By Andrew Gunn
At the south end of Moore Street in St. Thomas, the elegant, imposing main
building of Alma College stands empty and neglected. Nearly twenty years ago
the original Alma school for girls closed following a protracted strike by the
teachers. For many citizens of St. Thomas, and for countless visitors as well,
it has been heartbreaking to watch the main building and chapel of Alma College
crumble slowly. The process of deterioration has accelerated greatly since the
property was purchased in 1998 by a consortium named Alma Heritage Estates.
Recently the owners applied for a permit to demolish the main building and chapel.
In August 2006, St. Thomas City Council voted unanimously to reject their request
for a demolition permit. The owners appealed the decision made by Council, and
the fate of Alma College will likely be decided this fall by members of the
Ontario Municipal Board. It is a struggle that has attracted a great deal of
interest from people in the region and beyond.
Certainly it is depressing to think that the main building and chapel might be demolished. Alma College opened in the fall of 1881. Thousands of students and visitors from all over the world have moved through the buildings. The idea of a college for young ladies was developed by Reverend Albert Carman, a minister and scholar who believed that St. Thomas would be an appropriate location for an institution of higher learning. Meetings that took place in 1876 produced the vision that Alma College should be 'an educational institution designed to afford young ladies a liberal course of instruction in all that tends to make their lives useful and happy, and their tastes elevated and refined.' This principle guided the foundation of the school and helped it to flourish for more than a century.
Over the years, the traditions formed and initiatives undertaken at Alma College provided the students and faculty with an authentic sense of continuity and stability. Art, music and athletic programs grew at Alma, and the wider St. Thomas community benefited tremendously from these developments. Neighbours played tennis on the courts at Alma. Lessons were given to children in the swimming pool. Music recitals were held in the W.F. Thomas Arts Theatre. Concerts were given in the magnificent outdoor amphitheatre. Indeed, the relationship that developed between Alma College and the city was a strong one. Along with the railways and the agricultural community, Alma College served as one of the rocks upon which the city was built. Students came to Alma from the Caribbean, Europe, Bermuda, South America, Japan, and across North America. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, a special United Nations evening was held each fall at the College. Students would discuss their homelands and display their flags. St. Thomas gained a reputation internationally as the host city of a very fine school for young women.
One of the greatest projects commenced at Alma College was the construction of the outdoor amphitheatre. It is an effort beautifully remembered in a short booklet entitled 'Beauty for Ashes' written by Dr. Perry Dobson, principal of Alma from 1919 to 1947, and from 1951-1953. Really the story sums up the remarkable relationship that existed between Alma and the city of St. Thomas. The gully to the east of the main building and west of Ross Street had been the dumping ground for the surrounding neighbourhood for many years. 'Down into this hole went discarded eaves-troughs, baby carriages, cook stoves, wire mattresses, all intermixed with coal ashes and cinders, to say nothing of rotting garbage, with a bit of sewage trickling through.' Finally the Alma College Board bought the property and erected a fence to stop the dumping. After some clean-up work, the movement began to open a fund for the construction of an open air theatre. Many local people contributed their money, time and expertise. Seats, balconies, and a stage were built into the valley slope. Plays were performed in the amphitheatre. Graduation ceremonies and weddings were held there. 'For some years, too, the annual College celebration of Holy Communion was held in this place which then seemed like a specially dedicated Cathedral. One of the Alumnae who was privileged to attend said she never expected to be nearer Heaven upon this earth. Truly it was a Holy Place.' Dr. Dobson is remembered as a great builder of both Alma College and St. Thomas. He died in 1962.
Today the amphitheatre is overgrown with grass and weeds. If the buildings are torn down and the amphitheatre is abandoned, it will be easier to forget how beautifully the property was once kept and what great joy was once felt there. Hopefully the importance of Alma College is not forgotten this fall as the request for a permit to demolish the buildings is contemplated. We need the physical presence of the buildings to help remind us that communities are built around more than efficient commercial properties and residential developments. Alma College is part of the soul of the city of St. Thomas.
Photo courtesy of the Elgin County Archives. Scott Studio fonds. Box 76, #23789. Alma Amphitheatre, Spring 1936.