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Roch Carrier remembers Sister Brigitte

Roch Carrier

Roch Carrier may not have been first in his Grade 1 class but that is where he learned the art of writing and his love of words – from the nun with the Irish accent, Sister Brigitte.


Roch Carrier started his schooling at Le Couvent, in a small town that was then known as Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, south of Québec City. As the name suggests, Le Couvent was located in a convent – with the nuns living on one side of the corridor and classrooms opposite. The building is still there, though it's been converted to condos, and the town is now called Sainte-Justine-de-Beauce.

The renowned writer, best known for his short story The Hockey Sweater, readily admits to having been the worst hockey player in his village. From an early age – in a town with no library, where hockey was king – his ambitions lay in literature. The fact that he wasn't first in his class at Le Couvent seems surprising, perhaps even to him.

The best student was Bibianne,” he says, reminiscing. “She had ringlets.”

Still, he was hardly a bad student. “I came second.” And his subsequent literary success is well known.

Carrier went on to author La Guerre, yes sir!, The Nun Who Returned to Ireland and countless other novels and stories for both children and adults. He has served as director of the Canada Council for the Arts (1994–97) and as the National Librarian of Canada (1999–2004) and has taught literature at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean and at the Université de Montréal.

Carrier claims to owe his love of words and writing to his Grade 1 teacher of over 60 years ago.

He knew her only as Sister Brigitte because, as was the custom for nuns, she'd given up her birth and family names. Of all his teachers she is the one he recalls with un sentiment filio (feelings of a filial nature).

“She was very old and very tall, with a long face and a few whiskers on her chin, and she came from Ireland. Since everyone in my little village was French-Canadian – all descending from the same great grandfather I believe – there was a sort of aura around this worthy nun, just because she was from Ireland.

“She spoke to us in French but with a very pronounced accent, which caused a few problems at the beginning.

“Because we were learning to read, we were also learning to pronounce words – in the way Sister Brigitte pronounced them. We would go home and say “A-tout vous la voitoure?” and my parents would wonder what was going on!”

In his short story The Nun Who Returned to Ireland, which appears in The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories, Carrier tells the tale of Sister Brigitte and the day he learned to read. When he ran home to demonstrate his newly acquired skill his mother exclaimed, “You're reading with an English accent!”

“I'm reading the way Sister Brigitte taught me.”

“Don't tell me he's learning his own mother tongue in English,” my father protested.”

The six-year-old boy knew that Sister Brigitte didn't speak like everyone else, but thought this was not unusual. She was a nun and nuns were different; they didn't dress like other people or marry or have children, like everyone else he knew.

In the end, of course, Carrier learned to read French like someone from Sainte-Justine rather than County Cork. But Sister Brigitte had made a powerful impression on him.

“She was over 80, physically very strong and very disciplined. She set limits that were non-negotiable. Though I must say I don't have unpleasant memories of that.

“She had teaching methods that I wouldn't recommend today. For example – I was a little, well, a lot dyslexic, though I didn't know that word at the time – and if I made my loop on the wrong side of a letter I got cuffed on the head!”

“She suggested that in forming letters … we were explorers headed on an adventure.”

He mentions the event with fondness, saying that it didn't hurt at all. Smiling, he adds: “I learned how to make my loop on the right side!”

Carrier says that the pleasure he finds in the physical act of writing – forming words and letters – comes from Sister Brigitte.

“I owe it to her that I went in this direction and began writing books,” he muses. “She suggested that in forming letters we were doing much more than that; we were explorers headed on an adventure.”

Given such an influential role in his life's work, it isn't surprising that Sister Brigitte is the central character in one of his stories. In The Nun Who Returned to Ireland he describes her “pious script” on the blackboard, which he and his classmates tried to imitate.

In every text the word Ireland always appeared. It was by writing the word Ireland that I learned to form a capital I.

Sister Brigitte obviously made a lasting impression, even though the time he spent as her student was very brief. By Christmas of that first year she was sick and stayed in her room on the other side of the hall, where the nuns lived. The children overheard their parents whispering that she had lost her memory. She never returned to the classroom and, as Carrier recounts in The Nun Who Returned to Ireland, one day she went missing. It was in January during a terrible storm and the nuns couldn't find her anywhere. A group of men from the village went out to search and caught sight of her, barefoot and dressed in her black cloak, wandering in the blowing snow.

When the men asked her where she was going Sister Brigitte replied in English that she was going home, to Ireland.

As both author and National Librarian Carrier has visited countless schools to advocate the pleasures of reading and writing. He has met many overworked teachers – with heavy course loads, too many students per class and bombarded with pedagogical theory and reports. His advice?

“Just be yourself. Above all, what students see is the teacher as a person, not the systems or the theories. It's the people or the memory of those people that children retain.

He advises, “Never forget your own pleasure in learning.” Carrier says that by instilling a thirst for knowledge teachers give children a magic potion they'll have for the rest of their lives.

As for Sister Brigitte's secret in the classroom: “We knew exactly what was expected of us,” he says. “We knew when not to test the limits.”

But what Carrier remembers with real warmth is the attitude that Sister Brigitte brought into the classroom and the atmosphere it created. With her he discovered that “when you come to school you will learn something you don't already know. Each day there was the challenge of learning -– a letter or a word – and when we left at the end of the day, well, we'd learned something we hadn't known at the start of that day.”

Sister Brigitte's approach seemed irrefutable and absolute to Carrier and his classmates. He is quick to acknowledge that aspects of her pedagogical style would not be acceptable today, but her delight with learning will always be well worth emulating.

“Seeing us excited by the little letters and words she taught us gave her great joy, and it would be my wish for teachers that they experience that same pleasure.”

Quotations are from The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories by Roch Carrier, translated by Sheila Fischman, House of Anansi Press, 1979.