Providence Sisters

Like the Grey Nuns, the Sisters of Providence cared for famine emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal in 1847 and kept copious records of their experiences. The order had been founded only three years earlier in 1844 by Émilie Tavernier Gamelin. One of the first retellings of her story in English was by Anna T. Sadlier (daughter of the prolific, popular and renowned Irish Catholic novelist Mary Anne Sadlier), who translated the Life of Mother Gamelin: Foundress and First Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Providence (1912). Anna T. Sadlier recounts for an English readership the compassion and self-sacrifice of the Providence Sisters as well as the intense suffering of famine emigrants in Montreal's fevers sheds in 1847. She also records the mass adoptions of Irish famine orphans presided over by Montreal Bishop Ignace Bourget on March 13, 1848, which is reconstructed in the Canadian Historical Foundation “Orphans” Heritage Minute.

Life of Mother Gamelin: Foundress and First Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Providence (Montreal, 1912), pp. 188-200. Translated by Anna T. Sadlier. []



We must now touch upon an epoch, too sadly celebrated in the history of our city. Our Community had the happiness of playing a consoling part in that mournful drama, and one which the passage of years can never cause to be forgotten.

In 1847, Ireland was decimated by the twofold scourge of typhus fever and famine. Her unfortunate inhabitants died by the thousands. Deserted houses were found to be inhabited only by decomposed and putrified corpses. Many attempted to fly and died along the roads where their corpses became the prey of wild animals. In the excess of their misery, a great many Irish people hoped to find in America, a second country where with the means of existence they should enjoy the free exercise of their religion. England favored that immigration to Canada.

A large number of vessels were chartered into which rushed pell-mell, hundreds of these unfortunates, weakened by misery or even secretly attacked by the disease, in the hope of finding new life there. But Alas! the fever soon burst forth in the midst of those vessels which were transformed into hospitals. Death spread its ravages amongst them, separating husband from wife and mother from child. The groans of the dying, to whom there was none to bring help, the lamentations of mothers, the cries of children, who had been made orphans upon the wide expanse of ocean, formed a sorrowful concert. From time to time, a body was thrown into the sea, floated for some instants on the surface and disappeared forever in the vast abyss of the waters.

In setting foot on Canadian soil, after that dismal voyage, these unfortunates, found themselves face to face, with death which at last put an end to their misery, or by the disease, which struck the small number of those whom it had hitherto spared.

But they were met at the same time, by the charity of the religious, which cared for and brought relief to their bodies, and by the zeal and piety of the priests who consoled their souls, and prepared them to return to God.

The Quarantine Station, down the river from Quebec, and the Marine Hospital of that city, were thronged with the sick. In Montreal, the Government caused to be erected on the river banks, at Point St. Charles, three sheds, or provisory hospitals, from 100, to 150 feet, in length, and from 40 to 50 feet in width. These soon proved, however, insufficient for the increasing number of the sick, who were constantly being brought, on incoming vessels. The number of these unfortunates, who were landed at Point St. Charles was estimated at from 11,000 to 12,000. Eleven sheds were soon filled with the sick, and the whole city was thrown into consternation. The rich fled to the country, and those who remained, took numberless precautions, for escaping the contagion. However, the warmest sympathy was shown towards the hapless Irish, and abundant help was given in the shape of linen, clothing and food.

The Gray Nuns was the first religious Community called to their aid. At the end of a few weeks, thirty of their number had been attacked by the disease, and seven went to receive in heaven the reward of their generous devotedness. It was necessary to replace them, by having recourse to another Community.

Mgr. Bourget, then, thought of our Sisters, and came himself to the Asylum, to make appeal to their devotion. That was on the 24th of June. He assembled the Community, which comprised at that period, nineteen professed, nineteen novices, and fourteen postulants. He laid before them the pitiable condition of the sick and asked if any amongst them were willing to sacrifice themselves and risk their lives, in caring for those unfortunates. As he asked that question, all rose and with one voice, answered altogether, "I am ready."

The next morning, at half past seven, after having been fortified by Holy Communion and the blessing of their Bishop, twelve of those brave women, chosen by their Superior, got into carriages and were driven to the sheds of Point St. Charles, where a sad spectacle awaited them.

