Many Sisters came to teach at St. Ann's, and all of them left a significant impression, in their own way, on the students and the community at the convent. Sister Mary Osithe Labossière stands out among them for her contribution to the artistic side of the Academy, both by encouraging others to work in the art studio and through her own paintings, which were hung throughout the building.
Sister Marie Sophie Labelle had worked to establish the art department at St. Ann's in Victoria, and when she passed away, Sister Osithe was brought from Montreal to continue artistic instruction at the Academy. She arrived in 1897 and stayed to teach for 40 years, leaving only briefly during that time to follow her own artistic studies. During her time at the school, the art studio was always open and Sister Osithe did her best to make everyone feel at ease as they attempted to paint, work in charcoal, draw 'from life', decorate china and participate in some of the many other activities she co-ordinated. She was an inspiration to many young artists, who because she had given them confidence, kept up their art training long after they graduated from school.
In 1900, Sister Osithe wanted to paint a very special gift for the women of St. Ann's. She worked on a version of Murillo's "Crib". The depicted scene was intended as a backdrop to the manger of the Nativity, which cradled a wax figure of the infant Jesus and was surrounded by free-standing shepherds. The subject of the painting was a Spanish Baroque version of the Holy Family. Scholars of Baroque art have suggested that the iconography is that of Joachim and his wife Anna or Saint Ann, the mother of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of teachers and, of course, a very special individual for the people of St. Ann's. It is likely the Nativity, focusing on Mary, Joseph and Christ, making the work particularly appropriate for the occasion of its unveiling. This painting was set up in the chapel sanctuary on Christmas Eve, just before the Sisters filed in for Midnight Mass. In the glowing candlelight of the chapel, the painting must have been a beautiful surprise; from that point on, the "Crib" became a central part of the decorations for the Christmas season. This painting once again became a prominent feature during the Yuletide season after the restoration of the chapel, when it sits surrounded by poinsettias and other festive greenery.
In 1903, Osithe returned to the Mother House in Lachine for further artistic training. While there, she completed copies of Millet's "Reapers", Hoffman's "Rich Young Man" and a number of original works 'from life', including "Building the Card House". Perhaps the best known of her works, "The Immaculate Conception" was also painted in Quebec.
"The Immaculate Conception" was a favourite of many of the pupils, for they remember the large painting hanging in the Sister's Parlour at the main entrance of the school. Sister Osithe based this image of Mary on the work of the Baroque artist Bartolomez Esteban Murillo. Murillo lived in Spain from 1617-1682, where he painted many scenes of the peaceful, joyous aspects of spiritual life. This theme certainly would have appealed to the community at St. Ann's, and Sister Osithe chose the Immaculate Conception as her model. This scene shows the Virgin Mary, supported on a crescent moon. She is surrounded by putti, the little cherub-like children floating about her in the mist. It is said that, if you look closely at the faces of the putti, you can see Osithe and some of her students.
Her kindness was remembered. She was given a 68-piece set of Satsuma ware from Japan, sent by the father of one of her pupils in appreciation. Sister Osithe's modesty regarding her own painting was also noted. Through her years in Victoria, she created many works of art, both from her own designs and by copying the style and subject matter of other artists. Works such as the crayon portrait of 1908, entitled "Portrait of Bishop Christie" were put on display at Annual Exhibitions held for the works of the Academy studio. She attracted publicity, and the ladies of Victoria Society began to attend classes in the visual arts under Osithe's direction, bringing in helpful income from these aspiring artists and extending the positive influence of the St. Ann's art programme beyond the school.
The final project for the artistic Sister involved the "Parcival Paintings", a series of 2 x 1 ½ foot paintings which interpret Wolfrem Von Eachenback's epic poetry. Louis II comanded the artist Edmund von Woerndle to execute an adaptation of the Holy Grail story of Parcival, written during the Medieval period between the years 1170 and 1220, through a series of murals for his palace in Munich, Germany. The series of 18 original sketches were sent to Osithe in the form of photographic slides by Father Bernard Hubbard, of the Jesuits of Fordham University, in New York, who had acquired them from Europe. She reproduced nine images from the series in the form of paintings, late in her life.
When the Academy closed in 1973, Osithe's paintings were moved to other locations. St. Ann's Residence is now home to many of her works. It has been an ongoing project to have realistic, photographic reproductions of some of her most popular paintings created to hang on the walls of St. Ann's once more. The "Immaculate Conception" reproduction, complete with a canvas-like finish, now hangs in the Sister's Parlour of the Interpretive Centre, where it amazed pupils and visitors for decades.
The Sisters of Saint Ann Archives holds a lovely collection of some of her china painting. Her talent in this area received less attention than her work on canvas, but her ability to decorate vases, plates and dishes with flowers and delicate scenes brought pleasure to many.
In addition to painting, teaching and her other duties at the Academy, Sister Osithe was an architect. In 1921, it was decided that the school needed a gymnasium, and Sister Osithe designed a two storey wooden structure with a gym floor above and a lunchroom below, to stand on the grounds behind the auditorium.
Little Flower Academy, a school in Vancouver, was graced with a new wing, and several other schools and hospitals under the Sisters of Saint Ann in British Columbia were designed, in part, by Osithe.
Sister Mary Osithe Labossière died in 1941, at the age of 73. A former student, Sister Mary Rosalinda, S.S.A., wrote a poem in tribute to the artist, architect and teacher who had influenced so many people and had brought beauty to the walls of St. Ann's Academy. A few verses have been selected here:
A Tribute to Sister Mary Osithe
You painted the Halls of Heaven
In Parcival's "Mystical Feast"
Are you now with the shining figures
That follow the Star of the East?
For years your Madonna has pointed
Like a blue flame up to God
We see you kneeling in rapture
Before David's "Mystical Rod".
The saints and angels all know you
You have drawn them o'er and o'er;
You can thrill now to their perfection;
Are they posing for you once more
You who have lived for beauty
Divine Beauty ever your goal,
Come unto me, your pupil
And paint Him upon my soul