Nova Scotia

Old shoes, liquor bottles uncovered in $12M renovation of former Sydney convent

New Dawn Enterpises, a Cape Breton community development organization, is turning a former convent into a centre for arts, culture and innovation. Renovations on the 1885 building have revealed some intriguing historical artifacts.

Former Holy Angels Convent is being converted to an arts and culture centre

Photographs, cigarette packages, bottles and a bible are some of the items found behind the walls of a former Sydney convent. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith)

A major renovation project at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation in Sydney, N.S., has turned up some unusual articles.

The former Holy Angels Convent is undergoing a $12-million modernization that includes removing walls, ceilings and flooring. A 15-member crew has been working six days a week since September gutting the north wing.

"As they peeled these things away, they found lots of shoes — lots and lots of shoes, old shoes" said Erika Shea, the centre's communications director.

They've also uncovered photographs, Christmas cards, bottles, crosses, cigarette packages and a school register from 1906.

Shoes were concealed in a building to protect the home from witches and evil spirits. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith)

"We are finding everything under the sun," said Shea.

The concealment of footwear is a ritual that goes back centuries, according to the Society for Historical Archaeology in the United States. Shoes were concealed by builders to protect the home from witches and evil spirits, by shoemakers to ensure prosperity and by grieving people to preserve loved ones' spirits.

Ian Brodie, associate professor of folklore at Cape Breton University, said shoes conform to the shape of individuals, "so it leaves a very real, intangible imprint of the person, in addition to the metaphorical imprint of an object that has close contact with someone."

The former convent is 40,000 square feet and nearly 130 years old. The plan is to maintain its exterior heritage appearance while completely renovating the interior. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith)

Brodie is also intrigued by the cigarette packages found in the walls of the nun's dormitory rooms.

"There is something quite charming about the 1950s or 1930s nun just lighting one up after a long day," said Brodie.

Liquor bottles were found, but Shea would not speculate on who may have owned them. Pay stubs were also discovered, which may have belonged to workers.

"There were six layers of drywall, four layers of flooring," said Shea. "Everything seemed to just get added right on top of the layer beneath it." 

Workers have removed asbestos and lead paint and, in some cases, removed plaster down to the brick walls. The modernization will include a new ventilation and electrical systems, an elevator, new windows and doors.

The former convent will house the Cape Breton Centre for the Arts, Culture and Innovation. The project should be complete by the summer of 2019.


Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith was born and raised in Cape Breton. She began her career in private radio in Sydney and has been with CBC as a reporter, early morning news editor and sometimes host since 1990.