Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2006

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


The Church and Social Welfare in Quebec


[This text was written by Esdras Minville in 1939. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]

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Therefore, it is not history but a doctrine, a conception of life,  that gave their form to the social institutions of Quebec province, and gave them the character they have always had and still have today. Moreover, these institutions made their appearance, grew and branched out in accordance, on the one hand, with the existing needs, and on the other, with the available resources of personnel and of finances. They have improved, following the lines of their doctrinal inspiration, along with the progress of hygiene and science and more particularly according as public opinion crystallized, from one period to another, with regard to these bodies, the part they were called upon to play and the services that might be expected from them; in a word, according to the generally accepted conception of social welfare.


It is important, indeed it is a universally accepted axiom, that in social welfare work the traditions and the character of the population must be taken into account.


Besides the religious fealty of the French-Canadian people, one must consider their racial and cultural characteristics, their tastes, their manners and customs; their past, their hard life, their financial situation; briefly, the factors which, as a whole, from heredity to the material conditions of existence, contribute to the moral physiognomy of a people.


The cult of the family is one of the most generally recognized characteristic traits of the French Canadians. The mode of assistance among the people of St. Justin, described by Léon Gérin (1) gives an excellent idea of the manner in which assistance was carried out among the vast majority of French-Canadian parishes some forty or fifty years ago.


For a great many years, centuries even, this population was exclusively, then later on in great majority, a rural one. These people lived under conditions which were the best fitted not only to preserve but to accentuate their character. It must be added that it is a recognized fact that the population in the country districts does not entertain the same idea of social welfare as do the people in the cities—the needs are not the same. If this population, through the transformation of our economy, has today become chiefly urban, the great majority of city-dwellers are the immediate descendants of rural folk; from their peasant origin, still not remote, they have kept the simplicity of life, the family spirit, at any rate the family instinct—the tendency to retire within the family, which tendency has to a marked degree remained a characteristic trait of our rural popula­tion.


Over and above their religious faith, it is in the particularism of the population that one must seek the explanation of what exists in Quebec province in the way of social welfare, and what appears so strange to the citizens of other Canadian provinces.


It is readily understood that the Catholic Church should, from the beginning, have assumed in its entirety the burden of social welfare work and should today sustain a considerable share of it:


(1). The Church was here with the founders, the very first settlers; her missionaries accompanied the explorers everywhere, they were themselves explorers. 'What she seeks above all is the salvation of souls; in her mind everything else must be subordinate to that mission. But, as we have already seen, she makes of the exercise of charity a personal duty incumbent upon each and every Catholic. There we have the explanation, on the one hand, of her initiative in this field and, on the other, of her wish to see charitable works organized and developed under her authority and protection. The Church could not renounce this, her mission, without being false to herself.


(2). For a protracted period of Canadian history the Church was the only organization, at a time when the state acknowledged no responsibility in the matter, in possession of the staff requisite for the care of the poor. When Canada was founded the Catholic Church, with many more than a thousand years of existence behind her, had a wealth of tradition, of discipline, and was possessed of a powerful material organization. All these she implanted here. From the earliest days of the colony the Sister of Mercy accompanied the missionary who preached the Gospel and the nun who taught school. We still see the same thing today in the mission countries. In 1639 there was established in Quebec city the first Canadian hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu of the Precious Blood, which exists to this day and which was responsible for the foundation of numerous other establish­ments. In 1644, barely two years after the founda­tion of the city, the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal was founded, and entrusted, as was that of Quebec, to the "Hospitalières" (Sisters of Mercy).


(3). Through the parish, the Church is, in a manner of speaking, ubiquitous—the same could not be said of the civil power, at any rate prior to the establishment of the system of municipalities. The Catholic parish is a veritable social cell: around the church-steeple, and under the guidance of the curé, are grouped the charitable undertakings necessary for local needs. The parish forms part of the diocese—an administrative, as well as a religious, entity. The diocese endeavours to supply the institutions necessary to the Church's mission within the limits of its territory; those institutions in particular which fill needs of a general nature and thus could not be scattered among the parishes: secondary schools, hospitals, homes for the aged.


Hence the part assumed by the religious orders which, limited in their objectives, are under no restrictions in the matter of space. They are instruments at the disposal of the Church for the accomplishment of its mission. The bishops appeal to their congregations according to the needs existing in their respective dioceses. They create new ones if they deem it necessary. Hence the multiplicity of congregations instituted in the bosom of the Church for two thousand years. The Church, therefore, has at hand, even from the purely material standpoint, an organization of extraordinary breadth and extreme flexibility.


(4). The attitude of the Church as regards poor-relief, in all its forms, being what it is by virtue of the Church's own doctrine, and the population being entirely Catholic throughout the whole French regime, and having remained so by a great majority since the advent of the British regime, it was natural for the former to assume spontane­ously, and for the latter to yield, the initiative and management of social welfare works—all the more so, let us repeat, since outside of the clergy and the religious orders there was nowhere to be found the requisite resources and experience.


Through succeeding periods, keeping pace with ever-growing needs and the rise of new centres of population, the religious communities extended their sphere of activity, multiplied and spread out; new ones came from Europe or were founded here at home, and entered the wide-open field of apostolic endeavour through works of charity.


We could multiply the illustrations: the "Hospitalières" (Sisters of Mercy), who founded the first Canadian hospital and who are today established in several cities throughout the prov­ince; the Grey Nuns of the Cross, a Canadian Order, became one of the most powerful institu­tions of its kind on the American continent; the Sisters of Providence who maintain at the present time some forty charitable institutions in the province of Quebec, some of them among the most important, etc., etc.


