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Then & Now: Meet the pioneer women Skead and Azilda are named for

In a time when women’s contributions were relegated to the household, Katherine Skead Bell and Azilda Bélanger left their mark on what would become Greater Sudbury

March 8 is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women. Then & Now has introduced readers to many local women who played significant roles in Sudbury's history, including Florence Howey and Dr. Helen Ryan.

Other women also left their mark. The community of Skead takes its name from Katherine Skead Bell, the daughter of a wealthy Canadian senator and the wife of a successful Sudbury business owner.

Azilda is named for another pioneer woman, Azilda Brisebois Bélanger, a mother of 12, known for her healing powers.

Katherine, a member of Sudbury's English-speaking Protestant establishment, probably never met Azilda, a French-speaking Catholic homemaker and farmer's wife but as pioneer women involved in their communities and churches they may have found much in common.

Katherine was just 22 in 1896 when she moved to Sudbury from Pembroke with her husband, William Bell. While he got established in the lumber business, they lived in an apartment over the Cochrane hardware store in downtown Sudbury. Twelve years later, they built Bell Rock mansion overlooking Ramsey Lake.

William owned a controlling interest in a lumber company on the south shore of Lake Wanapitei. The company set up boarding houses and other amenities for workers and, in 1924, William named the community Skead to honour his wife and his late father-in-law Senator James Skead, a prominent Ottawa businessman and another lumber baron.

Katherine volunteered with numerous charities and St. Andrew's Church. She founded the Victorian Order of Nurses in Sudbury and served as the organization's president.

Before William's death in 1945 in Sudbury, the Bells gave a large lot of land to the community that was named Bell Park in their honour. 

The Bells had no children and much of their wealth was donated to the community. Katherine died in 1954 in her 91st year and is buried with her husband in Pembroke.

In her will, she made a large donation to Sudbury Memorial Hospital. Bell Rock, valued at $58,000 in 1954, was originally donated to the hospital as well, but passed on to the Masonic Lodge. Her husband had been a Freemason. 

After a fire, the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce renovated the building as a Canada Centennial project. In 1967, the chamber made an agreement with Laurentian University to oversee governance and operations of an art gallery, and sold the university the property and building for $1.

In 1984, the city designated the mansion and grounds as a heritage site.

Azilda Bélanger arrived in "New Ontario's" frontier a decade before Katherine Bell.

According to local legend, Azilda, a young bride of 23 from St-André-Avellin, Que., was the first woman to live in the village known in 1886 as Rayside.

Her husband was Joseph Bélanger, an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who would later become mayor of the village. 

The community was officially named Azilda in 1901. (The first choice was Ste. Azilda but there is no saint by that name.)

In 1906, the Bélangers built a three-storey house at 725 Notre-Dame Ave. in Azilda, with the cost of construction about $2,500. 

The Bélangers raised their large family in challenging conditions in a small farming community with no luxuries. 

Azilda, who was Métis,* was known for her healing powers with knowledge of medicinal herbs. It was said she was able to cure toothaches and headaches. She was a midwife and looked after the dying and prepared bodies for visitations.

She spoke the Huron language and taught Indigenous children in the area as well as her own children.

The Bélangers received a famous visitor in 1911. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, campaigning for re-election, and his wife, Zoé, visited them at their Azilda home. The Lauriers were related to the Bélangers.

A widow for 19 years, Azilda died in 1942 at the age of 79. She is buried with her husband at St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery in Chelmsford. At the time of her death, she had 72 grandchildren.

Several generations of Bélangers lived in the family home. The house is still there and is a designated heritage building.

The Bélangers owned much of the land in the area and gave each of their six sons farm property.

Many of Azilda's family attended a celebration of the commuity's centennial in 1991 when a historical plaque was erected at the family homestead.

In December 2009, 200 people took part in a play about local Francophone history which included the story of Azilda Bélanger. There were six sold-out performances of "L'echo d'un peuple: Ici dans le Nord!" at College Boréal. Five of Azilda's descendents participated in the show including her 74-year-old granddaughter Rejeanne Brosseau.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.


  • * Sudbury Star, Dec. 14, 2009, Carol Mulligan, Celebrating French heritage, community: Sold-out performances
  • Sudbury Star, March 16, 1942, First women to reside at Azilda dies
  • Sudbury Star, Jan. 12 1954, Former minister eulogizes Mrs. W.J.Bell
  • Sudbury Star, Feb, 1, 1954, Hospital chief beneficiary, bequests to charities in will of Mrs. W.J Bell
  • Les femmes de la route 11/Les Elles du Nord, Aug. 8, 2012 


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Vicki Gilhula

About the Author: Vicki Gilhula

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.
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