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The Kidnapping of Sister Ste. Therese

by Margaret Arnett MacLeod

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

St. Boniface and Winnipeg each has an institution founded by the same remarkable woman — institutions of which they are justly proud. The general hospital in St. Boniface and St. Mary's Academy for girls in Winnipeg were founded by Sister Ste. Therese, a Sister of Charity (Order of the Grey Nuns), who came to the country in 1855.

She arrived in the Red River Settlement, together with a companion, Sister Ste. Marie, having been lent by the Order of the Grey Nuns in Bytown (now Ottawa) to the order in St. Boniface for a period of three years.

Some novel experiences awaited her. Once she was kidnapped — the kidnapping of a nun being a unique happening even in this untamed country of one hundred years ago.

Red River, the initial settlement in western Canada, was begun in 1811 when Lord Selkirk, under the Hudson's Bay Company sent out colonists from Scotland to the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

In 1818, the Reverend J. N. Provencher arrived from Quebec to care for the spiritual needs of the Catholics in the settlement. These people were still living under primitive conditions. Extreme efforts were needed merely to exist. It was a fur trade wilderness inhabited, except for the colonists, by roving Indians, metis, and a few fur traders at isolated posts.

Some additional priests joined Father Provencher from time to time but few stayed for long. Therefore, he was greatly cheered when in 1844, a party of four Grey Nuns were sent to his aid. They cared for the sick and helped with education. But it was a monumental task for all concerned. The need grew as the work progressed and appeals for more priests and Sisters continued. Thus, when Sisters Ste. Therese and Ste. Marie arrived in 1855, they were warmly received.

Sister Ste. Therese was born in 1835 at St. Andrew's, Ontario and named Margaret Theresa McDonald. Her father was a Scot and she was bereaved of her mother at birth. She was reared by an adoring father and an aunt until the time of her communion when she was ten years of age. Her father then placed her in the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Bytown to continue her education.

On January 31, 1851, Margaret Theresa McDonald entered the order of the Grey Nuns as a novice and became Sister Ste. Therese. She had shown a great deal of talent in her studies and she now proved to be especially proficient in the work of the dispensary and infirmary, where she became skilled in the treatment and care of the sick.

She donned the holy habit in 1853 and made her final vows the following year. She was still at her work of caring for the sick in the convent, when the call for help came from Red River and it was decided that she and Sister Ste. Marie should answer it.

The two Sisters were accompanied on their trip by Monseigneur Grandin, assistant to Bishop Tache, who had succeeded Bishop Provencher at Red River. On leaving Bytown they travelled for sever-al days by rail to St. Paul in Minnesota Territory. There, they got experienced guides to assemble supplies for the journey and packed these, together with the luggage, into the required carts. They then joined a larger caravan for safety in crossing the prairies, and started off by ox-cart to Red River. A trip of 600 miles over rough country now lay ahead — a trip which would require from three to four weeks.

Details of the trip are recorded at Maison Provinciale in St. Boniface.

"They had to sleep in tents and listen to the howling of wolves at night, wade across shallow rivers and dry their clothes around a fire, bear the continuous torture of mosquitoes and dislodge snakes from the grass before sitting down or lying down to sleep."

There were also moments of a lighter nature to enliven the journey, such as when Monseigneur Grandin sat for three hours on Sister Ste. Marie's extra travelling hat, which she had removed at a halting place. His contrite efforts to reshape it were unsuccessful and the Sisters made merry over the new style in millinery.

Each day as they travelled, the superb sunrises and sunsets uplifted their hearts and they thrilled to the prairie's waving grasses and the gold and purple flowers of autumn stretching as far as the eye could see. As they neared their journey's end, trees began to line the banks of the Red River and there was an occasional ploughed field.

For thirty years, the Red River Settlement with its tilled acres and log houses stretching along the river bank had slept unchanged, 1,500 miles from the nearest city in the east and 500 miles from any outlet to the rest of the world, a green oasis in the midst of fur trade wilderness. And this isolation was to continue for twenty years more.

