The start

The University of Ottawa in the 1920s. (LAC MIKAN 3319115)

Unseen uOttawa – Historical Overview 

Officially, university status was granted by Parliament to the University of Ottawa in 1866, making it the last university to receive its charter prior to the British North America Act, which cited education as a provincial responsibility. That being said, the University of Ottawa’s history actually traces back to 1848, when the Oblate Order founded the college of Bytown as a bilingual catholic school. With this, one might ask: “How did such humble beginnings grow into the University of Ottawa we know today – celebrated as the largest bilingual (English – French) university in the world?” 

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were founded in France in 1816. They embarked on their first mission to Canada in 1841 with the intention of instilling Christianity in Indigenous communities in the Ottawa-Valley through the reinforcement of the Catholic Church. From the time they initially arrived in North America, the Oblates provided the first bishops for most of the dioceses of western Canada.


In 1848, the Oblates and Joseph-Bruno Guiges founded the College of Bytown, a bilingual catholic school located on Guiges Street  in Lowertown. At the end of September in 1848, the College opened its doors to about sixty young Catholics, both French and English speaking. The College relocated to Sandy Hill’s Wilbrod Street in 1856, after the land’s owner, Théodore Besserer, sold it to the Catholic Diocese for a mere £30. By establishing the College on what was considered to be the outskirts of town at the time, the hope was that Bytown College would make Besserer’s undeveloped estate more attractive to future residents. At the same time, it is rumoured that another condition of his agreement with the College was that all of his decadents had the right to attend the school for free (Besserer fathered 13 children from two wives). At this time, the Oblates obtained complete control to manage the College under their own direction, and sought to unify its development with the parish of Saint Joseph being founded in the same area. 

In 1861, the school was renamed the College of Ottawa, but officially received university status by the order of Parliament five years later, making it the last institution ti be ranked as such before the Confederation. That being said, the Unversity of Ottawa stood out because of it’s bilingualism. At this time, the University housed a little over 400 entirely male students (mostly at the high school level) and 50 professors in one stone building on the south side of Séraphin Marion. The building, which included dormitories, classrooms, as well as an elaborately decorated chapel that accommodated 1000 worshippers, burned to the ground by a devastating fire in 1903. The disaster killed two priests and a female servant.

The building was replaced by the University in 1905 by what is now known as Tabaret Hall. Presently considered to be the most recognizable building on campus, Tabaret  Hall was named after Father Joseph-Henri Tabaret, who was the head of the University for other 30 years. 

That being said, Tabaret Hall is not the oldest building on campus. Rather, the former Juniorat du Sacré Coeur (1894) at the corner of Cumberland Street and Laurier Avenue holds that distinction. Today, you may know the building as the home of the University’s visual arts department. For 70 years, the building stood as a high school for aspiring priests before it was bought by the University in 1970. Though the Juniorat was originally crowned by a noticeable cross that no longer stands today, traces of it’s earlier design are left in the initials “JSC” carved into the wrought iron door from the Laurier Avenue entrance. Fun fact: Academic Hall (in 133 Séraphin Marion) is also older than Tabaret Hall, and holds the distinction has the oldest performing space still in use in Ottawa after it was refurbished into a performance hall in 1923. Before then, it was a science building!

By the turn of the century, the school began to expand from hosting mostly ecclesiastical faculties. Following the authorization of the Charter and the needs of their student body, the University launched the schools of music, nursing, commercial science, library science, psychology and teacher’s training college. With the creation of these programs, the first female students enrolled at the University. The schools of teaching, nursing and home economics contributed immensely to the progress of female students because they offered opportunities in fields largely dominated by women at the time. Until this period, the only women on campus were nuns who were responsible for fulfilling domestic duties. Before the beginning of the Second World War, women were not even allowed to do office work because it was considered to be “unsuitable”, nor was it accepted that a woman spend a day at work in the same office as an Oblate father. However, Bernadette Tarte, the first women to work as a librarian at the Normal School is a notable exception. In fact, when the University opened it’s daycare centre it was named in her honour to recognize her valuable contribution to the school. 

Moving forward 1945 saw the opening of the faculties of medicine, law, social science, the school of applied science, and the school of physical education. At the end of the Second World War, there were more than 3,000 students enrolled at the University, of whom around a thousand were attending full-time. Jump ahead ten years later, and the total population reached about 4,200 students. What changed more than just the number of students was their specializations. By this time, the University had evolved from a college of mostly ecclesiastical disciplines to a prestigious institution, acting as a model for other Canadian centres of higher learning. 


In 1965, the Oblate foundation reconstituted as Saint-Paul University, and the University of Ottawa became a publicly-funded secular institution. From the funding received from the Ontario government, the number of students quickly increased.