On the morning of 17 August 1886, in response to a request from Bishop Elphège Gravel, four Sisters of Charity from Saint Hyacinthe—Sister Youville (Aurélie Crépeau), Sister du Sacré-Cœur (Octavie Beaulieu), Sister St-Eusèbe (Zéphirine Brodeur), and Sister St-Jean-de-Dieu (Hermine Bédard)—left the cradle of their religious life in order to found a new house of charity in Nicolet. They arrived by boat at Port Saint François around eleven o’clock in the evening. The people of Nicolet, who were concerned to alleviate human misery, greeted them with joy.
Since their house was not yet ready, Mother Saint Joseph of the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin provided them with accommodation in their convent for three weeks. This act of hospitality helped alleviate their sadness at leaving Saint Hyacinthe.
On the morning after their arrival, 18 August 1886, the four foundresses knelt before the large crucifix on the wall of the room in their lodging where they gathered for prayer. They committed to the pierced Heart of Jesus all the sorrowful days to come and all their hopes strengthened by their great desire to consecrate the rest of their lives to the relief of the poor, the sick, and the orphans whom God the Father’s Providence would entrust to them. In so doing, they were imitating their first Mother, Marguerite d'Youville, who on the evening of 31 December 1737, with her three companions, knelt before the statue of Our Lady of Providence and consecrated themselves to the poor, thus laying the foundations of the Institute of The Grey Nuns of Montreal.
On 20 August 1886, the four foundresses went to the cathedral for a Solemn High Mass celebrated by Father Douville in the presence of Bishop Elphège Gravel. The people of Nicolet joined with them in thanking the Lord for a dream that was being realized and to express the joy that filled their hearts. In his sermon, Bishop Gravel said to the diocesan assembly: “Providence has sent us four Sisters of Charity to be the mustard seed which, watered each day with heavenly blessings and warmed by your sympathy, will grow into a great tree that will provide shelter for multitudes of the unfortunate. We are authorizing them to open a novitiate.… We are placing this new Institute under the protection of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, to whom all will wish to confide their worries and anguish, so as to make even the Hôtel Dieu (Hospital) a place of pilgrimage.” The little chapel of the Hôtel Dieu would become a place of pilgrimage and remain one until it was destroyed by fire in 1955.
On 7 September 1886, the Sisters took over the little house (Hôtel Dieu) on Signay Street. They now held very dear a saying of Jesus that gave them great confidence in Divine Providence to guide the mission entrusted to then, and this confidence has never failed:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing… your Father knows that you need them” (Lk 12: 22, 30).
From year to year, the list of the many sick people, invalids, and poor people of all ages and horizons lengthened. The little house became too small, and the Sisters thought about building a new one because of the steadily increasing needs of the population.
The Sisters never ceased to show the kindness of God the Father in the care they brought to those in need. They surrounded themselves with laypeople who helped them with their charitable work. For twenty years, Dr. Denis Desaulniers offered his services free of charge to the Institute and often supplied remedies that the house could not acquire because of its poverty. Subsequently, many of his fellow doctors have served and continue to serve the community.
Providing bread to the poor, the Association of Ladies of Charity asked families that could afford it to provide one loaf of bread a week. Thus, 17 to 25 loaves of bread were provided each week for the poor. They also organized potluck suppers, card parties, various attractions, old-time evenings, etc. Mr. Georges Ball, the mayor, opened the first bazaar at the City Hall, and the bazaars continued to be held annually. The priests and the parishioners welcomed the Sisters when they came to solicit for the needs of their charitable work.
Three years after they arrived, the four foundresses received 11 young women, thus acquiring for the Church hands and hearts to ensure the vitality of the Christian charity. After having finished their novitiate, three of them were professed as Sisters on 28 March 1889 in the cathedral of Nicolet.
In accord with the desire of the Holy Father that all the communities of the Grey Nuns be united into one under the authority of the Superior General of the General Hospital of Montreal, Mother Marie-Anne Cayer, the Superior General, believed that complying with such a desire on the part of the Holy Father was equivalent to complying with God’s desire. With the members of her Council and with the support and encouragement of Bishop Albini Lafortune of Nicolet, she undertook a survey of the 445 Sisters. In submitting the project for the merger of the houses of Nicolet and Montreal, she appended the reasons for promoting this agreement:
- for the greater glory of God resulting from an act of obedience to the Holy See;
- a more faithful realization of the testament of our holy Foundress: “That the most perfect union reign among you!”;
- a useful means for advancing the cause for the Beatification of Mother d'Youville.
At a General Chapter held in Montreal, the assembled capitulants gladly approved the addition to their ranks of the Grey Nuns of Nicolet. On 1 March 1941, the final document of merger was signed by the two superiors general, Mother Évangéline Gallant and Mother Marie-Anne Cayer. It contained the following clauses: “The Hôtel Dieu of Nicolet becomes the fully formed Provincial House. It will keep its novitiate and its daughter houses.”
The Grey Nuns of Nicolet have established a number of missions in the Western Canada. They founded a number of hospitals, orphanages, and training schools for nurses and nurses’ aides.
In 1950, the Right Reverend Albertus Martin, Bishop of the Diocese of Nicolet opened a mission in Brazil. At his request, four Grey Nuns—Sisters Lucille Ratté, Lucille Chamberland, Stéphanette Lemire, and Flore Poirier—left Canada in April 1957 to join the priests and the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin who had already gone there in 1955 and 1956. Their apostolate consisted of working with the poor and sick people of the province of Alcantara.
Several Sisters are involved with community organizations. They go with people to medical appointments and pay home visits to the elderly and sick in order to provide some relief to their caregivers, whether they be the person’s spouse or children. Other Sisters are working with the diocesan and parish pastoral ministries or caring for children and adults with AIDS. They are actualizing their mission by offering the charism bequeathed to them by the Foundress of their Institute, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, the Mother of Universal Charity.