sets her tour apart is its inclusive nature. “It’s really about including all the denominations and spiritual groups.” Although the tour discusses only Christian and Jewish history, Cormier noted that efforts to ensure a concise and contained tour limited the possible extent of her brochure. The Friends of St. Ann’s hope that the Roots to Wings project will form the beginning of a three-part project that will expand geographically to discuss a number of other spiritual groups in the region. They also hope that further funding will enable them to create podcasts to further increase accessibility.

In researching the walking tours, Cormier and other board members consulted with local historians, as well as members from specific spiritual groups, like Chief Andy Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation and Frances Gooday from St. Andrews Cathedral. The Friends of St. Ann’s also offer bilingual walking tours of the academy and schoolhouse during the summer, and aspire to help young women find inspiration in female role models from the academy’s past.

Additional information about the Roots to Wings walking tours can be found on the Friends of St. Ann’s website at friendsofstannsacademy.com.

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