The history of Old St. Stephen’s College spans over a century and while the building itself is unique, it is the people have who have lived and worked here that bring out its uniqueness. In its time as an educational facility, the college produced a large number of graduates who went on to become ministers, employed renowned educators and housed thousands of students. Residents participated in the traditions and customs of campus life and the building became eminent for the pranks that were carried out there. This post will look at the people of Old St. Stephen’s when it functioned as a theological college and some of the stories that illustrate the student’s social lives.
Students using the fire escape slide at St. Stephen’s College, October 1940
(Courtesy of the University of Alberta Archives, UAA 72-58-0294).
Students were the majority of the building’s inhabitants: up to 150 youths were housed in the college at once and they didn’t spend all their free time studying. After the First World War, the college installed steel spiraled slides, to be used as fire escapes, at the end of each wing. During this time, the college had become a convalescent home for injured soldiers and the fires escapes were meant to evacuate patients as quickly as possible in an emergency. The fire escapes were never used for their intended purpose, but the students made use of them for their own enjoyment. Freshmen were initiated by their fellow classmates, who would dump the unlucky first years down the slides and then chase them with buckets of ice water. This custom continued into the 1970s, up until the fire escapes were removed during the renovations and replaced with ladders. In addition to the pranks and hazing that took place, there were water fights with neighboring residences that highlight the enjoyment of student life on campus. The students had a great deal of playful fun here.
Another tale is from when the Rutherford Library was being constructed in 1948. On the evening of the cornerstone-laying ceremony, the cornerstone mysteriously disappeared, only to turn up behind the college’s west wing fire escape. The stone weighed 700 pounds, and everyone presumed that engineering students were the culprits. However, in 2008, the secret was revealed in New Trail, the University of Alberta’s Alumni magazine. The escapade was actually the work of a group of agriculture students living at St. Stephen’s College. Turns out, the students borrowed a milk cart from the St. Stephen’s kitchen and attempted to haul the stone as far as 109 Street. Being heavier than anticipated, they only made it as far as St. Stephen’s College. To the student’s dismay, the stone was discovered just hours before the cornerstone-laying and the ceremony proceeded as planned.
Old St. Stephen’s College, 1971 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 71-R0001-29).
The tubed fire escapes on the wings of the building were installed in 1920.
Faculty members would also fall victim to the student’s pranks. The day after Halloween one year, John Henry Riddell, the College’s first principal, saw that his buggy was balanced unsteadily on one the building’s towers. Once again, the engineering students from the University of Alberta were thought to have assisted with this feat. Although no details could be found on who was responsible, it likely would have been worthwhile for the students to see the look on their administrator’s face. Pranks such as these were seemingly all in good fun, and as one former student states, they “built character and helped form fast friendships.”
In addition to pranks, there were Glee clubs, Students’ Council and various intramural activities for students to participate in. Physical recreation played a large role in student life at the college. Friendly sports rivalries were encouraged and the students had access to the tennis courts, a gym for basketball games and even skating parties were organized. Once the college’s ban on dances was lifted in the 1940s, students were able to attend university dances, including the well-known Sadie Hawkins Dance. Dormitory life helped to foster a communal atmosphere spirit among students and many residents have fond memories of their time spent at the college. Even the brochure for the St. Stephen’s Ladies’ College noted that “the social life [was] just delightful.”
Formal group portrait of the members of the Alberta College South Glee Club, 1912-1913 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A16351).
When the building was home for the students of St. Stephen’s College, it was a place where friendships were formed, bonds between students and instructors were strengthened and fun was had. The building has seen thousands of staff and students pass through its hallways and numerous tales have been accumulated. These stories help to illustrate the liveliness of the former college and show us that it is the people who make history come alive.
What can you tell us about your time spent at Old St. Stephen’s College? Let us know your stories!
Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer.
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Old St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).
Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Elson, D. J. C. “History Trails: Faith, Labour, and Dreams.” University of Alberta Alumni Association. (Accessed September 23, 2014).access
Schoeck, Ellen. I Was There: A Century of Alumni Stories about the University of Alberta, 1906-2006. Edmonton, Canada: The University of Alberta Press, 2006.
Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.
“The Caper.” New Trail: The University of Alberta Alumni Association, 2008, 26-28 (Accessed September 13, 2015).
University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).
 A note on naming: the institution was initially known as Alberta College South. ACS and Robertson College were amalgamated in 1925 and renamed the United Theological College. The name St. Stephen’s College was chosen in 1927. It became known as Old St. Stephen’s College in 1952 when a new St. Stephen’s was built directly south of the existing college.