Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2008

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Grey Nuns

(Sisters of Charity)


[This article was written in 1948. For the precise source, see the end of the document]

Grey Nuns, or Sisters of Charity, an Institute founded in Canada during the French régime, for the purpose of caring for the poor and forsaken. It comprises to-day seven autonomous branches deriving directly or indirectly from the foundation established by Mother d'Youville.

Madame d'Youville, a lady of gentle birth, was born at Varennes, Canada, on October 15, 1701. Married in 1722 to You d'Youville, of Montreal, she was left destitute at the death of her husband in 1730, and went into trade, in order to educate her two children. In 1737, under the spiritual guidance of the Superior of St. Sulpice, she founded an Institution of Charity. In 1747, the Brothers Charron, directors of the General Hospital of Montreal, having tendered their resignation, the Sovereign Council of Quebec accepted it, entrusting provisionally the manage­ment of this institution to the Society of Madame d'Youville, who blended her organization with that of the General Hospital. A few years later, in 1753, Louis XV conferred upon her, by letters patent, the rights and obligations of this hospital. In 1755, the bishop of Quebec canonically established the society under the name "Soeurs de la Charité de l'Hôpital Général, dites Soeurs Grises". In 1763, the English tolerated the Institute, but granted it no subsidy. The foundress, moreover, lost her French securities and several of her protectors, who returned to France. But her charity still found the means of coming to the aid of the poor, and even of undertaking in 1765 the care of foundlings. Madame d'Youville died on December 23, 1771, leaving in her Institute 16 nuns and 150 inmates, old men and women, cripples, orphans, and foundlings. Endowed with a re­markable magnanimity, she had also added to her works of mercy, according as circumstances required them, teach­ing, nursing the plague-striken, the wounded soldiers, the insane, etc., all of which are still practised in some or other of the seven Institutes, whenever they are called for.

The expansion of the Institute of the Grey Nuns dates back to 1840. Up to that time, it had seemed to the Sisters that an ancient and royal General Hospital should not exceed its prescribed limits. In fact, the first and only house, on the Pointe-à-Callières, had expanded threefold, as had also the number of its inmates, and the 33 Grey Nuns had been sufficient to the accomplishment of the task. But in answer to the request of Bishops Bourget, Provencher, Phelan, and Turgeon, they undertook suc­cessively four autonomous foundations, at St. Hyacinthe, in Lower Canada, at St. Boniface, in the North West, at Bytown (Ottawa), in Upper Canada, and at Quebec city. Subsequently other foundations have been made. The fol­lowing are the daughter houses that have been established:

1. Hôtel-Dieu of St. Hyacinthe. Mother Michel-Archange Thuot (1787-1850) in­augurated in 1840, at St. Hyacinthe, a hospital for sick patients, whence its name Hôtel-Dieu (for the word hôpital meant then a house for the poor). Like Mother d'Youville, she met with many hardships in the establishment of her institution, which she strengthened by the wisdom of her government. The statistics of this institution for 1934 record 654 living nuns, labouring in 23 establishments: 14 in Quebec, 2 in Ontario, and 7 in the United States.

2. Hôtel-Dieu of Nicolet. The Hôtel-Dieu of Nicolet is an autonomous foundation from St. Hyacinthe. Estab­lished in 1886, this foundation numbers 282 nuns and 15 houses: 8 in Quebec, 5 in the western provinces, 1 in Ontario, and 1 at Chesterfield, N.W., among the Eskimo.

3. General Hospital of St. Boniface. Mother Louise Valade (1808-1861) and Sisters Lagrave, Coutlée, and La­france arrived at St. Boniface, in the North West, on June 21, 1844. This foundation had for its object giving girls a sound religious and household edu­cation. In July, 1844, Mother Valade opened the first Indian school of the North West, and started to grow flax and hemp and to raise sheep. In 1853, having received help from the Montreal mother house and from the St. Hya­cinthe and Bytown convents, Mother Valade opened a convent-school for the daughters of the white settlers and of the fur-trading companies' officials. A house at White Horse was opened in 1854. In 1858, the mother house of Montreal took over the management of this foundation, which found it im­possible to obtain recruits from the West. Mother Valade lived to witness the success of her institution. She died in 1867, leaving behind her a record of true missionary zeal.

4. Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa. Mother Elizabeth Bruyère (1818-1876), with five Sisters, two of whom were novices, was directed to Bytown, Upper Canada, by the administration of the General Hospital of Montreal, to open schools for French-speaking children. These nuns arrived in February, 1845, under the guidance of their founder, Father Telmon, O.M.I., parish priest of Bytown. They opened their first school in a two-storey shed, started visiting the poor and sick, and confronted by the needs of the locality, still in its youth and extremely untaught, they inaugur­ated most of their labours of mercy. The beginnings made in 1845 have spread their roots far and wide, but Ottawa still remains the most prosperous sphere of the Institute. The educational in­stitutions established in Ottawa are Bruyère College (1925), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent-School (1849), Youville Academy (1879), Prim­rose (1890), Hintonburg (1900), De Lajemmerais (1932), and nine of the most considerable separate schools of the city. Among its charitable institu­tions in Ottawa are the St. Charles Home (1871), 309 inmates; the General Hospital (1866), 300 beds; the St. Vincent Hospital for Incurables (1924), 200 beds; the St. Joseph's Orphanage (1865), 350orphans. To-day the Grey Nuns of the Cross number 1,100 members and 67 establishments, 29 in Ontario, 30 in Quebec, 6 in the United States, and 2 in Africa.

5. Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, Philadelphia, United States. This congregation was founded in 1921, at Philadelphia, with 150 nuns and 7 establishments belonging to the house of their origin, the Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa. It numbers to-day 226 nuns and 14 establishments, all in the United States.

6. Grey Nuns of the Immaculate Conception, Pembroke, Ontario. This branch began in 1926 with 76 nuns and 7 establishments belonging to the Con­gregation of the Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa. This prosperous con­gregation has tripled its numbers. It counts 215 nuns and 15 houses.

7. Grey Nuns of Charity of Quebec. Mother Marcelle Mallet (1804-1871) established in 1849 a branch of Grey Nuns in Quebec city. She met with considerable difficulties, but succeeded in creating a strong and admirable congregation. She died in 1871 after a life of devotion, submission, and hu­mility. The work of these sisters is greatly prized. The city of Quebec has entrusted to them its most important hospitals—Laval, the Civic, and the Blessed Sacrament for tuberculous pa­tients. Their special work since 1893 is the care of insane, who number 3,304 in the hospitals of Mastaï. The 160 nuns devoted to the care of these patients are an honour to their congregation, although no human voice sings their heroism. The number of sisters in 1934 was 1,337, distributed among 63 estab­lishments, 60 in Quebec, and 3 in the United States.

8. Grey Nuns of the General Hospital of Montreal. The activities of the auto­nomous foundations of the Grey Nuns have by no means paralysed the progress of the mother house. It has inaugurated several foundations: in 1846 the St. Patrick Asylum; in 1854, a convent school at St. Benoit; in 1855, a hospital-orphanage in Toledo, United States; and in 1858, at the request of Bishop Taché, O.M.I., it took over the manage­ment of the establishment of St. Boni- face. The Grey Nuns of Montreal num­ber 1,405, in 66 establishments: 27 in Quebec, 29 in the Canadian West, 10 in the United States. The city of Montreal owes to its Grey Nuns its most re­nowned charitable institution. Among others may be mentioned Nazareth Institute for the Blind and Crèche d'Youville, where 700 foundlings are sheltered annually and saved from death and misery through the devotion of 68 nuns.

In 1934, King George V, in recognition of the devotion of this noble Institute, conferred upon its superior-general, the Most Reverend Mother Piché, the title of Lady Commander of the Order of the Empire.

See L'Hôpital Général des Sœurs de la Charité (Sœurs Grises) depuis sa fonda­tion jusqu'à nos jours (Montreal, 1920), and P. Duchaussois, The Grey Nuns in the far north (Toronto, 1919).

Source: Rev. Sister Ste. BERTHE, "Grey Nuns", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. III, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 84-87.



© 2008 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College