St. Mary School holding official grand opening and open house

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

It’s been a few years now that students have been dutifully lining up at the doors of St. Mary School in the west end of Fort Frances, and now staff, students, parents and administrators can finally come together for an official Grand Opening ceremony.

Scheduled for Thursday, September 15, 2022, at 4:00 p.m., the Open House will be the first official opportunity for parents and visitors to see the newest school in town. The event will start off with a blessing of the school and an official opening ceremony and is expected to include Roman Catholic Diocese of Thunder Bay Bishop Fred Coli, a local First Nations elder, Fort Frances mayor June Caul, Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, Northwest Catholic District School Board Director of Education Brad Oster and St. Mary’s parish priest Father Gino Mathias. Following the opening ceremony, the open house portion of the evening will take place from 5:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. with a barbecue and tours of the school building for those in attendance, giving some parents and visitors what could be their first opportunity to see the classrooms and other areas of the school, particularly following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Mary School had only a few months under its proverbial belt before the pandemic made international news and forced closures across much of the globe. Originally intended to be opened at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, some construction setbacks saw the first official day of school at the new building moved into January 2020. Less than three months later, classes were suspended, along with much of daily life as the public knew it. Students, staff and school board administrators adapted as best they cold, with substantial online only learning becoming the norm until mask mandates and the COVID-19 vaccine meant that learning could resume in-class when the caseload in the region wasn’t approaching significant levels.

The new St. Mary School was built as a replacement for both the aging St. Francis and St. Michael’s school buildings, in the west and east ends of town respectively. The great irony of this situation is that the two aforementioned schools themselves served as replacements for a former school named for the saint. Built in 1912 and demolished in 1979, the former St. Mary’s School (note the possessive ‘s’ in the earlier name, and its lack in the newer) was the fourth attempt by the local Roman Catholic community to have a Catholic school in town, per archival reporting from the Times that was provided by museum curator Kayleigh Speirs.

In an article published on Wednesday, July 18, 1979, former Times reporter Doneen Moran wrote that “the first and second attempts failed because the parishioners were not prepared to bear the additional financial burden of sending their children to a ‘private’ school.”

“The third attempt resulted in a school being built just east of the present St. Mary’s building, with the aid of a loan from the Oblate Fathers,” Moran wrote.

“Once established, this school quickly became too small.”

The original St. Mary’s building was a four-room school house that cost $13,000 to build and provided education from three teachers to 150 students. In 1925, an auditorium and eight-room addition were put on the old building, located near the St. Mary’s church parish and La Verendrye hospital.

As the number of “separate board” students grew, and the old school building continued to age, two new buildings were planned and erected in town to take on the burdens of the former St. Mary’s School. St. Francis School was built in 1956, then expanded upon in the late 70s, with a blessing from then Bishop John O’Mara in February of 1980. The later addition to St. Francis cost $714,000 and added six classrooms, a gym and resource centre to the school. Meanwhile, St. Michael’s school was constructed in the early 60s, with work reported to have begun by June 14, 1962 and expected to be finished “immediately following the Christmas holidays” as per an article from December 20, 1962.

Of course, time marches on, and eventually it came time for those two beloved schools to be replaced, leading to the consolidation of both groups of students into one new west-end location. In an article from February 2015, then-Director of Education Brendan Hyatt noted that the age of both schools, as well as their capacity, were the leading reasons to explore consolidation at that time.

“As both schools currently have excess capacity, and the schools are older and less-efficient, the consolidation of two schools will lead to a reduction in utility costs,” Hyatt said.

“A school with capacity for 350 pupils would meet projected enrolment needs, although this would be reviewed in detail with the ministry.”

Now, more than 100 years after the building of the school that almost shared its name, St. Mary School is ready to be officially opened and celebrated as it helps to educate young minds from Fort Frances and the surrounding area. The school has also been approved for a substantial upgrade following an announcement in earlier this year that saw $2.6-million from the province earmarked for a new addition.

The former St. Mary’s School as it stood on the corner of Victoria Street and Nelson Street before its demolition in 1979. The new St. Mary School that (mostly) shares its name will be holding its official grand opening on Thursday, September 15, beginning at 4:00 p.m. –Archive photo