The Lost History of Bishop Bethune College


For over one hundred years, the address of 240 Simcoe Street has been a place where Oshawa’s children learned and played, part of a long tradition that started in 1889 when Bishop Bethune College opened in what was then called Ellesmere Hall, former home home of Thomas Nicholson Gibbs.

Nestled comfortably on five acres of land that would become downtown Oshawa, the Gibbs elegant estate was in need of new owners after Thomas, who was part of the once-prosperous Gibbs family that made then lost a fortune in milling and banking, died quietly at home in 1882 at age 62.

Seven years later, Ellesmere Hall found new life as the religious girls’ school Bishop Bethune College.  Named for the second Bishop of Toronto, the school’s aim was to prepare young women of good standing to carry out the family and social duties “expected of every Canadian girl.”  Students were prepared for entrance to university, or, for those wishing to specialize without going on to higher education, for public and professional life.

Classes ranged from kindergarten to college prep, and included science, phys ed, either outdoors or on the school’s ample phys ed equipment, art, singing, and music.  As was typical for the time, the curriculum also included daily religious instruction as well as morning and evening service held in the school’s well-appointed chapel, but the school also held a chemical laboratory, dormitories, music room, art studio, outdoor tennis courts, and a refectory for meals, which were well-balanced and prepared by an experienced Sister, to include plenty of milk, eggs, fruit and salads.

Girls were not allowed out with visitors, or to go with friends to town regularly, but twice a month, on what was known as “Our Saturdays,” girls who had provided written permission from their parents to the Principal, were allowed to leave the property after 1 pm.

Pocket money for candy and stamps was capped at $0.50 per week for girls in the Upper School, and at $0.25 per week for the Lower School, entrusted to the Bursar for safe keeping.  The fee for boarding girls was $700 per year, payable in three instalments (but with a 10% reduction for families with two or more sisters), and $180 for day students.  Included in the boarding fee was 12 pieces of laundry per week per girl, but dresses or elaborate silk underwear would be charged extra.

After several years of low enrolment and financial mismanagement, the school was sold in 1893 to the Sisters of St. John, who transformed it into a successful learning institute that was in high demand with local families.  The school closed in 1932, a casualty of the Great Depression.  Bishop Bethune College was torn down, and, in 1950 Central High School was rebuilt on the vacant land.

In 1995, Central High School and Vanier High School amalgamated, with Village Union Public School assuming the property.  It is now the home of the Durham Alternative Secondary School, carrying on the long tradition of educating Oshawa’s youth that began back in 1889.

Learn more about the Gibb brothers in this blog by the Oshawa Museum.