Mother Marie Thomas d'Aquin (1877-1963)

On October 13, 2022, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a plaque to Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin, in connection with the 103rd anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Jeanne d’Arc Institute, established in 1919. The unveiling ceremony took place in Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, at 50 Guigues Street in the parish hall. Immediately following the unveiling ceremony, the plaque was permanently installed in Jeanne d’Arc Court (18 Clarence Street) in Ottawa.

The plaque reads as follows in English and French:


    Jeanne Lydia Branda grew up near Bordeaux, France. From a young age, she felt called to become a nun and teacher. In 1899, she joined the Dominican Sisters of Nancy, where she would teach and take the name Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin. She left France and settled in Maine where she was deeply influenced by the freedom and openness of America. While visiting Ottawa in 1914, she agreed to head the Jeanne d'Arc Institute, a home and haven for young women who were looking for employment, working or studying. Under her leadership, the Institute underwent unprecedented growth, moving to a larger complex on Sussex Street. The Institute offered classes, companionship and, above all, community. Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin created a new order in 1919 – the Sisters of the Jeanne D’Arc Institute – that embraced openness without distinction for race, language, nationality, social status or religion, a progressive initiative blending the religious and secular that contributed to the evolution of the status of women. As head of this new congregation, she would now be called Mother. A gifted writer, her published poems, under pen name Marie Sylvia, earned many literary awards. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin was a forward-thinking visionary, whose mission of service and charity extended to the broader community.


    Jeanne Lydia Branda grandit près de Bordeaux, en France. Dès son jeune âge, elle s’est sentie appelée à devenir religieuse et enseignante. En 1899, elle s’est jointe aux Soeurs dominicaines de Nancy; elle se consacra à l’enseignement et prit le nom de Sœur Marie Thomas d’Aquin. Elle quitta la France et s’installa dans l’État du Maine, où elle a été profondément influencée par l’esprit de liberté et d’ouverture de l’Amérique. Lors de sa visite à Ottawa en 1914, elle a accepté de diriger l’Institut Jeanne d’Arc, un refuge pour jeunes femmes à la recherche d’un emploi, au travail ou aux études. Sous sa direction, l’Institut a connu une croissance sans précédent et a déménagé dans un plus grand complexe de la rue Sussex. L’Institut offrait des cours, de la camaraderie, et surtout un sentiment de communauté. Sœur Marie Thomas d’Aquin a créé un nouvel ordre en 1919 – les Sœurs de l’Institut Jeanne D’Arc – qui a fait sien l’ouverture sans distinction de race, de langue, de nationalité, de statut social ou de religion, une initiative progressiste combinant le religieux et le laïc qui a contribué à l’évolution de la condition féminine. Mère Marie Thomas d’Aquin était une visionnaire avant-gardiste dont la mission de service et de bienfaisance s’étendait à l’ensemble de la communauté.

Historical background

Jeanne Lydia Branda was born in France on August 31, 1877, in Saint-Romain-la-Virvée, a small town near Bordeaux. She spent much of her childhood in the Rivière de Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac castle, where her father was the overseer. These early days spent roaming through the area’s forests would prove to be pivotal for her. Her walks through the forests, combined with a strong inclination to prayer, became a true mystical experience that would influence the rest of her life.1 In preparation for a television interview on Chacun son métier, she mentioned that by her first communion, she had already clearly felt the call of the Lord to consecrate herself to Him in religious life.2

She earned a post-secondary degree and became passionate about teaching while in Bordeaux. By the age of 20, she was teaching mathematics at the Pensionnat Barré (boarding school),3 a private institution. This passion for teaching would remain with her throughout her life.

In 1899, she joined the congregation of Saint-Dominique du Tiers-Ordre where she would be able to practise teaching upon receiving her vows with the Doctrine of Nancy. She took the habit against her parents’ wishes. Two years later, she took the name of Sœur Marie de Saint Thomas d’Aquin. She was 23 at the time.

