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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 771-772

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Book Review

Mount Saint Vincent University: A Vision Unfolding, 1873-1988

Mount Saint Vincent University: A Vision Unfolding, 1873-1988. By Theresa Corcoran, S.C. (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. 1999. Pp. xvi, 368. $57.00.)

In contrast to the United States, where women's colleges flourished in the twentieth century, Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, remains the only degree-granting institution in Canada committed primarily to the education of women. The roots of this distinctive institution lay in a girls' academy founded in 1873 by the Sisters of Charity and a motherhouse normal school for young sisters which developed from it. By 1895 Mount Saint Vincent Normal School was authorized to award teaching certificates, but the Sisters of [End Page 771] Charity realized that more stringent state teaching requirements were imminent. After two unsuccessful applications for a charter that would permit their institution to award the bachelor's degree, they took an unorthodox interim route to their goal through a 1914 agreement with Dalhousie University, a local nondenominational institution. After two years of college work at Mount Saint Vincent, students could complete their last two years of study and earn their bachelor's degrees at Dalhousie. Mount Saint Vincent College received its own charter in 1925 and awarded its first bachelor's degrees in 1927. It moved to university status in 1966.

The pivotal theme of Theresa Corcoran's study is the role of the Sisters of Charity in the institution's development. This focus has the unavoidable effect of making it a heavily administrative history. Certainly, the influence of these women, both individually and as a community, was significant and enduring. Not only did they establish and heavily subsidize the college, but they also dominated among its trustees, administrators, and faculty for much of its history. The narrative ends in 1988, the year the Sisters of Charity transferred ownership of the university to a lay governing board.

In rich detail, this capable study reveals how the Sisters of Charity met a number of daunting challenges to the college's development over the last century. Their creative response to one particularly grave threat to the institution's survival serves as a case in point. In 1968 the move to coeducation by Saint Mary's University, the local Catholic men's college, forced Mount Saint Vincent College to compete with it for Catholic women students. Despite considerable criticism from Halifax Catholics, the Sisters quickly negotiated an agreement to affiliate with Dalhousie University. In this way they ensured that Mount Saint Vincent would continue to flourish as a Catholic college committed primarily to the education of women.

The author encountered a major obstacle in writing the history of Mount Saint Vincent University. A disastrous 1951 fire resulted in the loss of all archival records of the college and the founding congregation. Although Corcoran draws resourcefully on oral histories, court tax records, Dalhousie University archives, and scattered published materials, the dearth of primary sources for so long a period inevitably forces her to leave a number of critical questions unanswered.

This carefully researched history of a pioneer institution represents a valuable addition to the scholarly literature on the higher education of Catholic women in North America. Photographs, two appendices, a bibliography, and an index unite to enhance its value as a reference resource.


Mary J. Oates
Regis College



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