Sister and scholar: One Dal student's unlikely journey from the convent to the classroom

- October 19, 2020

Sister Ilaria Culshaw. (Provided photo)
Sister Ilaria Culshaw. (Provided photo)

This article is part of a series focusing on the fall grads of the Dalhousie Class of 2020. Visit our Class of 2020 virtual space to share in the excitement with our newest graduates.

When she joined the Franciscans of Halifax in 2007, becoming a member of one of the Catholic Church’s mendicant orders, Sr. Ilaria Culshaw never imagined she’d have the opportunity to return to Dalhousie University to complete her Music degree while she was in the convent.

But it was Fr. Roberto Donato, cofounder of the Franciscans of Halifax and who, for many years, was her spiritual director, that encouraged her to return to Dalhousie.

“I think he saw that I had some measure of talent as a musician, and that it was important for the sisters to be educated — both for themselves personally but also for the future of the community.”

Sr. Ilaria originally began her BMus in 2005, but after completing just one year, she decided to enter the convent. Going back to school meant getting her violin skills back up to scratch, first, in-order-to be able to successfully audition. She returned to her undergrad in 2014 and graduated with distinction in spring 2017.

Further studies

When she returned to Dalhousie, Sr. Ilaria says she was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Fountain School of Performing Arts now offers a graduate degree in musicology.

“During my third year, Dr. Jennifer Bain put the bug in my ear about applying, and Dr. Estelle Joubert also encouraged me to think about it. I guess that is when I realized that I was at least capable of doing graduate work.”

Indeed — not only has Sr. Ilaria graduated this fall with her MA in Musicology, but she has been accepted at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to do a doctorate, which she will begin in January.

Her MA thesis focused on St. Francis, Franciscans and music in the Middle Ages. More explicitly, it explored “music for Francis and Clare of Assisi in hagiographic and liturgical sources,” she explains, “examining how it interacts with aspects of Franciscan spirituality focused on the incarnation.”

“I chose my topic because of its relevance to my state of life as a Franciscan sister and because it is a relatively unexplored topic in musicology, and so offered the opportunity to produce original research." She adds that her proposed research project for her doctorate in many ways builds on her master’s thesis, focusing more intently on the female Franciscans, or the Order of Saint Clare. 

Connecting with community

Both a musician and an appreciator of music, Sr. Ilaria has worked with choirs over the years singing sacred music. She founded and directed a choir that is comprised of members from all different parishes and provided music for major Franciscan events as well as evenings of reflection.

In addition to her studies and choir direction, Sr. Ilaria has been involved with several community organizations in Halifax. She has volunteered at the Saint Mary’s Daily Bread Outreach, which operates out of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, serving lunch daily to over a hundred people who are dealing with issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness.

“I have made many friends through the Outreach, both among the volunteers and among the guests we serve. It has been a hugely formative experience. I feel in many ways that I discovered my ‘heart’ through the Outreach.”

She has also been involved with the Therapeutic Riding Program, which runs out of the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers, serving children and adults of varying abilities.

“I became part of it because I wanted to do something completely different from the rest of my life as well as to reconnect with my lifelong love of horses while serving the wider community at the same time. It also provided a good, positive distraction while I was writing my thesis and has been another formative experience like the Outreach.”

A family legacy

Continuing onto doctoral studies and diving deeper into her research made the most sense to Sr. Ilaria. She is now looking forward to getting started on her project and experiencing the culture of the University of Cambridge and of England (which is her father’s home country). Her father, Dr. Nicholas Culshaw, now retired, was a faculty member in Dalhousie’s Department of Earth Sciences. Her sister completed all of her degrees in mathematics at Dalhousie. These family connections to academia contributed to her reasons for wanting to continue her academic journey.

“I think growing up with two academics in the family was an influence, and my mother and my other sister also had lively intellectual lives and an appreciation of study, thinking and reading.”

Sr. Ilaria is grateful for the support she received from the music faculty members at Dalhousie during her undergraduate and graduate studies. She is thankful to Drs. Joubert and Bain who influenced her to continue to graduate studies (Dr. Bain ended up being her supervisor). She is also grateful to composition professor Dr. Jerome Blais, who she worked with on a special project during her graduate degree, for supporting her interest in composing music.


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