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Providence Farm still teaching after 150 years in the Cowichan Valley

"For the past 35 years, the most important crops to leave the gates of Providence Farm have been skills and confidence..."

The recent article in the Times-Colonist was referring to Providence's highly successful mix of organic farming and helping "in the restoration of spirit for those with physical, mental and developmental challenges".

"It's about people caring for the soil - and the soil nurturing the people," said Development Manager Anne Burnet.

Providence is among the oldest heritage structures in the Cowichan Valley, dating back to 1864 when the Victoria-based Sisters of St. Ann acquired 162 hectares (400 acres) of land at the foot of Mount Tzouhalem and opened a boarding school for young girls of the Cowichan Tribe. Father Peter Rondeault, builder of the landmark Butter (Old Stone) Church, had started teaching Cowichan boys five years before and it was his and Bishop Modeste Demers' request that the Sisters establish here.

At first Sisters Mary Providence and Mary Bonsecours, who were soon joined by two more sisters, operated from a 30x50-foot log building. The British Colonist reported in 1867 that Catholic Indian Mission of Cowichan District was "progressing favourably. A large number of young girls are regular attendants of the Mission school... They have made astonishing progress during the past years."

(Such, of course, was the view of the white establishment. Not all Cowichan peoples accepted the "civilizing" embrace of these latecomers, and some residential schools have since become identified with one of the saddest chapters in our history.) In 1876 the boarding school was enlarged to accommodate orphaned girls, many of them of Kanakan descent (children of South Sea islanders originally brought in by the Hudson's Bay Co.) from the Academy in Victoria. When orphaned boys were accepted in 1904, the girls were transferred to Nanaimo and it became Saint Ann's Boys' School, Duncan, Grades 1-8. The original curriculum included physical education, sports, gardening, scouting, choral and musical programs, and all boys were assigned housekeeping tasks. This inspired one lad to say, "Some day if I marry a girl who doesn't know housework, I can show her."

A history of the school shows that, 1904-1921, the attendance ranged between 30 and 50 pupils, most of whom were boarders, and that St. Ann's hadn't achieved financial independence. A larger institution "more suited to the needs of the time" was built in 1921. This is the large, two-storey structure that exists today. Built by Nanaimo contractor James Green, it was touted as "one of the finest buildings in the district showing a combination of usefulness and simplicity. Large windows, golden oak wood stain and white plastered walls [give] a bright effect to the whole school."

With a frontage of 116 ft. and a height of 62 ft. 6 in., it was impressive and the chapel, steam heating, electric plant, isolation ward and a commodious kitchen were praised in the local press.

The new school had an initial enrolment of 52 boys aged five-14 and could accommodate as many as 100.

Thirty years later, history came full circle with the re-enrolment of girls, although as non-residents, which increased total enrolment to more than 100. In 1956 it became a day school for both genders and, as of 1961, white children were accepted in accord with federal government policy. A century of schooling ended on June 22, 1964.

In 1979 the Vancouver Island Providence Community Association registered as a charity. It leased the former school, which had more or less sat empty and neglected, to offer a broad range of programs and services for people with disabilities and disadvantages whose needs were not being met elsewhere in the community.

Since then this historic and scenic property has been home to an Alternate School, the Cowichan Therapeutic Riding Association, St. Ann's Allotment Gardens, a Ministry of Children and Families Self Program for young adults, as well as community groups such as the Cowichan Folk Guild and Concenti Singers. The farm now provides meaningful work for 130 adults and seniors in gardening, a general store, small-engine repair, welding, textiles, furniture making and in the kitchen.

Under the VIPCA's occupancy, the old building has had needed repairs and renovations, including the old chapel. All these years later, though, the imposing bell tower remains empty. That's because it never did have a bell, not even when the Sisters of St. Ann were operating the school.