Manitoba History: The Grey Nuns and the Red River Settlement
by Sister Marie Bonin
The Grey Nuns owe their existence to Mother d’Youville, foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal. She has been called “A strong woman of Canada ... A woman of genius.” Noted for resourcefulness, astute business sense, piety, devotion to the poor, and abandonment to divine Providence, Mere d’Youville developed and managed her community with an expertise that was the envy of her male contemporaries.
In 1737, Mother d’Youville founded a small community of companions to minister to the poor and the sick of Montreal. She was chosen to restore Montreal’s floundering general hospital because of her proven administrative ability. The group was nicknamed “les soeurs grises,” a pun on the word “gris” which can mean either gray or drunk. The sisters eventually dignified this once-unfortunate title by adopting grey habits and so became known as The Grey Nuns.
Beginning in 1819, Bishop Provencher of St. Boniface sought religious who would educate the young people of his diocese on the banks of the Red River. In 1844 the total Grey Nun Congregation consisted of thirty-four religious, and seventeen of them volunteered to come to the Red River settlement by canoe. Sisters Valade, Lagrave, Coutlee and Lafrance were chosen. They left on 24 April in a canoe 40 feet long and 5 feet wide; their perilous journey took fifty-eight days. Along the way, one of them wrote:
Sister Lagrave, the heftiest one, broke her foot on the way and the voyageurs threatened to leave her behind. On 24 June, they arrived on the shores of the Red River.
The Grey Sisters had come to serve the light-hearted and high-spirited Métis who found balm for their souls in the Church services, the shining candles, the smell of incense and the caring love of the Sisters. No house had been prepared for the Sisters; they froze in a log house in which they temporarily resided. The Sisters found many hardships in the Red River settlement but they were women of sacrifice, of total giving of self to God and to the Métis population. Immediately, they began teaching boys and girls. Marguerite Connolly came to them, brought by her mother Suzanne Connolly, wife of a North West Company manager. Marguerite later became the first Grey Nun from the Red River settlement.
Begun in May 1846, the Grey Nuns’ residence was the first oak house built in Western Canada and still stands today on the shores of the Red near its junction with the Assiniboine River. The Indians and the Métis had never seen a large house like this. A haven of charity, from its walls came hundreds of religious, a host of missionaries such as Sara Riel who left Red River to spread civilization to Isle-a-la-Crosse, and then to the Inuit country, the most remote territories of the Arctic Circle.
Sister Valade, the foundress of the Red River Grey Nun’s Community, lived a life of toil and sacrifice. In 1858, she was asked to go back to Montreal for a meeting. She took Louis Riel along. Leaving on 1 June, they travelled by cart and train to St. Paul, a trip of twenty-eight days. They then continued to Montreal by steamship and railway for a trip which lasted a further month and a half. For seven years, Louis Riel studied at the College of Montreal, spending holidays at the Grey Nuns’ residence in Chateauguay.
Another great woman among the Grey Nuns was Sr. Teresa McDonnell, known as Sister Ste Therese. At her birth, on 29 February 1835, the life of Teresa Margaret McDonnell’s mother was the sacrifice accepted by God. This left to a broken-hearted father the frail little baby, the only offspring from his happy marriage. Under tenderest loving care, Teresa grew in strength and beauty to the joy of an idolizing father and a motherly aunt in St. Andrew, Ontario. Mr. McDonnell, wanting to procure the very best education for his daughter, confided her to the care of the Grey Nuns in Bytown, later to be known as Ottawa.
Teresa became happy and strong under the care of the Grey Nuns of Ottawa making great strides mentally as well as physically. What a stunning blow to his high expectations when his daughter revealed to him that her one desire was to remain in the convent and consecrate her life to God. “If you remain in the convent and become a Nun, you shall never hear from me again. Goodbye!” He kept his word.
On 31 January 1851, Miss Teresa McDonnell entered the order as Sister Ste Therese, Sister of Charity, Bytown Novitiate. In 1855, Sr. Ste Therese with Sr. Marie, loaned by their superiors in Bytown, arrived in St. Boniface to help the small band of sisters from Montreal so heavily overburdened by the ever-increasing demands on their good will in the Red River Settlement.
