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A Brief History of Brescia University College

Brescia University College
An aerial view of the Brescia campus in the 1970's

Brescia University College was founded in 1919 by the Ursuline Religious of the Diocese of London. At that time there were still relatively few women seeking a university education, but demand was growing. The Ursuline sisters were recognized for their experience in women's education and were eager to expand their horizons in include university education. Working collaboratively with Bishop Michael Francis Fallon and with The University of Western Ontario, an affiliation agreement was shaped that allowed Brescia Hall to register women students who would receive their university degrees from Western.

The first class of Brescia students consisted of seven young women who paid $50 tuition. For the first few years the College was located in a converted house downtown near Victoria Park. Mother Clare Gaukler, the Ursuline Superior General, purchased land near the new Western location and construction on what was to become Ursuline Hall began in 1923. The College's new site was ready for classes and residence in the fall of 1925.

Joseph Michael Piggot was the contractor who built the original Brescia Hall (renamed Ursuline Hall) in 1925.  He commissioned a young Canadian artist named Alfred J. Casson who rendered this powerful impression of the building.  (Casson later became one of the famous Canadian Group of Seven painters.)

Alfred J. Casson painting

This painting above has been reproduced with the generous permission of the Pigott family.



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A copy of the watercolour by Nova Scotia artist Peter Bresnen.

Peter Bresnan


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The eastern end of the M. St. James Building featuring the Red Oak planted to commemorate the college's 75th anniversary.

The education offered by Brescia in the early years was a Liberal Arts education 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 (e.g., Philosophy) 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.

From an early date diversity was valued at Brescia and students were welcomed from the Caribbean, from Latin America and from Asia. These international students found that their cultural and faith traditions were respected. The Ursulines 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.

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The exterior of the Beryl Ivey Library located at the west end of the M. St. James Building -- 2007


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Interior of the Beryl Ivey Library looking west.


Lay faculty became increasingly important after the 1950's as the variety of academic programs and courses offered at the College continued to expand. The Home Economics program was begun in 1936, evolving considerably over the years to become today's Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences. The growth of Social Science disciplines in the 1960's and 1970's was phenomenal, and new teaching staff joined Brescia to teach in these areas.

By 1961 there were more than 200 students registered at Brescia. The Mother St. James Building was completed in 1963 with new library, auditorium, classrooms and faculty offices to handle the growing student population. By 1982, the number of full time students had reached 400 and ten years later there were 779 full time students. After a few years of declining enrollment and 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.

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Interior of the Beryl Ivey Library taken from the mezzanine, looking north.


The range of academic programs and courses offered at Brescia has changed dramatically over the decades, and the College began its first graduate program in September 2007. The range of services available to students continues to expand, and facilities have been much updated in recent years with the addition of the South Wing and the Beryl Ivey Library. Brescia University College is the only women's college in Canada.

(Thanks to Patricia Skidmore whose excellent book, Brescia College 1919-1979 provided much of the information on the early years of Brescia for this account of the College's identity and development. Volume II of the History of Brescia also by Patricia Skidmore was published in 2007 and is available in the Ivy Library for $10.00)

For further information about the
History of Brescia -Chronological Dates