Despite a lack of formal training in education or administration, Frances Ballantyne co-founded the Priory School in Montreal, established herself as principal and devised a successful curriculum. The school began in the late 1940s with 25 pupils, promising a revolutionary learning environment for children. Today, it has 163 students, plus a waiting list.
On the occasion of her 100th birthday, Frances Ballantyne received congratulations from Queen Elizabeth II, the Governor-General and a blessing from Pope Francis. The latter meant the most to her, retaining a place of honour on the mantel above her fireplace.
Catholicism informed Frances Ballantyne’s life. Her faith remained unwavering until her death on Sept. 11, four days before her 102nd birthday. It was one antidote to an upbringing in which feelings were repressed in the face of tragic loss.
Frances Elizabeth Ballantyne was born on Sept. 15, 1912, in Paris, the first child of Hazel (née Kemp) and Frances Chatton Stephens, a stockbroker from Montreal. The privileged couple had taken an extended honeymoon in the city where Mr. Stephens hoped to establish banking links. A year later, their second child, John, was born in Montreal.
After the First World War began, Frances Chatton Stephens joined Canada’s first contingent of soldiers and set sail for England. His wife, Hazel, and daughter followed, leaving baby John behind in the care of his grandmother. Hazel first rented a house near the military base then, later, one closer to London. In her memoir, Frances Ballantyne wrote, “Mother applied for war work and recovered the strands of everyday social life. This mirage of normality faded quickly.”
According to Ballantyne family lore, the elder Ms. Stephens went to Paris every spring for fashion. Saying “No German is going to stop me,” she booked herself and her 18-month-old grandson passage on the doomed Lusitania. It was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1915. Both were killed. At roughly the same time, Chatton Stephens was admitted to hospital with trench fever. It developed into endocarditis, from which he never fully recovered. In 1918, he succumbed to Spanish flu in Montreal.
At the time of her father’s death, six-year-old Frances Ballantyne was in Toronto with her mother visiting Castle Frank, the mansion belonging to her grandfather Sir Albert Edward Kemp. Nothing was ever explained to her about her father’s death. As far as she knew he had simply disappeared. Hazel Stephens took care to remove all photographs of Frances’s father and, even though she had been deeply scarred by grief, rarely mentioned the deaths of her husband and son. Consequently, Frances Ballantyne grew up as an only child left mostly in the care of a succession of nannies and governesses while her mother travelled. If Frances became too fond of a caregiver, allegedly, they were replaced.
In 1920, Frances’s mother married an executive with an insurance company. The couple took up temporary residence in England, hiring a devout Catholic governess for Frances. Frances Ballantyne wrote, “Surely her presence was indirectly part of the long process that led Mother into the Catholic Church.”
After her mother’s conversion, the teenaged Frances found herself transferred from an Anglican boarding school in England to a Catholic one. Wanting to fit in, she came to embrace the religion wholeheartedly and, in 1930, graduated from City House Convent of the Sacred Heart in Montreal. She briefly attended McGill University as an art student but dropped out when she found a suitable husband. His name was Murray Gordon Ballantyne, the son of a politician and like her, a convert to Catholicism. Between 1935 and 1950 they had seven children, raised with the assistance of nannies and babysitters. Their marriage slowly deteriorated, ending after 30 years.
A slim, attractive brunette of medium height, Frances Ballantyne was intelligent and serious. Her daughter Felicity Fairbairn remembers her mother as, “shy and private without vanity or any idea of self-promotion.” Widely read on a variety of subjects, Ms. Ballantyne accumulated many books on child psychology and development. She was also a keeper of meticulous notes about her own children. “The first bottle … the first poop … all recorded,” said another daughter, Elizabeth Ballantyne.
While Frances Ballantyne viewed children as being academically interesting, she could be sharp-tongued in dealings with them. Her eldest granddaughter, Alex Alba, said, “I believe this defect came from a nervous disposition and an inability to express herself emotionally. She was always horrified to hear she had hurt someone. She was immediately and openly repentant but people in her family rarely told her, so she had little understanding of this dynamic.”
One dynamic Ms. Ballantyne felt she understood very well was education. Through a keen involvement with the Catholic Education Club she met the like-minded Alphonsine Howlett, also a member of anglophone high society. Together they decided it was time to redress that city’s lack of independent primary Catholic schools. In a history of the Priory School, Ms. Ballantyne wrote, “Education was of burning interest to us as our young families reached school age and we looked for the ideal school.” Unable to find one that matched their standards, they decided to start their own.
Ms. Ballantyne recalled the horrified expression on the faces of their respective husbands as the women outlined their plans. “They were no doubt feeling as though they had a tiger by the tail but fervently hoping it would turn out to be a kitten.”
Ms. Ballantyne credits her backroom thinking and Alphonsine Howlett’s “tireless ability to melt opposition away” to their success. She wrote, “As far as the English Catholic community saw us at all it was as a pair of crazy, maverick females whose time had definitely not come.”
Yet, in 1947, their time did come. The Priory School opened its doors in several rooms above a parish hall in the Notre Dame de Grâce section of Montreal. After a year, it was forced to change location. A frantic search for new accommodation resulted in the purchase of the Sir Charles Lindsay House on The Boulevard (where the school still operates today) and for which Ms. Ballantyne supplied the down payment. Until they were able to find reliable help, Ms. Ballantyne noted that she and Ms. Howlett cleaned, tidied, did small repairs, a bit of painting, some cooking and washing up.
The Priory welcomed children between the ages of five and 12 and promised a learning environment that would nurture the whole child. In short, school was to be an extension of family. Ironically, Ms. Ballantyne was a distant mother with her own children, however, she was passionate that school should be supportive, inspiring and responsive to individual needs. Under Ms. Ballantyne’s direction, the Priory School developed a curriculum that included Latin, art, music (she was a highly accomplished recorder player) and her own particular enthusiasm, the italic handwriting system. It was an environment where, as she’d hoped, children flourished. She was shocked, however, when a parent removed two children from the Priory for “liking school too much.”
In 1967, Ms. Ballantyne made notes for a revised history curriculum. Perhaps reflecting on her own upbringing she wrote, “We hope to develop an informed attitude that realizes we are the product of our past, and that we can learn from the mistakes and successes of our forebears.”
Ms. Ballantyne remained principal of the Priory School until 1981, after which she moved to Oakville, Ont. She continued her pursuit of music, painted with watercolours and read widely. Shortly before she died, during a final conversation with her granddaughter, Ms. Ballantyne wryly remarked she was very disappointed that more than 100 years of living hadn’t been enough to iron out her character defects.
Ms. Ballantyne was predeceased by her husband and their youngest son, Edmund. She leaves her daughters, Ann Oakley, Elizabeth Ballantyne, Felicity Fairbairn and Margaret Ballantyne-Power; her sons, Hugh and John Ballantyne and her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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