Sister Catherine Wallace’s Transformative Feminist Presidency of Mount Saint Vincent University, 1965-74

By Heidi MacDonald

SCHalifax Archives #451 S. Alice Michael Wallace installation, M
Figure 1: Sister Alice Michael (Catherine) Wallace (centre) being assisted into her robe by Mother Maria Gertrude (Irene) Farmer (left) and Sister Margaret Mary (Anna) Maloney (right) after being installed as the fourth president of Mount Saint Vincent College. March 19, 1966. SCHalifax Archives #45. Courtesy of Sisters of Charity, Halifax, Archives.
CW order Canada

Figure 2: Sister Catherine Wallace receiving the Order of Canada, 1972. Courtesy of the Dalhousie University Photograph Collection (PC1), Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

These two photos, the first of Sister Catherine Wallace’s installation as President of Mount Saint Vincent College in 1965, and the second of Wallace receiving the Order of Canada in 1972, epitomize the transformative era not only for North American post-secondary education, but also for the Roman Catholic Church and the women’s movement.  As president of Mount Saint Vincent College (which became a university in 1966), Wallace was convinced the institution had to adapt to 1960s revolutionary social forces (especially feminism) if it were to flourish in the future.

Wallace focussed on two priorities for Mount Saint Vincent University. The first included a modernization platform common to most North American universities at the time: making curricula more relevant to employment, deemphasizing the strict moral behavioural code for students, seeking government funding, and widening the governance structure to include public members, faculty, and students. The second agenda, specific to MSVU, was to find a niche that would distinguish MSVU from other universities and give it a more socially conscious mandate.[1] Wallace’s three-pronged, oft-repeated agenda for this second phase overlapped with her own brand of feminism: focusing on education and counselling for women to help them understand their three phases of life; continuing education opportunities for mature women to help them reach their full potential; and research into women’s issues to reduce systemic gender discrimination.  Wallace developed an inter-disciplinary, team-taught course, “Perspectives on Women,” one of the first women’s studies courses in Canada.  She gave the first two lectures herself; the first, according to MSVU history professor Frances Early, “discussed the ideals and personalities, past and present, that have influenced attitudes towards women,” and the second assessed the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) final report as well as related reports on women.[2] The success of “Perspectives on Women” led to the development of disciplinary-specific courses focussing on women, which subsequently led to a women’s studies minor at MSVU in 1979 and a major in 1982. Veronica Strong-Boag proclaimed MSVU’s women’s studies “experiment” as “unprecedented in Canada, even perhaps in North America.”[3]

Wallace also took her agenda outside the university. Most notably, she submitted a brief to the RCSW, which largely repeated her agenda for MSVU.  The final published report of the RCSW directly quoted Wallace’s argument, that counselling was often necessary to help a married woman see herself again “as a total person,” because marriage tended to diminish women.[4]  This was one of the stronger statements in the RCSW Report, surpassing the more common, liberal feminist concerns of unequal pay or access to the professions. In 1973 Wallace gave a series of talks at the University of British Columbia, which she titled, “Women in the Just Society: A three year assessment of the implementation of the recommendations of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.”[5] In her second term as president of MSVU, Wallace was elected to the executive of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), serving as chair of the standing committee on the Status of Women in 1971-72; vice-president in 1972; and president in 1973.[6] Wallace’s work on the AUCC led to her subsequent appointment to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (MPHEC), which began as soon as she finished her decade-long MSVU presidency.[7]

While Wallace was in some ways a fine example of “the new nun” of the post-Vatican II era, as shown in the apparent ease with which she shifted from the religious habit to secular dress, and from the relative confines of the convent into government and private company boardrooms, tensions were growing between her and the Sisters of Charity.  Her struggle to remain in the congregation was a common one.  In the decade after Vatican II, the number of women religious fell by almost a third, from 66,000 to 44,127;[8] Wallace’s own congregation experienced a parallel decline from 1,700 to 1,335. [9] Wallace left the congregation in 1982, at the age of 65, explaining that she did not feel she belonged anymore, and that she could, “no longer live being tolerated but not approved.”[10] As president of a university, president of AUCC, and recipient of countless awards including thirteen honorary degrees and the Order of Canada, Wallace was placed in the limelight as few women religious were. Her celebrity, her feminist advocacy, and her ease with secular society, including the elite, made many members of her congregation nervous, if not downright jealous. Part of the consequence of her leaving the congregation was that where there might have been institutional celebration and an institutional record of her achievements, there was only silence. For a more full account of Wallace’s presidency:

Heidi MacDonald is an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge.


[1] Theresa Corcoran, SCH, Mount Saint Vincent University:  A Vision Unfolding, 1873-1988 (Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America, 1999), 190, fn 27.

[2] Frances Early, “Origins of women’s history at Mount Saint Vincent University,” Acadiensis 33, (2004): 74-75.

[3]  Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Mapping Women’s Studies In Canada: Some Signposts,” The Journal of Educational Thought (JET)/Revue De La Pensée Éducative 17, no. 2 (1983): 100.

[4] Royal Commission on the Status of Women Report, #107, 188, fn 42.

[5] Mount Saint Vincent University Archives (MSVUA), Dr Catherine Wallace, SC, “Women in the Just Society: A three year assessment of the implementation of the recommendations of the Report of the Royal Commission the Status of Women to be delivered at UBC, 21 Nov 1973, 7-8.

[6] Corcoran, 234.

[7] Moira McDermott, “A Tribute to Catherine Wallace,” [Folia Montana] October, 1991, 13 and Corcoran, 245.

[8] Marc A. Lessard and Jean Paul Montminy, The Census of Religious Sisters in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Religious Conference, 1965), p. 274.

[9] Sisters of Charity Halifax Archives (SCHA), “Governing Board Report, 1972-76, 5, File 1-5-4.

[10] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB), MC 1941, Catherine Wallace Fonds, “Dr Catherine Wallace, Interview 2,” 22 February 1991, 17-20.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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1 Response to Sister Catherine Wallace’s Transformative Feminist Presidency of Mount Saint Vincent University, 1965-74

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Weeks of December 17th, 24th, 31st, 2017 and January 7, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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