Notre Dame Secretarial College

Notre Dame Secretarial College “The Mother House”
or Another Fine CND Example of Women Helping Women

By Nelia Palma
Photo Search: Josée Sarrazin


Pointe Saint-Charles, 1668, Marguerite Bourgeoys opens the Ouvroir de la Providence in an area called Saint-Gabriel. Her mission is to teach the young women of the fledgling colony the skills required to earn their living. “In this place which combined household tasks and work on the land, the girls were taught Christian values and were prepared for life.1”    

Fast forward to Montreal at the beginning of the 20th century. The city is a bustling centre of 270,000 inhabitants.

Its economy and finance sectors are prospering:

1900   –Desjardins Group is founded.
1903   –The construction of the Montreal Stock Exchange begins on St. François-Xavier Street.
1906-1909  –Old Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, Montreal is built.
1907   –Head Office of Royal Bank of Canada is moved from Halifax to Montreal.

Its industrial sectors are in full development:

1901   –Montreal Light, Heat & Power is established.
1902   –Alcan is founded.
1905   –Dominion Textile is founded.
1909   –Canadian Car and Foundry is formed.
1917   –Abitibi Power and Paper Company is founded.
1918   –Canadian National Railway is created2.    

With this dynamic development and expansion also comes the need for competent business personnel.


The Early Years

In 1907, aware of this pressing need, the CND opened its first “commercial class”. In the Grade 8 classroom of Saint Charles School in Pointe Saint-Charles, Sister St. Catherine of the Rosary (Ann Maria Cooke) taught typing to five teenage girls.


Saint Charles School, first commercial class

At that time young women of that age had little choice but to work in factories where they were exploited and poorly paid. Sister St. Catherine of the Rosary’s mission was to better the condition of women by preparing them to be self-supporting3.   Sound familiar?

In 1909, the newly established bilingual École d’enseigne- ment supérieur/Notre Dame Ladies College located in the 3040 Sherbrooke Street Mother House and affiliated with Université Laval for the higher education in Arts and Sci­ences of young women in Montreal, invited the “com­mer­cial class” to become part of this educational institution and provide quality commercial instruction.

From the solitary typing course grew a business school which offered, in addition to typing, of course, such courses as: Bookkeeping, Business Practice, Banking, Business Correspondence, Penmanship, Commercial Geography, Stenography, Indexing and Filing, Letter Press Copying and Manifolding and Mimeographing4.    


Sister St. Catherine of the Rosary, CND


Superior School / Notre Dame Ladies College - Notre Dame Secretarial School at the Sherbrooke Street Mother House

A brochure sent out to prospective students explained the teaching method for the Commerce section this way: “The time required to complete the course depends upon the previous qual­i­fi­cations and present application of the student. Individual attention is given to each student.5.”    

Aware of the institution’s high standards of excellence and the importance it gave to having the most up-to-date teaching methods and technologically advanced equipment for its time, Montreal firms were quick to offer its graduates fulfilling and well-remunerated positions.

In 1922, the École d’enseignement supérieur/Notre Dame Ladies College became affiliated with the newly established Université de Montréal.

Admissions to the Commerce section of Notre Dame Ladies College increased steadily throughout its early years:

1909   –18
1910   –25
1916   –86
1919   –154
1926   –over 200

In 1926, the Arts and Science sections of the Superior School moved to a new building on Westmount Avenue and took the name Collège Marguerite-Bourgeoys. The Commerce sec­tion, however, remained at the Mother House and became an independent school retaining the name Notre Dame Ladies College. Because of its location, the school became better known as “The Mother House.”


Marguerite-Bourgeoys College on Westmount Avenue


Devoted Directors

In addition to instilling high business ideals and values such as loyalty, honesty, integrity and dependability, all the Directors who succeeded Sister St. Catherine of the Rosary after her death in 1935 and all those who assisted them contributed in their own way to ensuring con­tin­ued high standards of teaching, to remaining technologically abreast of the times and to preparing their students to morally, socially and intellectually meet the demanding com­plex­i­ties of the business world.

During the term of Sister St. Catherine of Palma (Mary Cameron), Principal of the College from 1935 until her death in 1962, the Commercial School flourished. Important changes were made to ensure its continued development:


Sister St. Catherine of Palma

It was at the beginning of Sister St. Catherine of Palma’s term as Principal that the name of the College was changed to Notre Dame Secretarial School, a name it bore until 1980 when Quebec’s Bill 101 made it necessary to modify it to Collège de Secrétariat Notre-Dame/​Notre-Dame Secretarial College. However, it is common knowledge that in effect throughout its many years in existence, even when it was transferred to the École normale building in 1970, it continued to be familiarly and lovingly known as “The Mother House.”