Sr. Ste. Therese was named pharmacist of the region which meant visiting the sick, mostly in huts and tepees, and, as far as knowledge permitted, playing the role of country doctor. It is said that she never refused to help. She was a very knowledgeable “nurse-pharmacist-physician” and the Indians had complete faith in her. She is known to have accomplished marvelous cures. Her presence healed as much as did her herbal remedies. Her reputation as a healer won for her a never-to-be-forgotten name, “our Sister Doctor.” Much of her time was spent at the small convent of Grantown, some eighteen miles west of the White Horse Plain. Cuthbert Grant had attended the sick himself but died the year before Sr. Ste Therese arrived. “Soeur Doctor” travelled great distances, in all kinds of weather, summer and winter. On foot, by oxcart, or by canoe, she hurried wherever there was need or illness.
In 1859, Sister was recalled to Ottawa by her legitimate superior. Nothing could be done about lengthening her stay. The stipulated time was up; orders could not be revoked. Tearful adieux were said. The oxcart drove off bearing away the most beloved healer of physical and moral pain. No one in the group of tearful onlookers was aware of a plot formed by a few resolute of the Métis led by Mr. Riel, the miller of the Seine, Louis Riel’s father. They were men who would not accept defeat. In secrecy they anticipated the early hour of departure, arrived at the first evening’s stopping place and concealed themselves and an extra oxcart in the surrounding woods. The travellers arrived. Because each one was busy with preparations for the night, they took no notice of the kidnappers who timed their appearance to the minute the two sisters descended to the ground. Sr. Ste Therese was immediately surrounded by stalwarts who, pointing towards an unoccupied oxcart, ordered her to get in without demure. “Sister, we will do you no harm but you are our prisoner.” What could the poor Nun do in such a plight but return with her captors to St. Boniface?
Once reinstalled, Sister took up her duties as visiting-pharmacist. Her long travels on foot from the convent brought her to the sick, the dying. Her prayers and words of comfort whilst administering pills and “tisane” (herbal teas) were curatives people would not forget.
The renowned St. Boniface General Hospital owes its inception to Sr. Ste Therese. On 5 August 1871, with the assistance of Sr. Royal, Sr. Ste Therese installed beds and other necessary though primitive equipment on the top floor of the sisters’ laundry. Such heroic attempts were surely most agreeable to God, the Father of the poor and the destitute, for the tiny ungainly seed slowly and unknowingly developed into the healthy plant of today. In 1877, a larger house was purchased from a Mr. Clarke and turned into a regular hospital. The patients removed from their attic abode were the first to benefit by the change. This Clarke House was on the site of the present hospital.
This epoch-making venture only whetted Sr. Ste Therese’s desire to extend her charitable activities. She claimed the unenviable task of visiting outposts in the Winnipeg area where young emigrants from France had taken refuge, confident that in this El Dorado they would make a fortune. Instead, they found the rigors of a climate unknown to them, as well as misery and oftentimes sickness. After a long walk, Sr. Ste Therese would be obliged to climb high rickety stairways to find her sick, bewildered patients, to whom she would give first-aid, and then be off in quest of a good Samaritan who would bring the bedridden over to St. Boniface Hospital. One of these visits became proverbial. On her way to Winnipeg via the bridge she was met by Dr. Schultz, an old friend, whom she had often approached for help. On approaching her, he recognized her and ordered his coachman to stop. He dismounted and made Sr. Ste Therese and her companion occupy his seat while he continued the journey on foot. Schultz was one of thousands who exalted her charity.
Sr. Ste Therese also became the foundress of St. Mary’s Academy, an educational institution, later to be given to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. She stayed in St. Boniface, involved in many of the initial works of charity in this province, until her death on 4 November 1917.
The Grey Nuns have been in the Winnipeg-St. Boniface region for one hundred and forty years. The specific hardships and challenges have changed over the years, but the purpose of the Grey Nuns has always been to provide hope, meaning, friendship and love.
Page revised: 13 July 2022