Early in the 20th century, a strong anti-clerical wind swept through France. Several laws were passed to secularize various aspects of society and highlight the separation of church and state. Religious congregations dedicated to teaching had to secularize if they wanted to keep practising their profession. Given this new requirement, the Dominicans in Nancy decided that exile was the only acceptable solution. In 1904, Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin left Nancy for Italy. After a short stay, she headed to the United States, where the Dominicans had founded a few missions within the French-speaking communities in New England. Eventually, she ended up in Lewiston, Maine, where she taught for nine years.

Her arrival in America was a shock to her. Her mission would be deeply influenced by what she observed of American society. The freedom, welcome and openness of the American mentality appeared to lead her to consider the idea of a foundation. She deeply felt that a religious congregation had to adapt and be open to the population that it served. But this strong sense of freedom clashed with the conservatism of her Dominican order, which remained tethered to its French heritage and traditions.4 Gradually, the gap widened between her increasingly open vision of the world and that of her congregation.

New encounters on American soil and her congregation's constant opposition to her vision drove her to develop a new missionary project. She found Father Thomas-Maria Gill, a priest appointed as head of the Dominican convent in Lewiston, particularly inspiring. Their exchanges increasingly guided Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin towards an apostolate of charity with the aim of service, unconditional welcome and universal love.5 She left New England in July 1913. But her departure from Lewiston was bittersweet. Her superiors had forbidden her to talk to anyone about her desire to leave and subsequently she was not allowed to communicate with her former companions.

After a decade in the United States, she visited Canada in June 1914. She met Bishop François-Xavier Brunet of Mont-Laurier who told her about the situation at the Jeanne d’Arc Institute in Ottawa, in particular the lack of personnel and that they needed some help to carry out the mission of the institute. After careful consideration, on September 30, 1914, she agreed to take charge of the Institute.

Run by lay people, the Jeanne d’Arc Institute was a home for young girls. On December 1, 1910, with the permission of the religious authorities, a branch of the Foyer Notre-Dame de Montréal had been opened in Ottawa at 238½ Rue St. Patrick. On May 1, 1913, it moved to 20-22 Water Street and was given the name of Jeanne d’Arc Institute. The Water Street house could accommodate about 10 residents. It offered classes in French, English, sewing, typing and stenography. In 1917, the Institute moved to 489 Sussex Street (it would become Sussex Drive in 1953 with the Greber plan).6

“This institution was seen as a haven for girls who were on their own and had jobs in the city. In addition to a cozy room and board, they got to enjoy the companionship of girls of their age, giving them the closest thing to family life: community life.”7

The director at the time, Albina Aubry, recalled the arrival of Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin. She felt as though this nun had arrived from heaven like a fireball to lend a helping hand.8 The first few years were difficult for Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin. She very much wanted to establish a new congregation, but to do so, she had to leave her Dominican congregation. This proved to be a long and arduous task. It required several trips to Rome, many letters of support from influential clergymen, and extensive negotiations. In addition, she had to take on the challenge of setting up a forward-looking operation in a traditionalist, ecclesial structure.9

Many perceived the situation as scandalous, including the head of the Dominican Convent in Ottawa who advised adopting a negative attitude towards the work of Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin.10 Her former Dominican congregation even hinted that Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin was a fake and a fugitive.11 Finally, in February 1917, after several years of conflict with her Dominican congregation and with the help of Archbishop Gauthier of Ottawa, she finally received Rome’s dispensation from her vows. She could now found a mission dedicated to welcoming and openness, as she had always wanted – a mission whose philosophy, as she defined it, was to “be with.” The shock of the openness she felt on landing on American soil could now be embodied in an open-minded congregation whose members’ lives intertwined with those of the members of the society that benefited from it.