It was Sister St. Catherine of Palma who introduced charitable works, for instance the dis­tri­bu­tion of Christmas baskets, a practice continued long after the end of her directorship. Remembering and providing for those less fortunate was very important for this second Sister St. Catherine.

A The College’s third Director, Sister St. Catherine Miriam (Myrtle Brennan), whose term lasted six years, from 1962 to 1968, made important structural changes to the College. During her term, additional space was acquired and extensive renovations were made to house the latest and most modern facilities. It was also during her term, in 1966, that the School was incorporated.



In 1968, when Sister St. Catherine Miriam resigned because of ill health, Sister Patricia Landry (Sister St. Alice Miriam) became Director of the Secretarial School. It was during her 18-year term that the institution reached its full potential. Perhaps Sister Landry’s most important contribution was to make it possible for a “Mother House” graduate to obtain a college diploma from the Ministry of Education, no small feat considering the time in Quebec’s educational history.

In the late 1960’s the Parent Report led to important changes in the education system. One of the Report’s objectives was to provide all students with access to diverse forms of post-​secondary education, vocational training and preparation for life regardless of social class or geographic area. In 1967, the Ministry of Education began to implement the rec­om­men­da­tions contained in the Report by opening public colleges commonly referred to as CEGEPs6.    


To remain a leader in its field while conforming to new Ministry regulations, once again major changes had to be implemented. In 1969, in keeping with the new educational trends, a new in-house curriculum was developed:

As a result, the enrollment increased and additional space was required to allow further growth. The school was transferred in 1970 to the former quarters of the Normal School since it no longer served as a training centre for prospective teachers.

In 1972, after three years of petitions, discussions, negotiations and correspondence, the Ministry of Education granted college-level status to Notre Dame Secretarial School and its graduates became eligible for the Diploma of Collegial Studies (DEC). Because of the strong concentration of general education courses, graduates of the Notre Dame Secretarial College, were granted admission to several universities. Sister Patricia Landry speaks of the years leading up to this important achievement. She refers to the contribution of Sister Mary Catherine Cameron (Sister St. Donald of Mary), a niece of Sister Catherine of Palma but also stu­dent, then teacher and finally Registrar at the Mother House College: “We worked together for 20 of those 25 years, moving the school forward until it reached the status of a college-level institution.”

This college-level recognition by the Ministry and its attendant Government grant brought about the lowering of tuition fees and in turn a further increase in registrations, peaking in the mid-1980s to 450 registered students. The number of teachers, both religious and lay, also increased during the 1970s and 1980s from 11 to about 45.


During these years students and faculty of the Secretarial School were involved in social and cultural activities in the School itself and in other areas of society, at home and abroad. For example: “The needs of the elderly and shut-ins, battered women and their children, and street women were given priority. Food and clothing were personally distributed by students and staff.7”    

Fund-raising activities were also organized to provide financial help to victims of natural dis­as­ters in different areas of the world.



As we know, the 1980s marked the beginning of the technological revolution in the business world. Emphasis was placed on computer-related skills. Some of the new course titles in­clud­ed Keyboarding and Formatting, Word Processing, Office Automation, Electronic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Telecommunications and Automated Office Management, Computerized Accounting. A far cry from Penmanship, Letter Press Copying and Manifolding and Mimeographing of yesteryear.

To keep up with these changes and to better prepare students for work in the office of to­mor­row, the College was equipped with state of the art computer labs. Also, it was essential that teachers take professional development courses to continuously upgrade their skills.


Computer labs in the mid 1980s

In 1985, the Ministry of Education introduced a new 3-year programme, Office Systems Tech­nol­o­gy, from which high-school graduates, had the option of either integrating into the work force or pursuing higher education at a University level.


The Last Years

During Sister Joyce Roberts’ term as President of the Secretarial College between 1986 and 1997, the year it closed, other shifts were being felt. The challenging ec­o­nom­ic situation throughout the 1980s was certainly an important one. Also, the Ministry of Education opened centres where high-school graduates would acquire em­ploy­a­ble secretarial skills within a year8.    

As Sister Roberts explains: “All the colleges were having difficulty with the Office Systems Technology programme in the 80s and 90s. The private colleges (…) went into a wide variety of different programmes.”


Sister Joyce Roberts, CND

The 1990s saw increasingly fewer high-school graduates but many more mature students, or re-entry women, registering for topical and short-term professional development courses. These were women who had had previous collegial or university training, homemakers, and women with career experience. They were also women who had been let go from positions and were retraining for new job opportunities.

