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DINAN, ELLEN, named Sister Mary Bernard, member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph and educator; b. c. 1829 in Macroom (Republic of Ireland), daughter of Thomas Dinan and Ann Sullivan; d. 20 Sept. 1901 in Toronto.

Ellen Dinan was raised and educated in Philadelphia, where she had settled with her family at an unknown date. She entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph in 1849 at St John’s Orphan Asylum in Philadelphia, taking the name Mary Bernard; she would make her final religious profession on 19 March 1852, at the age of 23, in St Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto.

Sister Bernard was among the first group of Sisters of St Joseph to come to Toronto. When Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel* had arrived in that city in 1850, he faced the problems of rapid growth resulting from the influx of Irish migrants fleeing the famine. The diocese of Toronto, created in 1841, lacked sufficient schools, churches, social institutions, and religious personnel to meet the requirements of the burgeoning laity. Charbonnel therefore called upon the versatile Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph, already established in the United States at Carondelet (St Louis), Mo., and Philadelphia. He planned to have them take charge of an orphanage, visit the sick and the poor, and teach in the schools.

Sister Bernard arrived in Toronto on 7 Oct. 1851 with Sister Alphonsus [Sarah Margerum], Sister Mary Martha [Maria Bunning*], and Mother Delphine [Marie-Antoinette Fontbonne*], the first superior of the community in Canada. Having travelled from the United States by stage-coach and steamship, they were met by a number of prominent Catholic laymen, including John Elmsley*, and taken immediately to the orphanage on Nelson (Jarvis) Street. The orphanage, founded in 1849 by Elmsley and directed by Catholic laywomen, became the sisters’ first mother house and noviciate in Toronto. Living there in great poverty and hardship with their charges, the sisters supported themselves by begging in the streets and by doing laundry and other menial chores. Within a year they had begun to collaborate in a movement to improve parish schools, and they would subsequently take over their administration.

The youngest of the group, Sister Bernard was to fill several different positions during her professional life. As mistress of novices from 1852 to 1856, she was in charge of the formation of many aspirants to the congregation. By the end of her term in that post the number of sisters had grown to 40, and she was the last of the original group still in Toronto. Sisters Delphine and Alphonsus had died and Sister Martha had been sent in 1852 to set up a community in Hamilton. Between 1856 and 1860 Sister Bernard gained administrative experience through a number of temporary assignments outside Toronto: Amherstburg, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, N.Y., and Hamilton.

After her return to Toronto in 1860, Sister Bernard became assistant to the superior general, Mother Teresa [Margaret Brennan*], and subsequently procuratrix. Her work as an administrator was concerned principally with education and the care of the poor. One of the major institutions under the direction of the sisters in Toronto during this period was the House of Providence, opened in 1857 by Bishop Charbonnel to serve as a home for the aged, the sick, and the destitute, and as a base for various outdoor relief programs. It also lodged the orphans who had been moved from the Nelson Street site in 1859. Arranging provisions and personnel for the schools and charitable institutions was an enormous task, and the practical side of Sister Bernard’s nature soon became evident.

The order was undergoing rapid expansion during these years, and about 1864 Sister Bernard was dispatched to its community in St Catharines, where during the next five years she served several terms as superior. By 1869, when she was elected to succeed Mother Antoinette [Henrietta Macdonell] as superior general, a position she would hold until 1874, a new mother house had been built on part of John Elmsley’s Cloverhill estate in Toronto, and St Joseph’s Academy, an exemplary girls’ school, had been opened at the new site. The sisters had established additional missions in Chatham, Barrie, and Oshawa, all under the jurisdiction of the mother house in Toronto. In 1871, during her period of office, the community in London (founded in 1868) became independent of Toronto, as the one in Hamilton had done in 1856.

The congregation gained respect for proficiency in teaching, nursing, and counselling, and for the sisters’ dedication and charity to the poor while they themselves lived in unfavourable conditions and worked long hours. The most capable among them were placed in positions of leadership, where they demonstrated sound economic planning. Financial support was obtained by begging, through donations from bazaars, concerts, and picnics, and from the salaries paid to the congregation by the school board.

