History Trails

St. Joseph's College 1926–1976

By C. Gordon-Craig, Dean of Men in St. Joseph's College and Associate Professor of English

St. Joseph's College is probably one of the most familiar but least known buildings of the University. Situated in the centre of the campus, nestled between its sister-institution St. Stephen's College, the Administration Building, University Hall, and the Students' Union Building, its mellow façade, fronted by lawn and trees, it is at one and the same time taken for granted and the subject of many mistaken impressions. Ideas of its nature range from the commonly accepted (but incorrect) notion that "only priests live there," through allied concepts, "only students who want to be priests live there" (equally incorrect), to the wilder views, "I always thought it was just professors' offices." Currently celebrating its Fiftieth Jubilee as a physical entity on campus, St. Joseph's is the Roman Catholic College on campus, home to seventy students during the academic year, the centre of the Roman Catholic community associated with the University, and the alma mater of several thousands of alumni who have lived or been taught within its walls since 1927.

While the actual credit for the inspiration for the foundation of a Roman Catholic College to be affiliated with the University of Alberta must go to Archbishop O'Leary, a former Archbishop of Edmonton, the moving spirit associated with the practical achievement of that goal was Fr. John R. MacDonald, later Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. It was Archbishop O'Leary who saw the need and negotiated with President Tory and Dean Kerr in 1921 towards the affiliation of the proposed College, and it was the Archbishop who arranged for Fr. MacDonald to come to Edmonton to promote and organize the establishment of St. Joseph's College. Not only did Fr. MacDonald do just that, but he firmly settled its initial financial basis by securing a grant of $100,000 from the Carnegie Corporation. Fr. MacDonald left Edmonton in 1923, but the stage was set. On March 18, 1926 the Provincial Legislature established St. Joseph's College as a real entity, the University gave the site, and the cornerstone of the building was laid not long after. The building was formally opened in late 1927, the first year that students were admitted to it. Fr. MacDonald also was instrumental in the foundation of the Newman Club, the social organization for Roman Catholic members of the University community, which technically antedates the College itself in that it began in November 1923 though initially housed off-campus, a far cry from the present Centre now located in the basement of the West Wing of the College.

The internal arrangements of the building have changed somewhat over the years. For a long time the dining room was underneath the Chapel with the obvious feature that everyone at Mass knew much of the dinner menu in advance, the boiled cabbage being usually the most pervasive item. Yet it was "Little Tuck" that for close to forty years was to be the best known part of the College to the University at large. "Big Tuck" held its time-honored location opposite St. Stephen's, but in the basement of St. Joe's was a small cafeteria selling coffee and assorted eats such as doughnuts and pies. The two tuckshops were the only places on campus where one could buy something simple in the way of food and where one could socialize casually in a relaxed atmosphere at the same time. Since "Little Tuck" was chummier, cozier, and not quite so noisy as "Big Tuck" it was justly popular with many from all disciplines of the University.

At the east end of the College are the classroom wing and the Gym. From the first, the College has always been empowered under its Charter of Affiliation to offer courses in certain areas for full credit in the University of Alberta, so that adequate classrooms were a necessity. Underneath them is the Gym, originally one of the very few available on campus. Legend has it that the Gym was excavated with the intention of its being a swimming pool but that an official protest was made by some unknown party that it could lead to mixed bathing and that it was thought best finally to turn it into a gymnasium. Whether the yarn be true or not, certainly the Gym has received much use as the scene of various athletic activities, from a great amount of handball in the earliest years to boxing, phys ed, and the perennial floor hockey. One of the few periods when the Gym was not used in its other role as a dance floor was during World War if when that aspect was felt to be out of keeping with the spirit of the times and, in any case, students at the University during the Second World War were largely preoccupied with their studies to the exclusion of much else. Perhaps the years following the war saw the most celebrated dances held in St. Joe's: the Newman Club's famous St. Valentine's Day dances, or the big dances on Hallowe'en and at Christmas, and, of course, one of the campus events of the year, the St. Joe's Annual Formal with its celebrated punchbowl that was always strictly non-alcoholic but by equally invariable tradition clandestinely well-spiked.

The College was administered by the Christian Brothers until 1963 when they were succeeded by the Basilian Fathers. As early as 1920, Archbishop O'Leary had looked to the Basilians in the hope that they might establish a College in Edmonton but they had had to decline through lack of manpower. Under the Christian Brothers the College held rather more than the present number of residents, many of the currently single rooms having housed two people, a few providing accommodation for three. Even the broom closets were not immune from being pressed into service as need might require: in the early fifties a student not in full-time attendance on campus could sometimes have the occasional use of the small janitor-room on Second Floor West as a bedroom for fifty cents a night. The luxury of having a room with a sink used to cost an extra dollar a month.

Naturally, attendance at Mass was encouraged and for a number of years the custom existed that one or more of the Brothers would go through the building rapping on every door to wake the students up in time for the service before breakfast. The Chapel was, however, the most inadequately heated part of the whole building and in winter it was not at all uncommon to see the students wearing their toques for sheer warmth during the liturgy.

The meals generally seem to have been well thought of even during a period in the late forties when the fish served on Fridays achieved a distinct notoriety, the students preferring almost to a man to dine elsewhere than in the College on those days. Indeed, one brave soul is reported to have reached such a point of desperation as to have told the Rector that he was "prepared to die for the faith but not for the fish."

The students seem to have been generally hard-working and the hours from seven to ten each week-night were set aside as a study period. At ten, many would go downstairs for coffee in "Tuck." Woe betide those who disturbed the set study period: the House Committee met usually about once a month as a kangaroo court to mete out justice and fines. There were, of course, the expected pranks and capers, the usual raids and snowball fights between the residences on campus, but surely there is little to compare with the memorable occasion in the second year the College was open, when one of the residents returned to find all his furniture removed from his room and rearranged neatly over the peak of the topmost central roof, a considerable feat of translation and requiring some agility as anyone who has been up there, even unencumbered, will readily attest.

Gone is the potato patch at the back of the College, the root cellar is no longer, nor is there still the old garage that used to be home to all the dozens of cats, though some of its bricks now surround the pillars in the students' lounge. Perhaps the greatest changes took place in the mid-sixties when the interior of the College was thoroughly renovated. At the same time, a new library was established in the East Wing through the kind aid of a substantial donation from the Knights of Columbus of Alberta. The most striking alteration, however, has been to the College Chapel where the old altar and pews have been removed, the windows in the south wall blocked up and much else remodelled. The Chapel is the spiritual heart of the College and the symbolic focus of the life of its community. As a Christian College in the University of Alberta, St. Joseph's College depends on the trust and support of many elements: it has flourished for fifty years, may it thrive for many more.


For details of the history of the College before 1927, I am indebted to the Rev. Peter A. Nearing, who has kindly allowed me to make use of his paper "Rev. John R. MacDonald, St. Joseph's College and the University of Alberta," which was delivered by him at the meeting of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association at the University of Alberta, 3 to 4 June 1975.

I am especially grateful to the following alumni of St. Joseph's College who have helped me with their recollections of life in the College: Mr. Francis P. Flanagan; Dr. P. J. Kimmitt; His Honour Judge Lucien Maynard.

Published Spring 1976.

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