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A Mission to Educate

With the Mission ships scheduled to be docked at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site on August 18th and 19th, it seems fitting that the story of Canada’s first Catholic Kindergarten/daycare, started by the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement be highlighted this month as part of Steveston’s waterfront history.

Sister Jerome Kelliher and Sister Eugenia Koppes from the Order of the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement, an order renowned for its dedication to living in simplicity, for serving the poor and for empowering those who may be neglected or oppressed, came to Steveston in 1931.

Gordon Kibble, a local writer and marine ecological educator has written extensively about the order’s stay and impact on the local community. In an article in the City of Richmond Heritage news he noted, “From 1931 until the Japanese internment, the Sisters operated a daycare for Japanese mothers who worked in local farm fields.” He recalled that they rented a house owned by John Murchison (Steveston’s first customs officer and police chief) that was situated on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Richmond Street, a house now preserved and open to the public at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site. “The upper floor of one house,” Kibble continued, “was the church and the lower one a convent for the Sisters. The front room was the daycare and a study club in the evenings.”

Murchison House where the Sisters of Atonement taught, on site at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site, Photo by Lori Sherritt-Fleming

Sister Jerome in her reflections remembered, “Japanese mothers arriving at 6:00 a.m. with children. By 7:00 a.m. – all would have arrived – by truck, on foot, in carriages or strapped to their mother’s back.” During strawberry season, it was “…9:00 p.m. before some children went home and some children came seven days a week.”

The fee for the daycare was ten cents a day for children and fifteen cents for babies.

The Sisters’ kindergarten classes were so popular that they offered classes in both the morning and afternoon. The fee for those was one dollar a month.

The Sisters provided kindness and support for the Japanese community in Steveston. In 1942 when Japanese families along the coast were interned, the Sisters moved with them. They went ahead to Greenwood, BC to assure that the Japanese families would receive a warm welcome and that they would experience familiar faces in an unfamiliar place. The Sisters helped to set up a school in Greenwood for seven hundred Japanese children. The Sisters returned to Richmond after the war and continued to teach religion and English and to run Kindergarten classes at St. Joseph the Worker Parish on the southwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Garry Street. The Sisters of Atonement left quite a positive mark in the community, one guided by service, compassion and inclusion.

The Sisters of Atonement aiding Japanese families in Greenwood BC. Photo courtesy of the Greenwood Museum.

Join ARTCi on August 18th and 19th between 11am and 3pm at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site where you can leave your mark on the historic scroll being painted in the Seine Net Loft and join our team of professional and volunteer actors as they encourage you to experience some historic ‘Tide Water Tales’.

Sources: Mouth of the Fraser (Spring 2005) Article “Of Saints and Savers” by Teresa Murphy.

My Memories of Steveston, BC by Sister Eugenia Koppes.

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