“Through her example, she set out the particular direction of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute: an apostolate that went beyond the walls of the convent to meet the people it served, providing a warm and unconditional welcome, cordial and caring hospitality, universal charity without distinction for race, language, nationality, sex, civil status, social status, culture or religion.”12 This unconditional welcome was embodied in the very actions of Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin, who never hesitated to share her room with a last-minute boarder and to improvise a makeshift bed on the floor.13 According to the vision of Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin – and later that of the congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute – the work and mission were to be carried out in the heart of the community, blending the religious and the secular. For many high-minded people of the day, this was not at all appropriate.14 This was what made this initiative so forward-thinking. Every effort was deployed to make the Jeanne d’Arc Institute a home where all young girls felt at home, where the leaders were mothers, friends and educators for those young girls.15

On October 7, 1919, Sister Marie Thomas d’Aquin received the decree allowing her to establish a new religious congregation to support her in her work. In recent years, several women had come to join her and looked forward to taking their vows. “The foundation covered everything: the good to be done and the funds to be used. The five people who made it up at the time while waiting for other companions began the work and dedicated themselves to it in order to form a religious community.”16 The founder, who could now be called Mother, then drafted the rules of life for the new congregation. She particularly insisted on service, welcome and communion between the congregation and the population it served.17 When the rules of the congregation were reviewed in 1977, many observers saw in them a connection to the approaches developed during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.18 This can be seen as further evidence of the founder’s forward thinking.

Under the direction of Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin, the Jeanne d’Arc Institute underwent unprecedented growth. In March 1918, the Institute purchased a building on Sussex Street to support the organization’s growing needs. The adjacent buildings were then acquired in the 1920s. Within a few years, the Institute moved from the small 20-person Water Street home to the large Sussex Street home, capable of accommodating 125 boarders and 500 students. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin even doubled as the building contractor, drawing up the redevelopment plans and overseeing the work on the new building. The number of rooms was doubled, and a dining room, reception room and rooftop terrace were added.19 She would do the same in 1934, drawing the plans for the Jeanne d’Arc House at 360 Kenwood Avenue in Ottawa. This house, which would serve as both an elementary school, a boarding school and the congregation’s mother house (1934-2006), was designated a heritage site in 2007 by the City of Ottawa under the Ontario Heritage Act.20

The expansion of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute also meant that more boarders could be welcomed, and more services offered. Young girls received help finding work as maids and were offered day and evening classes. Literary study circles were started, marriage preparation classes were given, parties and concerts were organized, etc. And all this was done with the active participation of the Institute’s boarders.21

This was followed by the opening of new homes to meet the needs of different communities. Ever generous, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin never turned anyone down when they came asking for help. Nearly a dozen new homes were established in Canada and the United States, which later became schools or homes for girls. But the congregation was not made of gold. Most of this expansion was made possible by the donation or loan of buildings to the Institute, as well as tight management of the congregation’s finances. “From 1921 to 1938, the congregation established nine new houses, two of which were in the United States: in Shirley and in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in St-Pierre-de-Wakefield, Wychwood, Bonaventure and Rouyn, Quebec; and in Westboro, Ontario, thereby providing housing for more than five hundred people, schools for more than a thousand students, and the hospitality extended by the sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute in seven new communities.”22 The sisters invited boarders to their cottages to give the young women a chance to rest outside the city. Thus, religious and secular people came together in a spirit of openness in a relaxed atmosphere while enjoying the great outdoors.

From 1914 to 1958, in an effort to communicate clearly what was going on at the Jeanne d’Arc Institute, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin wrote a monthly newsletter entitled La Revue Jeanne d’Arc, and prepared souvenir albums marking various anniversaries of the congregation. The newsletter was mainly used to promote the work and report on the Institute’s news, daily life and important events. It also sometimes included a tale, a story, a Christian teaching, a biography or a column, an editorial or a poem. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin chose to write under the pen name Marie Sylvia.