During her term as superior general, Sister Bernard, at the request of Bishop John Joseph Lynch*, initiated her community’s work of instructing women prisoners in the Don Jail and female patients in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. Under her direction the sisters continued to visit the sick and the poor in their homes, and by 1874 the number of schools operated by the congregation had grown to ten. The sisters fulfilled many of these tasks in collaboration with members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, who also acted as truant officers. In addition, the administration of the St Nicholas Home for Working Boys was given over to the sisters by Bishop Lynch in 1870. This institution housed newsboys, apprentices, bootblacks, factory workers, and “street Arabs.” With the Society of St Vincent de Paul the sisters set up a night-school program in the home, offering academic and technical subjects to prepare the boys for more independent and productive lives. The following year Notre Dame des Anges was opened as a boarding-house for “respectable young women.” As a result of Sister Bernard’s astute financial planning, improvements and expansions were made to the new mother house on St Alban (Wellesley) Street, the St Nicholas Home, and the House of Providence; a number of large properties were secured in the city and at various missions. In Toronto alone there were by the end of her term in office 131 sisters engaged in institutional and educational work.

Sister Bernard was deposed as superior general in 1874 by Archbishop Lynch after Emily Cooper, a student at St Joseph’s Academy, reported to the press an alleged convent scandal involving a priest and a sister. Although the student later signed an affidavit of retraction, the archbishop sent Sister Bernard to Oshawa for a period of at least one year, purportedly for “imprudence in governing.” There is no mention of her in the sisters’ annals for a five-year period, and even her silver jubilee was ignored. From 1880 to 1887 she served at various posts outside the city; she returned to Toronto just prior to Lynch’s death.

In 1887 Sister Bernard began her great apostolic work at the Sacred Heart Orphanage at Sunnyside, on the lakeshore of Toronto’s west end. As early as 1856 she had been in charge of her community’s planning for this site, and her dream had culminated in its purchase under the direction of Mother Antoinette in 1881. Sister Bernard became superior at Sunnyside in 1887 and functioned as a strong advocate for the children. She oversaw the expansion of the orphanage to accommodate more than 300 children, but strove at the same time to maintain its home-like atmosphere.

While stationed at Sunnyside, Sister Bernard celebrated her golden jubilee, the first such celebration in the Canadian congregation. She died of a heart attack at the orphanage just a few weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the arrival in Toronto of the Sisters of St Joseph, whose numbers had grown during her lifetime from four to two hundred.

Murray W. Nicolson

The various documents relating to the Emily Cooper case may be found in the Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, Sisters of St Joseph papers.

Sisters of St Joseph of Toronto Arch. (Toronto), Reg. of postulants, 1852. Diamond jubilee, StJosephs Convent, Toronto: in commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the coming of the Sisters of StJoseph to Toronto, Canada ([Toronto, 1926?]). [Agnes Murphy, named] Sister Mary Agnes, The Congregation of the Sisters of StJoseph: Le Puy, Lyons, StLouis, Toronto (Toronto, 1951). M. W. Nicolson, “The Catholic Church and the Irish in Victorian Toronto” (phd thesis, Univ. of Guelph, Ont., 1981); “Irish Catholics and social action in Toronto, 1850–1900,” Studies in Hist. and Politics (Lennoxville, Que.), 1 (1980): 30–54; “The Sisters of St. Joseph, pioneers in social action” (paper presented and distributed to the Sisters of St Joseph on the order’s 135th anniversary in the archdiocese of Toronto, 1986). Sisters of St Joseph of Toronto, Community annals, [1851–1956] (3v. to date, [Toronto, 1968–  ]), 1. M. B. Young, Silent growth: the life and times of Sister Bernard Dinan (Toronto, 1986).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Murray W. Nicolson, “DINAN, ELLEN, Sister Mary Bernard,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dinan_ellen_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dinan_ellen_13E.html
Author of Article:   Murray W. Nicolson
Title of Article:   DINAN, ELLEN, Sister Mary Bernard
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 25, 2024