Clearly, the accelerated pace of modern innovation and technology in the business world was catching up and even surpassing the venerated Notre Dame Secretarial College, for which the high cost of upgrading computers and software, for example, had a serious impact. The spark and vigour of the Mother House College’s vision was slowly fading. At the beginning of the fall semester of 1994, no new students would be admitted to the 3-year programme. Only the 2-year Diploma programme for college or university graduates and the 3-term Certificate pro­gramme for mature students would be continued. However, despite these changes, with deep regret, after exploring every avenue, it was decided that the long recognized and re­spected institution would close at the end of the 1996 school year.

Through sheer will power and a true sense of loyalty to their school, two lay teachers of the College made huge and courageous efforts to keep it running as Collège Mother House until 2008. In fact, the official report of the House of Commons dated April 25, 2007 includes a con­grat­u­la­tory statement from the Member of Parliament for Westmount-Ville-Marie for the Secretarial College’s 100th anniversary. It is noted that the theme of this landmark occasion was “100 Years of Women Helping Women.”9    

Certainly a recurring and consistent theme!


An advertisement from 1998


Sister Joan Foliot, who occupied the position of Academic Dean from 1981 to the year the College closed, fondly remembers this milestone event: “My mother was a graduate from there in 1921 and for many years was the oldest graduate. At the 100th anniversary of the College, my mother was honoured with honorable mention.”


The Legacy

There are a number of elements we can retain from the study of this historic educational institution.

In its 90 years of existence, through its quality of education, Notre Dame Secretarial College prepared thousands of women to take their rightful places in society and in the business world.10 In the words of Sister Joyce Roberts: “At the beginning of the 20th century, business programmes were a big step up for women. They had many more options by the 1980s, when women were using computers from infancy and higher education was much more accessible. Young women wanted to keep their options open and rightly so.”

Indeed, the essential aspects of the history of the College are the ideas of liberating education and solidarity with women, ideals dear to the Congregation’s foundress, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, who personified them, and to her Sisters who followed in her footsteps.

It is worthwhile to mention that the women who graduated from the College went on to oc­cu­py positions in business administration as well as in education, politics, law and trans­lation, among others. Sister Patricia Landry explains in an interview which can be accessed on the website Faith in Action,
“We always encouraged our students to go on to higher studies. We told them to go to work, start by taking evening courses, then go to University.”


Earlier this year a former graduate called the CND Mother House offices to enquire about the College. She was saddened to find out that her beloved Alma Mater was no longer. She ex­pressed sincere gratitude for the quality education she obtained there and explained that she had had a fulfilling career working for an international organization based in Montreal.

But there is more.

Over and above the education provided, the College’s legacy also includes the important val­ues instilled in its students, such values as:

These priceless treasures imparted to the students of Notre Dame Secretarial College were and still are un­doubt­edly appreciated and applied in so many ways for the betterment of our communities, our society and our world.

An exemplary and admirable heritage indeed!


Notre Dame Secretarial College logo



  1. Louise Côté, CND, En tenue de service. Marguerite Bourgeoys et la mission, Montréal, CND, 2007. [return to text]
  2. [return to text]
  3. Frances McCann, CND, et Patricia Landry, CND, Notre Dame Secretarial College « The Mother House », série Héritage, 1996, [return to text]
  4. Ibid. [return to text]
  5. Notre Dame Secretarial College 1907-1982. [return to text]
  6. Ibid. [return to text]
  7. Frances McCann, CND, et Patricia Landry, CND, Notre Dame Secretarial College « The Mother House », série Héritage, 1996, [return to text]
  8. Ibid. [return to text]
  9. [return to text]
  10. Frances McCann, CND, et Patricia Landry, CND, Notre Dame Secretarial College « The Mother House », série Héritage, 1996, [return to text]


My sincere thanks to Sisters Joan Foliot, CND, Patrica Landry, CND, and Joyce Roberts, CND for their valuable contribution to this piece. Their revision and comments enriched it and brought to it an added dimension. The CND Archives Services provided me with precious documentation and photographs for which I am grateful. Thank you also to Sister Jeanne Bonneau, CND for her excellent editing skills.

Nelia Palma


Notre Dame Secretarial College 1907-1982.

Notre Dame Secretarial College. Continuing the Tradition of Women’s Education. Susan Campbell and Sharon Hudson. 1995

Notre Dame Secretarial College ‘The Mother House.’ Frances McCann, CND and Patricia Landry, CND. Heritage Series. 1996,

To Love is to Serve. Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Mission. Louise Côté, CND. 2007

“The Motherhouse and the Business of Closing.” Kathleen Coughlin Dunn, Montreal Catholic Times, April 1996


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