From her earliest days, she had had a passion for writing, particularly poetry. Her favourite poem, entitled House by the Side of the Road (Sam Walter Foss), also defined her missionary actions: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.” Many people recognized her talent, and she was persuaded to publish her best poems in a 1916 collection entitled Vers le Bien. Eight years later, she would produce another collection, entitled Vers le Beau. This publication earned the author a warm review by Maurice Morisset, which appeared in the pages of Le Droit on February 21, 1925.23 Although quite misogynistic, Morisset’s praise recognized the great writing talent of Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin. More praise and literary rewards were to follow. In 1926, her last opus was on the list of winners of the Académie française, from which she received its médaille d’honneur and an award.24 The following year, one of her poems won an award from the Société des Poètes Canadiens-français.25 And with that, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin became a member of this prestigious association. She then joined several literary associations with the encouragement of the Archbishop of Ottawa. She became a member of the Société des Écrivains Canadiens de Montréal, the Canadian Author’s Association of Ottawa, the Canadian Women’s Press Club, and the Caveau Stéphanois, Union poétique du Forez, France.26 In 1928, she published her third opus, Vers le Vrai, thus concluding her trilogy.

With the help of a friend, William Wilkie Edgar, a French professor at the University of Toronto, she presented translations of several poems chosen from her trilogy in a 1929 book entitled Duets in Verse. This publication drew the attention of newspapers across Canada. Praise poured in for the authors of the poems and their translations, as well as for the effort to present the work in both languages. “Translating verses into verses while maintaining the same rhythm was recognized as an outstanding achievement, and Mr. Edgar was acknowledged to have done it with exceptional brilliance, admirably rendering the fluidity, pastel tones, freshness and crystalline sound of Marie Sylvia’s sometimes admirable verses.”27 For a while, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin became too busy with her work and had to set aside her poetry. In 1945, she published a final book titled Reflets d’Opales, which was an ode to her two homelands, France and Canada.

During the 1930s, the congregation and its work developed steadily. The rapid pace did not appeal to all of the nuns, many of whom were on the verge of exhaustion, despite their profound love for their work. Moreover, the mission had had some difficult financial years since the death of Canon Plantin, a great friend of the congregation who had brilliantly managed its accounting. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin organized countless fundraising activities in an attempt to increase revenues. These activities yielded little and, unfortunately, added to the burden of the already exhausted nuns.28 The real solution lay in increasing fees for the many services offered by the congregation, such as bed and breakfast, boarding, classes and meals. But Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin rejected this option, remaining strongly committed to the next-to-free services that were at the heart of the congregation’s mission. This situation came to a head in the early 1940s when a group of nuns called for a change in the congregation’s leadership. During the General Chapter of 1943, the delegated sisters elected a new general superior, and Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin was appointed assistant. Despite this demotion, she remained the congregation’s figurehead.

It was also at this time that Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin found her thoughts turning to Europe. She was extremely concerned about the rise of Nazism and the occupation of her motherland. To help occupied France, the premises at 489 Sussex Street were transformed into a branch of the French Refugee Relief Society of England. Many volunteers came to the Institute to pack and ship donations.29 Among the volunteers was Princess Alice, the wife of Governor General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, who regularly visited the Institute and grew very close to Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin. In 1956, the actions of Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin in support of her fellow French citizens earned her the nomination of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. She received her medal from His Excellency Francis Lacoste, Ambassador of France to Canada.

Over the years, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin became a leading figure in the nation’s capital, taking part in the city’s public, social and political life. Since the earliest days of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin had maintained her many connections with Ottawa’s high society with the greatest simplicity. In 1918, Lady Laurier agreed to chair the Jeanne d’Arc Association, a group of volunteers dedicated to helping the Institute. Over the years, several wives of governors general also become involved in the work as presidents of charitable or honorary events. Furthermore, every governor general since the late 1930s frequented the Institute and personally knew its director. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin gave private French classes to Viscount Alexander of Tunis, Governor General from 1946 to 1952, as well as several judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. The grandchildren of Governors General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone (1940-46) and Vincent Massey (1952-59) attended the Institute’s schools. Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin was also friends with Georges Vanier (1959-67) and his wife Pauline.30 Her charisma, openness and wisdom attracted governors general, ambassadors, ministers and bishops to 489 Sussex Street.