The party's first indication that they were approaching the settlement was a glimpse of the spires of St. Boniface Cathedral looming against the sky — the "turrets twain" with their bells, which are immortalized by the poet Whittier.

Once arrived at the convent in St. Boniface, Sister Ste. Therese was immediately put to work. She made a most favourable impression on her fellow Sisters. She was a beautiful girl, tall and fair, with grace of movement. She was full of vigour, yet with a certain gentleness. She had shapely hands, a creamy skin and expressive blue eyes. Her ready smile seemed to radiate a love of all mankind and to reveal her eager devotion to her work and to God. Her whole personality was one of charm. She caught at all hearts and held them.

Duties awaited her among Sisters who were ill, patients taken into the convent; among settlers and traders in their homes, and Indians in their teepees.

The St. Boniface Archives record that "Sister Ste. Therese was already well-versed in medicine when she arrived. In fact, her medical knowledge was astounding and her cures often seemed marvellous.

Much of the time, her headquarters were at the small convent which had been founded at Grantown, some eighteen miles west on the White Horse Plain. There, in 1824, Cuthbert Grant had settled the famous metis buffalo hunters and warriors of the plains on land granted to him by the Hudson's Bay Company. Throughout the years, he had attended the sick, having some knowledge of medicine, but he had died the year before Sister Ste. Therese arrived.

These buffalo hunters had a continent-wide reputation for bravery and skill, both at the hunt and in war against the Sioux Indians, yet they were strong in their affections. Many times Sister Ste. Therese was touched by the sight of a rugged, stalwart father holding back the tears over his child's suffering and by his deep gratitude to her for her ministrations.

Whether at St. Boniface or Grantown, Sister Ste. Therese had duties in teaching at the convents, but even while acting as teacher, there were demands upon her as doctor also.

The Mother House in St. Boniface seemed barren enough to the Sisters from Canada, yet it was a veritable haven compared to life at Grantown. The outpost convent there, set in endless miles of empty prairie, was swept by every wind that blew. Even its spindling fence posts constantly leaned at an angle. Having no chairs the Sisters sat upon their heels on the floor. At evening devotions they read their prayer books by the faint light of buffalo-tallow candles and to con-serve the precious light they blew them out while they recited their prayers. But for Sister Ste. Therese, extreme conditions only gave deeper meaning to her sacriface and fuller spiritual joy.

When she was at Grantown, she had greater distances to travel, but distance mattered little. One sees her on the prairies in all kinds of weather, winter or summer. She was absolutely selfless. Nothing was too much trouble. She placed no value on her works of mercy. On foot, by ox-cart, or by canoe she hastened wherever there was need or illness, donning her long-sleeved coverall apron as protection against vermin.

The first Sisters of the Grey Nuns Order arrive at St. Boniface, 1884.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Even her presence seemed to have curative power for body and mind. Gentle-hearted and deft of touch, she gave the needed attention. But better than her charity, people seemed to love her smile, and more than her ministrations they seemed to value the sympathy in her eyes. Everywhere she was called "the Sister with the big heart", but at Grantown she was more intimately and lovingly termed "our dear Sister Doctor".

Among these people to whose needs Sister Ste. Therese devoted herself, the fact that she was only a loan to Red River seemed to have faded and been forgotten. Thus, when the three-year period of the loan expired in 1858 and Sisters Ste. Therese and Ste. Marie were recalled by their superiors at Bytown, the news came as a calamity.

The recall, according to the convent archives, "was a trial to the whole Catholic population of Red River, who were so moved that they tried to oppose Sister Ste. Therese's departure." But the order at By-town was firm in its decision.

There were unavoidable delays, however, and the Sisters finally left Red River on April 29, 1859. On the morning of the start, the convent was astir earlier than usual.