This brings us to a question that comes to mind quite naturally: to what degree does the Catholic Church supply, in the province of Quebec, services usually performed in the main by the government in the other provinces?


Acting, in 1931, on behalf of social insurance bodies, Mr. Arthur Saint-Pierre, professor at the "Ecole des Sciences Economiques, Politiques et Sociales" of Montreal University, estimated at a minimum of $9,000,000 annually the services rendered by the religious orders to the province of Quebec by way of charitable aid and social welfare work. An investigation into the institutions owned and directed by religious brotherhoods and sister-hoods acquainted him with the following data: number of religious orders, 39; number of estab­lishments, 145; membership of religious orders, 5,261; value of real estate holdings, $43,340,183; gross income, $7,844,394; outlay, $8,224,834.


In the light of these facts Mr. Saint-Pierre proceeds, for the purposes of his demonstration, to the following appraisals:


(1). $4,600,000, value of the labour furnished without remuneration by 4,600 members of the religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods. This figure of 4,600 represents a reduction from a total personnel of 5,261 and leaves out invalids, persons assigned to tasks other than the care of the sick and destitute and all those whose occupation might occasion duplication. This first figure appears all the more unquestionable since its basic annual wage of $1,000 is extremely conservative. It would assuredly be difficult to pay less to a lay staff for performing the same duties in a competent and reliable manner.


(2). $2,000,000, representing the interest at 5 per cent on the $40,000,000 of capital invested in real estate. This second figure requires some explanation : (a) 17 out of the 145 institutions owned by the religious orders gave no information regarding their real estate holdings; hence, they are not included in the above total; (b) in a number of cases the properties are appraised below their value; (c) no allowance has been made for the movable property which represents, nevertheless, a consider-able sum of money; (d) finally the appraiser himself reduces his own total from $43,340,000 to $40,000,000. All these adjustments are to ensure sufficient allowance for the contribution made by benefactors towards the expansion of the communi­ties' resources. The figure of $40,000,000 thus retained—and it appears ultra conservative to our mind, in view of the drastic eliminations noted above—is representative of what the religious orders themselves have contributed, the fruit of the freely offered labour, the savings and the sacrifices of their thousands of members, of both sexes, who, since the year 1639 have consecrated their lives to the service of suffering humanity in the province of Quebec.


(3). $3,462,000, representing the difference between the gross expenditure and the sum of subsidies and patients' fees. A total of $10,062,000.


But here again allowance had to be made for the funds derived from benefactors. For this purpose Mr. Saint-Pierre, no accurate data being available, set aside $1,062,000, more than one-third of the income entered under the heading "miscellaneous" by these institutions; and he attributes the remainder to the contribution made by the charitable congregations.


What may be the source of this remainder? "The investments made by the orders, the cultivat­ing of farms which belong to them, but above all the work of the nuns and friars outside the chari­table institutions and their communities. There are thousands of these people in Holy Orders, both men and women, in the teaching profession, in hospitals under lay management, etc.; what they earn is spent for the benefit of the destitute and is used to make up the deficits of the charitable institutions in their respective communities."


We have thus the justification of Mr. Saint-Pierre's estimate of the value of the services rendered the province by the religious orders, or, to put it another way, the amount saved the tax-payers of Quebec province thanks to the fact that our charitable institutions are under the direction of these religious communities.


'What is the situation at the present time? We have definite information showing that at the end of 1937 the membership of the religious orders had risen from 5,261 to 6,000, at the minimum figure, and the holdings in real property were valued in excess of $50,000,000. As to the third factor, the difference between the outlay made by these insti­tutions and the funds received from paying patients and from public grants, it has shown no decrease since 1931, despite a general increase in the sum total of official subsidies.


Following Mr. Saint-Pierre's reasoning it is quite possible to show that the contribution made by the religious orders to the social welfare organization of the province is in the neighbourhood of $10,000,000 at the present time. On the score of personnel alone, $300,000 may be added to the 1931 figures; the same amount of $300,000 may be added to the real estate investment. As to the third factor, the 1931 figures appear in nowise exaggerated: The Sisters of Providence, alone, contribute more than $825,000. Here are the details: official subsidies $2,039,786, of which sum $1,213,658 goes to the St. Jean de Dieu Asylum (insane) ; patients' fees, $519,396; private charity, $187,766; other income, $832,619; Total receipts, $3,579,489; Expenditure, $3,573,596. Subtracting the tiny surplus of $5,800 from the aforementioned $832,619, we find that the community makes a minimum contribution of $825,000. We have computed the contribution of the Sisters of Charity of Quebec as being about $275,000. And so it goes.


The presence of the religious communities at the head of charitable and welfare institutions is responsible for an annual saving of some ten million dollars to the ratepayers of Quebec prov­ince. Such are the facts, and to our mind they constitute a sufficiently clear answer to the question asked, viz., to what degree does the Church supply services provided by law in the other provinces? The charitable purposes for which the Church acts through the medium of the religious orders are as diverse and varied as are aid and assistance them-selves: hospitals, orphan asylums, insane asylums, etc., etc.


(1). Type économique et social des Canadiens français.

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Source : Esdras MINVILLE, « The Church and Social Welfare – Assistance (Works of Mercy) », in Labour Legislation and Social Services in the Province of Quebec. A Study Prepared for the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, Ottawa, 1939, 97p., pp. 47-49.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College