Winnipeg's Earliest Downtown College

By George Siamandas


In the 1800s it was the religious denominations that were developing schools for the growing families in Red River. Across the Red River in what would later become St. Boniface, Father Provencher set up the first school in St. Boniface as early as 1812.

In 1868, the Methodists of eastern Canada sent Rev George Young to begin work in the Red River settlement. Wesley Methodist College first offered classes in 1888 to its initial 7 students operating out of Grace Church. By the following year there were 37 students and plans were underway to build a permanent college. With the old Manitoba College already located at Ellice and Vaughan, the Methodists found a site along Portage Ave and agreed to a price of $12,000 for the land from Mr. James Spence.

Winnipeg architects George Browne and S Frank Peters were engaged to do the building. They had promised completion for $75,000. However with legal problems, construction delays and default by the Calgary masonry contractor, the college was more than a year late in opening, and worst of all, $25,000 over budget (which was covered by a mortgage by Canada Permanent).


The College Committees had many of Winnipeg's leading citizens on its early boards. There was the ubiquitous James Ashdown, Winnipeg's Merchant Prince, Mayor and facilitator of many good things, Thomas Ryan the footwear wholesaler, lawyer JAM Aikins and JS Woodsworth social reformer.


Wesley College is built of relatively rare sandstone which was quarried near Calgary from the Elbow River area. Only a handful of sandstone buildings remain in Winnipeg including coincidentally, the Canada Permanent Building itself on Garry, and Lake of the Woods Milling Co. on McDermot Avenue.


The main subjects taught at Wesley College were theology and arts and sciences. Wesley College was noted for producing a large number of medal winners and prided itself on the quality of its teaching staff. At the turn of the century new lecturers received $800 annually while a full professor earned $1,200. When the dormitories went coed in 1917, the dean of the women's residence, Miss Rowell, resigned because she was opposed to the women's residence's being brought onto the campus from Broadway Ave. It was another 13 years and 2 years of lobbying in the late twenties to obtain permission to allow the students to hold mixed dances which finally began in 1930.

All the other colleges moved away from downtown in the early 1900s. Had Wesley College been offered money to move to the Tuxedo Agricultural College site in 1904, or later when the U of M again moved to Fort Garry it would have gone too. In 1948 and again in 1958, there were efforts to take over the downtown campus for other uses but the College stayed put. Today a downtown location is gift for not having followed everybody else.



James Woodsworth 1896

Margaret Lawrence 1947

Bill Norrie 1950

Fred Penner 1969

Susan Thompson 1971

CBC's Bill Richardson


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