A Peek Inside the New Dawn Arts Centre

I have undertaken to erect in the Town of Sydney a building intended for a Convent Boarding School for the county of Cape Breton. The need of such an institution is an acknowledged one. On several occasions during the last fifteen years I have been urged by persons from various parts of the County, well acquainted with the needs and wishes of the population, to start such an establishment for Eastern Cape Breton — fundraising letter, Fr. James Quinan, Sacred Heart Parish, Sydney 1


The “institution” referenced above by Fr. Quinan, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Sydney, was a convent boarding and day school.

Quinan, who had been born in Halifax but received some of his priestly education in Québec, not only succeeded in raising the funds to build Holy Angels Convent, he convinced the sisters of the Montreal-based Congregation of Notre Dame (CND) to staff it. (The CND were no strangers to Cape Breton at that point — they’d been at Louisbourg. In fact, at the time of the second siege in 1758, there were nine CND sisters among the 10,000 people living in the town.2)

Teachers and students outside Holy Angels Convent circa 1885. (Photo via Beaton Institute Class at Holy Angels Convent circa 1945. (Photo by Abbass Studios via Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/)

Teachers and students outside Holy Angels Convent circa 1885. (Photo via Beaton Institute Class at Holy Angels Convent circa 1945. (Photo by Abbass Studios via Beaton Institute)

Which isn’t to say the first three sisters to arrive in Sydney, on 7 November 1885 — Sister St. Domitilla, the superior; Sister St. Helen of the Cross, the music teacher; and Sister St. Mary Alexis, the French teacher — wouldn’t have found the whole enterprise a bit daunting. The travel alone, at that time of year, must have been hair raising. They came from Montreal by boat and were met in Antigonish by Fr. Quinan who accompanied them to Cape Breton (presumably by horse-drawn coach, as the Intercolonial Railway wouldn’t be extended to Cape Breton until 1890).3

What’s notable, in the context of the new incarnation of the convent — as the New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation — is the presence of a music teacher among those first three instructors. The record shows that just eight days after arriving in Cape Breton, the sisters ordered two upright pianos for the school. Two months later, there was a school choir. According to John Campbell’s 2001 history of Sacred Heart Parish, With Our Hearts and Hands:

A year later, there were so many music students a third piano was added and by 1898, the halls were alive with piano, violin, mandolin, singing, trumpet, and tambourine music.

Drama and the visual arts were also part of the curriculum. (If the themes for both tended toward the religious at the outset — which I have no doubt they did — by the time I was a student at Holy Angels High School in the 1980s, the plays were secular and the art ranged from landscapes to reproductions of Minglewood album covers.)

By the turn of the century, the school was in need of more space and excavation for an addition began in the spring of 1906 (they had to resort to blasting because of frost). In July of that year, a machine arrived to “fabricate on site the 8,000 concrete blocks for the structure, averaging 500 blocks per week.”4 (Apparently the block-making machine was the object of great fascination for the local children.)

Much later — in the 1950s — the high school wing was built and the building, as we know it today, was complete.


If I’d been a kid in 1906 I would absolutely have been sitting on the lawn of the convent watching the block-making machine. I know this because as an adult in 2018 — one who lives a stone’s throw away from the convent — I’ve been watching the progress from the outside with great curiosity. When New Dawn’s vice president of development, Erika Shea, invited me to take a tour, you can imagine how quickly I RSVPed.

New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation

Spectator photo

We met in the lobby of the old High School, donned hard hats and safety vests, then exited to the parking lot to look at the exterior of the south wing of the convent building. Shea explained that this wing — the original, wooden convent structure from 1885 — has actually stood up to the elements (and one element in particular, wind) better than the concrete addition. (In fact, the damage to the concrete facade is such they’ve been advised its not worth the expense of repairing.) Shea says the theory of the project’s structural engineer is that “the wood can kind of move with the wind more than the stone has been able to move with the wind.”

There’s actually been a return to wood construction in some jurisdictions, according to Shea, who said the City of Toronto, for example, has recognized that “wood is a more sustainable building material than some of these highly manufactured composites that we’re working with now” and is permitting wooden constructions like The Arbour, a planned 12-storey wooden building on the waterfront campus of George Brown College.

Here in the CBRM, however, construction of a four-storey wooden structure is not possible. For the interior of the building, Shea said that has meant they’ve had to “cover every last piece of wood in this building with dry wall.” As for the outside:

Our first choice for exterior cladding was cedar shingles…and we spent about seven months with the design team and the building code consultants and the CBRM trying to find a path to cedar shingles for this building, because it would be consistent with the neighborhood. And we had eventually found some shingles that we could perhaps order from British Columbia, send to California to be impregnated with fire retardant and shipped back here. But the fire retardant impregnation would have voided the warranty on the shingles and the building officials still weren’t entirely comfortable with the tests that that material had gone through.

So, unable to use cedar shingles and needing something that could cover both the wooden structure and the concrete addition, the lead architect, Spiro Trifos of Trifos Design in Sydney, with an assist from Toronto design architect Joe Lobko of DTAH architects opted for a material called Parklex (which, at the moment, is residing in those two black tents on the convent lawn).

