The year she graduated from high school, Emma Sexton was accepted to Engineering at the University of Toronto with the usual residence guarantee. She grew up in a small town in the Niagara region and knew little about what to expect in terms of university residence or Toronto life. Excited about the prospect of living at her school of choice, Sexton applied to New College and University College, and didn’t think any more about the matter for several months. Sexton received several emails saying she would hear about residency in late June, but the date came and went without a residence offer. Finally, just six days before the payment deadline, she was offered a space at Loretto College, a private, all-female residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College. Sexton says she was “disappointed about being put in Loretto,” but took the spot because she was not offered an alternative.
After moving into Loretto, Sexton quickly learned that it was not like most other residences at U of T. In the Loretto residence agreement, the philosophy statement reads: “Life at Loretto College focuses on participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community.” The agreement goes on to state that the College has the right to make policies that “implement the philosophy of the College,” but that discrimination will not be tolerated. Students are required to sign the agreement, agreeing to “adhere” to the college’s philosophy.
Over the past three months, The Varsity spoke with more than fifteen current and former Loretto students; although their experiences differed, many of them expressed discomfort with the college’s unique policies and residence life.
Students uncomfortable with “conservative” residence life
Sexton described an experience when she signed out a male guest 2 minutes after curfew, and the porter said to her: “I signed you out at 10:00 — otherwise they talk.” Sexton recalled that this experience made her feel strange. “I assumed ‘they’ were the staff. It made me uncomfortable that I was going to be perceived differently because of two minutes,” she said.
Many students took issue with the restrictions on when men can be in certain parts of the college. The residence agreement from 2012 states that male visitors are not permitted in residence rooms between Monday and Wednesday and are only allowed during certain hours on other days. The fact that men are restricted to certain hours is publicly available on the U of T Housing website, but is not available on the Loretto webpage.
Caitlin Scinocca, another student who did not apply to live at Loretto, described her discomfort with this policy: “The fact that there were male visiting hours really bothered me,” she explained. “If I’m paying good money for a room, at least let my friends come hang out during frosh week, or let my dad up to the room.” Julia Kemp, an exchange student, said that she felt the policy was far too restrictive. “I understand that U of T needs a space where it is all-girls due to demand and religious reasons. However, if I have a single room I see no reason whatsoever why I should not be allowed a male in my room,” she said, adding that she “felt like she was treated like a girl in a boarding school.”
Another student, who lived in Loretto for two years and requested anonymity, said that these regulations are “ostensibly in accordance with Catholic doctrine to discourage any kind of fornication. Nobody really knows why, and I’ve never gotten a straight answer. That is all fine and dandy — unless of course you aren’t Catholic.”
The same student stated that she felt uncomfortable with what she perceived as a conservative environment maintained by the college administration. “There is a type of conservative personal decorum that students are somewhat implicitly encouraged to maintain,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to receive comments about so-called provocative behaviour or inquiries about your whereabouts at social events.”
Some have no other residence option
A number of students reported that, like Sexton, they were offered residence at Loretto without having requested it and were not given an alternate offer. Elizabeth de Roode, a second-year engineering student, chose to decline Loretto’s offer because she felt uncomfortable with the residence agreement. She found off-campus housing on her own, although finding a place in Toronto was “incredibly stressful” as she only had between June and September to find one. “I wanted to live in residence, I just didn’t want to live in a residence so different from my idea of what university should be,” she said. Julia Kemp, a 2012-2013 exchange student, was keen to live in residence but had trouble securing a spot until August. “[Housing Services] told me they could offer me one room in an all girls residence called Loretto. I was so desperate for campus I accepted without much research into it at all,” she said. She added that Loretto’s website does not provide a comprehensive description of its policies. The online descriptions of Loretto — both on its webpage and on the U of T housing site — state that it is an all-female residence, but do not mention the religious philosophy of the college.
U of T guarantees a residence offer to every full-time, first-year undergraduate student. The Varsity asked Michael Kurts, U of T’s assistant vice-president, strategic communications and marketing, whether or not a girl can be placed in Loretto without having requested a spot there. Kurts stated that the university’s housing policy does not guarantee students a place in their first choice of residence. “When we cannot meet a student’s priority choices, Housing Services contacts all colleges who have space available to make an offer. Many students in the residences were offered a place in a residence they might not have applied to.” He insisted that these issues are “a case of supply and demand,” and that Loretto is “no different than any other residence,” in this respect. Kurts added that Loretto welcomes students of every religion, despite what he described as its “religious roots.” Kurts did not answer a number of questions about Loretto, including what ratio of girls who are placed in Loretto actually applied there. He indicated that he would respond next week.
Angela Convertini, dean of women at Loretto College, was surprised to hear that students were given the choice between a place at Loretto and no spot in residence at all. She claimed that all students are offered a choice between St. Mike’s and Loretto, and that everyone who lives in Loretto does so by choice. All of the girls spoken to for this story who did not apply to Loretto claimed Loretto was presented to them as the only option.
Convertini stated that students apply to live at Loretto, and if there are still spots left after the application process, they inform U of T housing — who then fill the spaces. “We would never think that someone was forced into living at Loretto… We send them the actual residence agreement, they have a choice — they can go to a co-ed, they can go to us, we really believe that the people who come here enjoy themselves,” said Convertini.
Covertini, along with some other members of the Loretto College staff, is a member of the Loretto Sisters — an order of Roman Catholic nuns. According to the Loretto Sisters’ website, the college is owned and operated by the sisters and “affiliated” with U of T through St. Michael’s College. Students told The Varsity that some sisters live in a separate area of the residence.
Kurts also did not comment on the degree to which U of T’s policies apply at Loretto, given that it is a private residence. When asked to comment on whether or not a girl who is uncomfortable with Loretto’s religious policies would be offered an alternate residence, he emphasized that the residence welcomes students of all faiths.
Many students enjoy tight-knit community
Shams Al Obaidi, a third-year don at Loretto College, felt that the tight-knit sorority atmosphere was an important part of her university experience. For Al Obaidi, the other residences are too large to be able to connect with other students.
With a community of around 130 students, Loretto allows residents to get to know each other on a much more personal level, according to Al Obaidi. She further stated that international students feel particularly welcome in Loretto. “I came all the way from Qatar, and it was my first year in Canada. It was really nice to come all the way here and feel at home.” Al Obaidi also stated that: “Loretto welcomes all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and religions.” For example, she recalls a time when a sister told her to attend the college’s weekly masses, despite being of a different religion, because “all are welcome.”
Al Obaidi also believes that Loretto College’s male policy is not unduly restrictive. She points out that men are able to visit the main floor and the lower lounge at any time, and that the restrictions on male visitors are “more of a courtesy to others” than anything else.
Convertini stressed that the residence tries to be inclusive of residents from diverse backgrounds. “We like to think that U of T provides a whole continuum of residence experiences for its students and we’re just one of the choices students have,” she explained. “While we’re a traditional Catholic dorm, we’ve had Jewish girls, Protestant girls, Muslim girls — girls from every faith, and it’s a very welcoming environment,” she said.
With files from Madeleine Taylor