From hundreds of the sick, couched upon straw, in the wrestlings of their agony came forth dolorous cries; little children, who were still clasped in the arms of mothers who had died during the night, wept and cried; corpses lying here and there, already exhaled the odor of death; women who were scarcely able to drag themselves about, sought in that frightful chaos, for a husband or child of whose fate they were ignorant. Such was the dismal picture presented by that field of suffering.

The Sisters set to work at once, causing the dead to be removed, and lavishing their care upon the sick. There were none to assist them in this laborious ministry, except a few convalescents, who gave them some help beside the dying.

The religious of the Hotel-Dieu, by permission of the Bishop, left their cloister and for some days, shared with our Sisters, those offices of charity. In the midst of these devoted infirmarians, were to be found Mgr. Bourget himself, several of the Canons and priests of the bishopric, Sulpicians, Jesuits, and secular priests, who worked night and day amongst the sick; they heard their confessions, administered the last Sacraments, while encouraging and consoling them. Fifty or sixty died every day, and their bodies while waiting burial, were placed in an immense charnel house, erected upon the river banks.

At length, thanks to the erection of new sheds, it was possible to classify them. Men, women and children, as well as the convalescents, were separated and distributed amongst the different sections. Mgr. Bourget suggested that Mother Gamelin should undertake the care of the orphans, who, to the number of more than six hundred, occupied two of the provisory hospitals. Deeply touched, by the fate of these forsaken children, she accepted the proposal with joy. She immediately secured the use of Mrs. Nolan’s house, on St. Catherine St., and sent two Sisters, thither, to receive little boys. The house was not furnished, but twenty bundles of straw were procured and spread upon the floor, as sleeping places for those poor, little ones, scarcely covered with miserable rags. The girls were confided to the religious of the Good Shepherd, until a larger house could be found, in which to gather them together.

The transportation of these poor orphans was most touching. Two Sisters were seated in each carriage, holding on their knees, the young children, some of whom were only a few days old. Mgr. Bourget himself, occupied the first carriage, being anxious to encourage, by his example, the charitable interest which he desired to excite in favor of these poor creatures, so deserving of compassion. In a letter, written at a somewhat later period, which contained the outpourings of his great heart, he spoke of the sweet, though agonizing memories which he had retained of that eventful period.

"We must tell you," he wrote, “that one of the sweetest moments of our life, was that in which, at the head of a numerous family of orphans, we traversed the city streets bringing them to the Refuges, which had been prepared for them."

"The spectacle of hundreds of children, famishing with hunger, covered with rags and in a danger of succumbing to the attacks of that terrible disease, which had deprived them of their parents, was so poignant that it can never be forgotten."…

Twenty-seven of our Sisters, were stricken with the plague, nine of that number received the last Sacraments and three died. Sister Mary of the Assumption, in the world, Catherine Brady, was the first victim. She had been scarcely a year professed and was only twenty-four years of age. Her death gave the first fruits of our Community to heaven since she was the first to die. It was a great happiness for our Community, and a pledge of the blessing of God on our Institute, that the Divine Master should have called her to himself, in the exercise of one of the purest acts of Christian charity. Four days later, also during the Octave of the Assumption, and like the first, a postulant, Sister Augele Blouin, expired after having had the happiness of pronouncing her vows. She was soon followed by another novice, Sister Antoine, in the world, Olympe Guy, who had the same happiness before departing this life. She had been eighteen months in the Community.

In view of the sickness and death which struck down these brave infirmarians, Mgr. Bourget was much concerned by the danger that threatened our young Institute. He assembled all the Sisters in the oratory, and in the name of all the professed religious, made aloud, a vow to burn seven tapers every Friday, in perpetuity, before the statue of Our Lady of Seven Dolors, for the preservation of our Institute, which was threatened with destruction by the death, or dangerous illness of so many religious who had been attacked by typhus. The gentle Virgin heard that prayer; the sick Sisters were restored to health and after a longer or shorter convalescence were enabled to resume their work.

It was on the 1st of October that the orphans, temporarily installed in Mrs. Nolan's house were able to take possession of the former Convent of the Good Shepherd, situated on Beaudry St., then Black Horse St. The new Hospice, was placed under the invocation of St Jerome Emilianus. It was large enough to receive, besides, in a separate department, the orphans whom the religious of the Good Shepherd had temporarily accepted.