The Jeanne d’Arc Institute was also frequented by the entire French diplomatic corps, including diplomats and ambassadors. The French National Union, of which Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin was a member in good standing, held its meetings at the Institute.31 She also maintained a friendly and regular correspondence with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who often sought her advice when in Ottawa. Because of her good advice, charisma and kindness, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin ended up mingling with capital’s high society without losing the simplicity and open-mindedness that made her a source of inspiration to so many.

On March 17, 1963, she attended a piano recital given by one of her students at the University of Ottawa. Her friendship with, and admiration for, this young pianist overrode the risk to her health, which had become precarious. During the evening, Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin became unwell. The day before, she had experienced chest pain but had refused to see a doctor. Feeling anxious, she asked to be escorted back to the Institute: “Ramenez-moi à la maison,” she said.32 Then she collapsed. She died from a brain hemorrhage just as Luba Zuk, her young student, began a Beethoven sonata.33 The funeral took place on March 22, 1963, at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ottawa.

For 72 years, thousands of young women got to walk through the lovely white door of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute, whose actions have contributed to the evolution of the status of women. Everyone was warmly welcomed without distinction of any kind. This openness, in simplicity, has always characterized the work of the congregation, despite the social, cultural, religious and linguistic barriers.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Yanick Labossière in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2022

1 McMurtie, Rita, Marquée du signe de l’Accueil, Sœurs de l’Institut Jeanne d’Arc, Ottawa, 1996, p.3.

2 Ibid., autobiographical notes by Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin prepared for her appearance on Chacun son métier, aired on November 10, 1961, p. 7.

3 Ibid., p. 9.

4 Ibid., p. 45.

5 Ibid., p. 57.

6 Historic Places website, consulted on March 14, 2022.

7 "Une œuvre à encourager", Le Droit, March 9, 1918, p. 6.

8 Aubry, Albina, Historique du Foyer, August 7, 1917, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.

9 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 73.

10 Father E.A. Langlais o.p., Circulaire aux Pères dominicains d’Ottawa, October 2, 1914.

11 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 74.

12 Ibid., p. 98.

13 Aubry, Albina, Notes sur la fondation de l’IJA, 1917, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.

14 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 100.

15 Revue Jeanne d’Arc, vol 1, no 1, October 1914, L’œuvre de l’Institut Jeanne d’Arc, p. 4.

16 Most Reverend C. H. Gauthier, Archdiocese of Ottawa, Demande d’approbation d’une nouvelle Congrégation diocésaine sous le nom d’Institut Jeanne d’Arc, Ottawa, December 18, 1918, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.

17 Règles spirituelles des Sœurs de l’Institut Jeanne d’Arc, 1919, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.

18 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 133.

19 "L’Institut Jeanne d’Arc agrandi", Le Droit, July 23, 1932, p. 7.

20 City of Ottawa, Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee and Planning and Environment Committee and Council, January 16, 2007.

21 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 155.

22 Ibid., p. 158.

23 Morisset, Maurice, "Une œuvre admirable", Le Droit, February 21, 1925, p. 9.

24 Revue Jeanne d’Arc, vol. 19, no. December 3, 1932, p. 14.

25 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 175.

26 Ibid., p. 176.

27 Anger, Paul, “L’actualité, Duet in Verses”, Le Devoir, May 25, 1929, one.

28 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p. 190.

29 Pelletier, Jean Yves, with the collaboration of sister Yvette Papillon and the late Rita McMurtie. "Les Sœurs de l'Institut Jeanne d'Arc : Un lieu d'accueil centenaire", Le Chaînon, summer 2020, vol. 38, no. 2, p. 49.

30 Archives and correspondence of Mother Marie Thomas d’Aquin, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.

31 Pelletier, Jean Yves, with the collaboration of sister Yvette Papillon and the late Rita McMurtie. "Les Sœurs de l'Institut Jeanne d'Arc : Un lieu d'accueil centenaire", Le Chaînon, summer 2020, vol. 38, no 2, p. 50.

32 McMurtie, Rita, op. cit., p.225.

33 The program for the Luba Zuk concert on Sunday, March 17, 1963, at the University of Ottawa Academic Hall, Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Jeanne d’Arc Institute.