It was past midnight, and most of the people in the little settlement of Saint Boniface on the banks of the Red River had long gone to bed. On the shore, however, a small group of people were standing, listening in the stillness. At last they heard the sound they had been waiting for. From afar in the distance came a splash of paddles and tired voices singing. A few minutes later, at one o’clock in the morning of 21 June 1844 two canoes glided to the shore of the Red River and arrived in front of the Saint Boniface Cathedral, bringing four Grey Nuns.
Who were these Sisters who were willing to establish the first Mission in Western Canada, in a place where the luxuries of Montreal were absent, where life was not easy but back-breaking?
These Sisters were from the religious order of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, who were also known as the Grey Nuns, founded in 1737 to help, care for, and comfort all those who were in distress and in need. The Foundress of the Grey Nuns was Marguerite d’Youville.
Who would have undertaken a trip in canoes paddled by the voyageurs, lasting 58 days, travelling 1800 miles and doing 150 portages in the cold and rain, living in wet clothes, eating bad food, harassed day and night by mosquitoes, encountering snakes, and sleeping outdoors for most of the time?
None other than these four pioneer Sisters who, imbued with the spirit of love, hope, compassion, and respect for their Mother Foundress, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, were willing to undertake such a voyage for those in great need.
Yes, these four Grey Nuns had accepted the invitation of Bishop Provencher who was looking for a religious community to provide education to the girls of the Red River colony and help some of the women of the settlement learn all kinds of household tasks. Among the group of 38 Sisters at the Mother House, 17 volunteered to go to the Red River colony, but only four were chosen. They were Sister Marie Marguerite Eulalie Lagrave (age 38) a trained nurse and a musician; Sister Gertrude Coutlée (age 24), a teacher for the children; Sister Marie Hedwidge Lafrance (age 29), very energetic and always ready to lend a hand with any kind of work; and Sister Marie Louise Valade (age 35), a teacher and the leader of the group.
Soon after the Sisters’ arrival, Sister Lagrave travelled in a Red River cart around the Red River settlement and surroundings, and noticed many sick people. The Grey Nuns realized that the colony’s needs were greater than just education. Women of compassion, they could not ignore people who were suffering and unhappy. Soon, nursing became one of the Sisters’ main occupations.
Besides home visits, they opened the first hospital room to care for the sick and the elderly in their new convent, built in 1847. From 1844 to 1855, the Sisters made more than 6,000 home visits. Responding to the need for more immediate bed care, they established the Saint Boniface Hospital—the first hospital in Western Canada—in 1871, a 4-bed ward. In 1872, the Sisters received a government grant of $500, which allowed them to make 631 home visits, take care of 117 patients, and apply 886 dressings.
There was a Sister who came from Ottawa and who was soon known as Sister Doctor. Her name was Sister Ste-Thérèse. She was called back to Ottawa, but the Métis people refused to let her go, so they kidnapped her. Sister Ste-Thérèse remained with them and became the first administrator of Saint Boniface General Hospital, which in 1877 increased the number of beds to 10. Thus hospital care has continued in the community ever since.
Because of their work among the poor and caring for the sick and those dying at home, offering medical and pastoral care, the Grey Nuns opened a number of facilities in order to make the area into a better place to live.
The Sisters opened a School of Nursing at Saint Boniface General Hospital to answer the need for trained personnel to give better care to the sick.
In 1895, the Sisters opened Saint Roch, a hospital for contagious diseases. Then they opened a home for the elderly and orphans: the Taché Hospice.
Besides responding to the healthcare needs of the colony, the Grey Nuns continued in the field of education, opening boarding schools in Saint Francois Xavier, Saint Norbert, Saint Vital, Sainte Anne des Chênes, a normal school, Provencher Academy, and St Mary’s Academy. Many of these schools were transferred to other religious congregations because the Grey Nuns saw other needs in the community and were ready to take on other risks.
Madame St-Amant sheltered mentally challenged children but soon had to cease doing so. So she came to the Grey Nuns; and, in no time, these children found a home at the Taché Hospice.
Realizing that the Taché Hospice was not truly the right place for these children and because it was becoming too small because of the greater number of children being admitted, the Grey Nuns brought these disabled children to Saint Vital (later named Saint Amant) where they could have a home to call their own, a place to grow and learn according to their abilities. Did you know that Saint Vital was a sanatorium: a place for people suffering from tuberculosis, which was greatly needed during the epidemic of the 30s and 40s? Did you know that when the sanatorium was no longer needed, it became the home of the chronically ill elderly who were later to move to the Saint Boniface and then to the Valade Home because of the residential needs of the mentally and physically challenged children?
The Grey Nuns, seeing a need to have a place for young adults with psychiatric disorders, opened Sara Riel. This programme has flourished under Sister Jean Ell and her successors.
True to the spirit of compassion and love of Jesus and Saint Marguerite d’Youville to help those in need, the Grey Nuns committed themselves to respond to needs in the fields of education, social service, and health because there was no one to help these people. Today the Grey Nuns have passed on the torch to the laity because they know that you are capable of continuing the legacy of compassionate and loving care, a legacy of service in the spirit of the Beatitudes. They believe that Providence will always assist us in our response to continue to provide for the needs of the sick, the poor, and the marginalized. Together we are summoned to be vibrant and compassionate signs of hope in our world of brokenness.
Let us pray Divine Providence with love and confidence; let us declare our needs and return thanks for all the favours we have received.
Divine Providence, you are the promoter of all the wonderful works of God.
Divine Providence, you are infinitely good and infinitely great.
Divine Providence, you have given us life and you protect us.
Divine Providence, you are our hope and our salvation.
Divine Providence, you are the support of the poor.
Divine Providence, you are our guide on the path to heaven.
Place all your cares in God and he will sustain you.
SYMBOL of the “daisy” (translation for “Marguerite”, also a flower)
Daisy is a pearl in the flower kingdom, greatly appreciated by all flower gardeners and florists around the world; and so too is our Foundress Marguerite d’Youville a pearl of great value for all the needy people of the world.
Daisy is a simple plant, thriving in any flower garden or flower pot. The Grey Nuns try to live a simple life, to be happy where they are planted and to be ready to be of service to those in need, with a welcoming smile, a caring heart, a helping hand, a listening ear, and a word of hope.