It all began with an important mission led by the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, Ontario in 1919. These bold and courageous women responded to an invitation from the Bishop Michael Fallon to take the lead in creating a women’s university that would be the first of its kind in Canada, Brescia University College.
With a passionate commitment to social justice, community service and the development of women at the forefront, over the past 100 years Brescia grew from seven students in a converted house near Victoria Park to over 1,500 students on a growing campus in North London.
In 2019, Brescia continues to embrace the founding mission of the Ursuline Sisters by providing a holistic student-centred education to its dedicated students. And, consistently inspiring them to lead with wisdom, justice and compassion in a changing world.
In 1919, the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, Ontario responded to an invitation from the Bishop Michael Francis Fallon to establish a university for women that would be based in the Catholic Faith. At that time, there were still relatively few women seeking a university education, but demand was growing. Recognized for their experience in women’s education and their student-centred approach, the Ursuline Sisters were the natural fit to lead Canada’s only women’s university. Working collaboratively with Bishop Fallon and with The University of Western Ontario, an affiliation agreement was formed that allowed female students to register and study at Brescia Hall and receive their university degrees from Western.
Early Days at Brescia Hall
Although Brescia was established in 1919, it did not always reside in its current location of 1285 Western Road. For the first few years, the University’s residence and classes were held in a converted house downtown London on 556 Wellington Street – just opposite of Victoria Park. Construction on what was to become Ursuline Hall began in 1923 and by 1925 it was officially opened and ready to welcome students and the Ursuline Sisters to its residence and classes.
The Beginning of Bold Education
The education offered by Brescia in the early years was concentrated in the Liberal Arts, with a focus on English, French, Spanish, Philosophy, History, Classics and Religious Knowledge. Brescia students took courses in Science, Mathematics, Political Economy and similar subjects at Western. Some of the Brescia courses were variants of Western courses, modified somewhat so that the content would be appropriate for Catholic women. Ursuline Sisters who had been awarded MA and PhD degrees by Canadian, US and European universities constituted the majority of the teaching staff at Brescia for the first few decades. There are 15 diverse programs, housed with four distinctive schools, which are currently offered at Brescia in 2019.
From seven students in 1919, the University saw consistent growth yearly until the Depression – with a low point at the beginning of the Second World War, which was followed by a record high the following year. By 1961, there were more than 200 students registered at Brescia. To respond to the University’s growing enrollment in the 1960’s, the Mother St. James Building was completed in 1963 with a new library, auditorium, classrooms and faculty offices. By 1982, the number of full-time students had reached 400 and 10 years later there were 779 full-time students. After a few years of declining enrollment and an increased focus on recruitment and strengthening of academic standards, numbers began to climb again and a peak of 957 students was reached in November 2006. In a continued effort to increase enrollment to 1,200 student leaders, Clare Hall residence and The Mercato dining hall were constructed and opened in 2013. Currently, Brescia is home to over 1,500 full-time and 200 part-time students.
From an early date, diversity was valued at Brescia and students were quickly welcomed from the Caribbean, from Latin America and from Asia. In fact, the first international female student to graduate from a Canadian University was Rosalina Saez, who graduated from Brescia in 1935. In 2019, 14% of Brescia’s full-time students are international and come from over 36 countries around the world.
The Ursuline Sisters always went to great lengths to ensure that no deserving young woman was denied an education because her family could not afford the tuition. A variety of scholarships, bursaries and employment opportunities were provided to help students continue their education. In very early days, Mother Clare would notice when a student’s financial situation became dire and would quietly reduce her fees. In the 1950’s, students in financial need could obtain “Help Scholarships” by doing such chores as setting the table, cleaning dishes and managing the switchboard. In 2019, Brescia remains committed to providing financial assistance to its hard-working students and is recognized in Canada for an outstanding scholarship program.
Become Part of Brescia's Living History
How do you encapsulate 100 bold years of women leading? By sharing the stories of those who lived and breathed it. Become part of Brescia’s living history by adding to our Online Memory Album.