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The Arts: Rediscovering Playwright Sister Marie-Agnes, SNJM

By Miriam Malone, SNJM

One of the remarkable women in our community’s history came to light and life for me as I was sorting through family papers passed down for several generations. On the back of an old photo was the name “Mary Ives,” who became Sister Marie-Agnes, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. In the photo, she’s sitting among her relatives – and mine! I had discovered a cousin about whom I knew nothing, or perhaps had forgotten from long-ago stories.

Sister Marie-Agnes – the second of that name – is one of the hidden treasures of our community. Born into a Bostonian Irish-American family in 1861, Mary Ives entered the Sisters of the Holy Names in 1881 following three years of study at the boarding school in Hochelaga. Biographical notes written by Soeur Julien Marie, SNJM in 1939 describe her as “endowed with a wonderful mind and great talents.” She wrote some 100 dramas that were printed and performed in schools all over the continent and even other countries. She also contributed many articles to leading educational periodicals. Yet Sister Mary-Agnes never spoke about her literary achievements, so few of her own Sisters recognized her for them.

Her SNJM obituary called her “a worthy successor of the first Sister Marie-Agnes, one of the first three members of the Holy Names Order. She was woman of culture, sincerity and deep piety.” Sister Marie-Agnes’ humble demeanor belied her unprecedented literary career, her political astuteness, her unbounded creativity and the far-reaching impact of her prolific writings.

Kym Bird of York University wrote an article for the publication “Theatre Research in Canada” entitled In the Habit of Independence: Cross-border Politics and Feminism in Two World War I Plays by Sister Mary Agnes. She examined the life and playwriting of this woman who wrote more plays in Canada than any woman of her era. “Generally speaking, they are Christian comedies that ...teach the value of women’s initiative, strength and independent spirit on the one hand and self-sacrifice, devotion and charity on the other,” she writes. “At times they are supportive of both the domestic and liberal feminist politics of their age.”

Her assignments included St. Mary’s, Winnipeg, “the backdrop against which Sister M. Agnes lived the most productive years of her life as a playwright.” She also served at Hochelaga Boarding School; on the Provincial Council, Windsor, Ontario; as principal at Academy of the Holy Names, New York; as a university professor and as principal in Key West, Florida (my birthplace), where she responded to the yellow fever epidemic and oversaw the construction of the “handsomest educational building in the State of Florida.” Returning to Canada, she was one of the foundresses of the Convent in Outremont, and was sent back to St. Mary’s in Winnipeg prior to her death.

A fascinating read, Bird’s research questions how this American religious living in Canada could become such a successful and independent woman.

“What made it possible for a woman living in Canada in this social and political climate to voice such adversarial, potentially volatile views in plays that were written to be staged by high-school-age girls? To understand what liberated Sister Agnes to write such plays is to imagine the complicated social, political, and religious location she occupied and how it positioned her as an outsider in Winnipeg. She was an American- born Irish-Catholic nun married to a French-Canadian order. She remained an American citizen all of her life. Given that both Irish-Catholic and American histories have been formed, to a great extent, out of their resistance against the British, Sister Agnes would have been well versed in the discourses of political independence and understandably alienated from British-identified, Protestant-run Winnipeg during the First World War. A missionary who stayed relatively briefly in most places, she was always an outsider, living in semi-seclusion in the all-female community of a convent. Her sense of autonomy and entitlement to express herself was fostered by this unique environment. In Winnipeg she lived in pastoral, privileged Crescentwood, where she rose to the highest ranks of her profession, teaching university courses and mentoring the daughters of Winnipeg’s first families to enter a social and professional milieu that produced the most successful suffrage movement in the country. Her literary voice and career were condoned by her order and her plays were recognized by them as part of her religious obediences.”

An independent woman, indeed, Sister M. Agnes’ role in the formation of students at St. Mary’s Academy, Winnipeg, and far beyond is both exciting and inspiring. Her legacy endures with the remarkable dedication to the arts, and most notably, the dramatic arts evidenced at St. Mary’s to this day. As a lover of the literary arts and writing, I am proud to share the gene pool with my newly discovered cousin, our Sister Marie-Agnes Ives, and to bring her into the light of our SNJM story.