Shea describes it as a “really, really high-density plastic” covered in “an actual wood veneer that has a natural grain pattern to it.” The veneer, however, is so thin they were able to get CBRM approval for it. But Shea warns the building, when covered, “is not going to have a historic look.”


That led to a discussion of the challenge of, as Shea put it, “finding that right balance between preservation and respecting the heritage but really trying to build something that is symbolic of and practical for the 21st century.” She said they’ve rebuilt the dormers (the wood had rotted) and preserved the window/door and roof design. (The roof, by the way, is steel, and the design team has been able to monitor any work done on it thanks to drones operated by Nova Stream Productions, a tenant of the High School, soon to be a tenant of the renovated convent).

Artist's conception, New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation.

Artist’s conception, New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation.

But a staircase that had been on the very end of the south wing was “very difficult to traverse” and had risers that “were not going to meet code,” so the design team took the rather drastic measure of removing it completely and replacing it with something utterly modern — a four-storey steel staircase encased in Solera glass from Advanced Glazings.

Even this high-tech addition manages a nod to the past:

“In the evening hours,” said Shea, “It will glow like a lantern on the edge of the building.”

(Lanterns may well have been used by the sisters when they first arrived — the convent didn’t get electrical lighting until 1887.)

When it comes to the heating and cooling systems, I doubt there’s anybody nostalgic for the drafty, uninsulated building of the past. Shea said they considered a number of possible systems, some of which would have been excellent in terms of efficiency and sustainability but were ruled out because there were no local technicians to service them. The prospect of having a problem with the heating in February and having to wait for a technician to come from Halifax (or further West) was not appealing.

In the end, the design team opted for something called a Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) which she described as “a massive system of heat pumps.” Rather than having a number of units on the exterior of the buildings, there will be a central chiller with separate fan coils for each zone of the building, which will mean some suites don’t have temperature control but it will be possible to vary the temperature between zones.


The main entrance to the convent will remain on the George Street side of the building but will be modified to make it accessible (the front door was previously only accessible via a set of stairs, while accessing the elevator involved entering a second doorway underneath the stairs).

Shea said redesigning the entrance was not just about making it accessible to those with mobility issues but also about making a building most people had never been invited to enter before seem welcoming. Besides the redesigned entrance (which will be clad in a lighter shade of Parklex), there will be an open verandah and landscaping elements to make the convent “more open and inviting.” (Two things, let’s face it, that convents are not really designed to be.)

Artist's conception, New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation.

Artist’s conception, New Dawn Centre for Arts, Culture and Innovation.

There will be two anchor tenants on the ground floor, which is being remodeled to accommodate them (Nova Stream, as mentioned, will be one of them, the other tenant prefers to to announce its move itself so my lips are sealed.)

The verandah will serve as an outdoor dining area for the Meals on Wheels program, which is moving from its current location (in the old convent kitchen on the ground floor) to a much bigger space on the second floor (as in, a 1,500 square foot commercial kitchen as opposed to the 400-square-foot kitchen the program currently occupies). Shea said the expanded area is necessary because Meals on Wheels is booming — providing 12,000 meals per year to clients as well as offering nutrition education programs and catering services.

Initially, the food provided in-house (on the verandah and in an indoor dining area) will be for tenants only but Shea said they hope to get a zoning change to allow them to open a cafe to the public, making this second floor the “most public, heart of the building.”

On the north wing of the second floor, the room that was once the chapel will become a meeting room with a 100-person capacity, a meeting room with a 40-person capacity and boardroom with a 15-person capacity. Shea said they’d initially imagined it as a performance space (and acknowledged there would be those who would be disappointed by the decision to divide it up) but the advent of the Highland Arts Theatre caused them to rethink their plan. She says the 100-person room will be equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, making it suitable for digital art exhibits and film screenings.

The third floor — which had been classrooms, back in the day — will be studios. Shea says they’ll be plumbed and so particularly suitable for visual artists:

The fourth floor, formerly the nuns’ quarters, will also be studios, designed with acoustic materials making them suitable for musicians, but there’s been a slight change in plan for the north wing which, as you can see from the diagram, was initially to be divided into three spaces:


When the walls came down, the open space was so inviting, Shea said they decided instead to create a shared studio space, where artists will share work surfaces but have individual (lockable) places to store their materials and tools.

My photograph doesn’t do it justice, but the space is really lovely:

Future shared studio space, fourth floor, north wing. (Spectator photo)

Future shared studio space, fourth floor, north wing. (Spectator photo)

Shea said they are in the process of working out the pricing for the studio space, which must not be a money-losing proposition for New Dawn but must be affordable to artists. First crack at the new spaces will be offered to existing studio users in the high school (The Art Room, for example, will be moving to the convent building).

Shea says the studio spaces in the high school are currently all in use and she expects that, when reconstruction work is complete in the fall of 2019, the new spaces will fill quickly.

It seems there is “a need of such an institution” in our community.

I’ll leave you with a few more images from inside the building:




















  1. John Campbell, With Our Hearts and Hands: A History of Sacred Heart Parish (Sydney: Sea-Cape, 2001), 72
  2. Campbell, With Our Hearts and Hands: A History of Sacred Heart Parish, 17
  3. ibid, 72
  4. ibid, 97-98