Mother Elizabeth was the first Superior of the new refuge, having as her companions, Sisters Brigitte and Catherine. An Irish priest, Father Fitzhenry was charged with the religious instruction of all those children, but he was unable to continue that ministry very long, and was soon replaced by Father Fabre, who was, then, a student pursuing his theological studies at the Bishop’s palace. The young ecclesiastic found, therein, an interesting field for his zeal. He applied himself with the greatest devotion to that ministry, and a few months later, he had the consolation of presenting sixty of those children for First Communion and Confirmation.

From the 9th of July, Mother Gamelin received six hundred and fifty orphans, at the Hospice of St. Jerome Emilianus. Of that number, three hundred and thirty-two died, and one hundred and eighty-eight, were placed out or adopted. In the month of March, one hundred and thirty remained, in addition to ninety-nine who had stayed in the sheds at Point St. Charles. At that time the Hospice was entirely dependent on charitable resources, for the government had just with drawn the modest allowance, which it had temporarily granted.

Mgr. Bourget, touched by the situation and the future of these children, made a warm appeal to his diocesans, in their favor, in a pastoral letter, from which the following extracts are taken:

"Full of the great confidence, inspired by your past charity, we now address ourselves to your wonted kindness, and we beg of you to let its effects be felt by these poor orphans, who are so dear to our hearts.

"Yes, our very dear Brethren, receive them, without stopping in any way to consider that according to the flesh, they are of an origin alien to our own, for united, as they are through Jesus Christ by faith, they make with us, but one and the same people.

"Receive them, without considering either, that they may be a burden to you ; for you know very well that charity to be meritorious, should be practised gratuitously, and for the love of Jesus Christ. For the rest, nothing is lost with God, and everything rewarded a hundredfold in this life, with the promise of life eternal in the next. Philemon is a striking proof of this assertion, for, having pardoned Oneame, for whom the great Apostle had poured forth all the richness of his eloquence, and opening to him, the bowels of his charity, he had the happiness of becoming a faithful companion of St. Paul, a Bishop inflamed with zeal, and a glorious martyr of Jesus Christ."

It will be the same with you all; and it may be hoped that in adopting these poor children, we shall make them our companions in faith, good priests, fervent religious, excellent citizens, who brought up in our midst, shall make common cause with us."

After having specially addressed himself to the clergy, to the seminary, and to the religious communities of men and women, the holy Bishop made an appeal to the laity:

"Receive, pious and charitable laymen, and adopt these tender children with that cordial joy which is the characteristic of true charity. Have for them all the tenderness that you would wish to see in those who might be called upon to receive your own children, if they had the misfortune of losing you, and if relegated to a strange land, without family or friends, they were reduced to such miserable straits. Is not this the time, if ever, to put in practice these touching words of Our Lord:

"As you would, that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner. (St. Luke, clip. VI, 31.)

Animated with these sentiments, you will welcome these children, you will bring them up carefully, correct them with gentleness and love them with tenderness. Oh, how amiable and interesting you will find these children! Oh, if you only knew how deeply they feel the kindness that is shown them, how grateful they are to those who care for them: with what faith do they pray to the Father of Mercies for those who assist them; with what transports of joy, they embrace each other, in meeting with those whom they had thought dead; how deep are their feelings when it is necessary to separate them from those whom they may never see again; how they weep in recalling the memory of their dear parents, or of those charitable persons, who sacrificed their lives, to relieve their misfortunes. With what emotion they watch the countenances of those who come to see them with a view to adoption, in the hope of being fortunate enough to be chosen, how firm and decided they are, when it has been necessary to reject the tempting offers of those whom they know to be the enemies of their faith; how sincere and abundant the tears which they shed when it is a question of bidding farewell to those tender mothers whom religion has prepared for them in their misfortunes."

It was impossible to resist those words, dictated by the most ardent charity. Colleges, convents, lay people, all hastened to respond. Out of two hundred and twenty-nine children who remained to be placed out, one hundred and sixty-nine were adopted by the Catholic institutions and families of the diocese, and sixty remained, as our Sisters share. These latter were distributed amongst our different houses, or apprenticed that they might learn a trade and be able to gain an honest livelihood. It may be affirmed that the greater number of these children proved worthy of the devotedness and the care they had received. That wish of Mgr. Bourget was realized:

"In adopting these poor children, they will become our companions in faith, good priests, fervent religious, excellent citizens."

Several became priests and were, or are still, an honor to the sacerdotal body; others went to swell the ranks of our religious communities of women, a still greater number gave an example in the world, of inviolable attachment to their faith, which neither sufferings nor persecution could shake.

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