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Original title:  Sr. Perpetua Whalen

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WHALEN, MARY ANN, named Sister Perpetua, member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph and educator; b. 10 Aug. 1870 in Reach Township, Ont., daughter of William Daniel Whalen and Catharine Meagher; d. 2 March 1938 in Toronto.

The elder daughter of Irish immigrant parents, Mary Ann Whalen was raised on a farm near Chalk Lake, north of Whitby. In September 1884, two years after the death of her father, she went to St Joseph’s Academy in Toronto as a boarder. She obtained a third-class teaching certificate in 1887. In 1892 she entered the Sisters of St Joseph, a Roman Catholic community established in Toronto in 1851 [see Marie-Antoinette Fontbonne*]. As Sister Perpetua, the name she received in religion, she would have a long and distinguished career in education. Initially she was a teaching administrator at St Joseph’s High School for girls and St Joseph’s Academy. Her students described her as an outstanding instructor in all subjects, including science, mathematics, languages, and the humanities.

By 1908 Sister Perpetua Whalen’s community was considering the establishment of a Catholic women’s college in Toronto. That year she and Sister Austin began to pursue degrees at the University of Toronto that would enable them to offer instruction at the post-secondary level. In 1911 Perpetua would receive a ba in history and English. In addition, the two sisters, through their membership and by hosting monthly meetings at St Joseph’s Convent on nearby St Alban (Wellesley) Street, helped sustain the Catholic Women’s Club of Toronto University, formed in 1908. It provided a valuable religious and social outlet. As the community’s annalist wrote at the time, “The Club will make the members of the different faculties … acquainted with each other … so that Catholics may sometimes breathe a Catholic atmosphere of which! Alas ! there is not a breath at the University.”

Following the example of the Catholic men’s college, St Michael’s, which had federated with the university in 1910 [see Maurice Hutton], the Sisters of St Joseph, under the leadership of Mother Irene Conroy, started to negotiate an agreement with university president Robert Alexander Falconer*. In spite of its concerted efforts, the community, like its religious colleagues the Loretto sisters [see Margaret O’Neill*], was unsuccessful in securing independent affiliation. Instead, a compromise was reached whereby the two communities would affiliate through St Michael’s, despite its reluctance to admit women students.

In 1911 Sister Perpetua and Sister Austin became the founding faculty of St Joseph’s College, which formally joined with St Michael’s the following year. Perpetua taught English, German, and history. In 1916, when almost half of the 117 students enrolled at St Michael’s were women, she was appointed dean of St Joseph’s, a position she would hold until ill health forced her retirement in 1929. During this time, in 1924, she obtained an ma from the university for her thesis on English poet and essayist Alice Christiana Gertrude Meynell.

Sister Perpetua oversaw the growth and development of St Joseph’s. After being housed in different buildings in the Queen’s Park area, including the community’s convent, in 1926–27 the college bought and converted to classrooms and a residence the mansion of the late William Mellis Christie* at St Alban and Queen’s Park Crescent. She worked with her community and the Loretto sisters, and with the university, to meet the needs of female faculty and staff. She was in constant contact with religious groups elsewhere concerning their college operations, and she facilitated the presence at the university of sister-students from other communities. In recognition of her dedication, a memorial scholarship would be established.

In addition to her educational work, Sister Perpetua undertook various responsibilities within her congregation. She was a delegate to several general chapters, where she participated in the revisions to the community’s constitution that resulted in its recognition as a pontifical institute in 1925. As well, she was a member of the general council and held the positions of general secretary and annalist.

Following her death in March 1938 at St Joseph’s Hospital, a funeral mass was conducted at her convent and she was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.


Elizabeth M. Smyth

AO, RG 22-264, no.1518. LAC, RG 31, C1, 1871, Reach Township, Ont., div.1: 9 (mfm. at AO). Sisters of St Joseph of Toronto Arch., “Catalogue of the names of the Sisters of St Joseph in the Diocese of Toronto”; Ser.110, St Joseph’s College, Toronto. UTARMS, A1973-0026/507(97). Globe, 3 March 1938. The members of the corporation, the collegium, and the administrations of the University of St. Michael’s College, 1852/1853–1984/1985, comp. R. J. Scollard (Toronto, 1985). Saint Joseph Lilies (Toronto), 27 (1938): 209–10. L. K. Shook, Catholic post-secondary education in English-speaking Canada: a history (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1971). Sisters of St Joseph of Toronto, Community annals, [1851–1956] (3v. to date, [Toronto, 1968–    ]). E. [M.] Smyth, “‘Developing the powers of the youthful mind’: the evolution of education for young women at St. Joseph’s Academy, Toronto, 1854–1911,” CCHA, Hist. studies, 60 (1993–94): 103–25; “The culture of Catholic women’s colleges at the University of Toronto, 1911–1925,” CCHA, Hist. studies, 70 (2004): 111–30.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Elizabeth M. Smyth, “WHALEN, MARY ANN, named Sister Perpetua,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/whalen_mary_ann_16E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/whalen_mary_ann_16E.html
Author of Article: Elizabeth M. Smyth
Title of Article: WHALEN, MARY ANN, named Sister Perpetua
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2013
Year of revision: 2013
Access Date: December 20, 2014