Bishop Grandin, who was going to France, was to be a member of the Sisters' party, and Bishop Tache was accompanying him as far as Pembina. Also, Mother Valade, the Superior of the Convent, and Sister Curran were to go along with the Sisters for the first day's journey.

High Mass had been said in the nearby Cathedral for the success of the journey and the safety of the travellers. And now, outside in the Cathedral square, a crowd had gathered, with hopes that even yet something might be done to keep Sister Ste. Therese with them.

There were sturdy men with beaded moccasins and red sashes who had ridden in from Grantown; old men and women leaning on canes, and young mothers with their children, all milling around lamenting the matter and asking each other what could be done about it. Cries could be heard, "She is our Soeur Docteur. She must not go! We cannot let her go!" Then one suggested, "Perhaps Mother Valade might help", and they all moved into the convent grounds.

Eyes flashed as Mother Valade appeared on the convent steps. "You are the Mother Superior", they pleaded. "Keep her!"

"Sister Ste. Therese is no longer subordinate to me", she answered, "You know that. She belongs to the Order at Bytown, they have recalled her. It is their right, and she must go."

But the crowd was not convinced. Some rights, indeed, to deprive them of thir cherished benefactress! They were being dispossessed of a precious belonging. Sensitive to a fault, they felt themselves mocked in their most intimate sentiments. Passionately a young mother held up to Mother Valade a fine, round-cheeked baby. "Without Soeur Docteur I would have lost him," she proclaimed, overcome with memories of an anguished childbirth. It was a cry from the heart and it aroused fresh protestations and bitterness.

Suddenly, Mother Valade's clear voice rose above the clamour. "Is it thus," she chided imperiously, "that you show your affection and gratitude by saddening the departure of our benefactress with your unjustified resistance and ill-temper? What memories of you will she carry away?"

It was good psychology. Her words went straight to their troubled hearts and confused minds and they were silent. Then whispering among themselves, they dispersed, quieted but not resigned. Only the horsemen from White Horse Plain remained conferring among themselves. They had seen their last hope fade. No support was forthcoming from the Mother Superior.

But they were not yet beaten. They would act on their own. "I would rather be burned alive than lose our dear Sister," cried one to a responsive chorus of, "Oui, oui!" Then from the depths of their natural instincts sprang a bold plot. Two young stalwarts strode into the nearby Presbytery and asked a priest, "What is the penalty for touching a reverend Sister?" "Excommunication from the Church," came the prompt reply. The riders then mounted and dashed off to return to Grantown.

The demonstrations below had come up through the open window to Sister Ste. Therese, as she was making last preparations for the coming journey. These simple-hearted people of the prairies whom she had come to understand so well, had gained a strong hold on her affections and her heart was torn by love and duty.

Bishops Tache and Grandin went ahead of the Sisters' party on horseback as far as Pembina where they were to rejoin them. To lessen the roughness of cart travel, the nuns were provided with low-seated arm chairs, into which they climbed.

Then, to the accompaniment of screeching carts — the noise of ungreased hubs on ungreased axles — the ox-train with the necessary guides and several others who had joined them, proceeded in cheerful mood over the fresh green of the April prairies.

By nightfall, the Scratching River (The Morris) came into view and camp was made there for the night. The guides hobbled the oxen, made fires, hung pots of water over them to boil, slung tents in the lee of the carts, and did all they could for the Sister's comfort. They them-selves slept in their blankets on the ground, with feet toward the fires which they kept up during the night.

All were unaware of the fifteen horsemen with oxen and carts who overtook them in the night and went on to conceal themselves at a point on the wooded banks of the Morris River. They knew the travellers would pass this point next morning after Mother Valade and Sister Curran had left them and while Bishops Tache and Grandin were still ahead at Pembina.

Dawn found the camp stirring with activity. Then prayers and breakfast over, there were tearful goodbyes with Mother Valade and Sister Curran as they started north on the return to St. Boniface.

It was a fine morning as the Sisters continued their journey south, following the course of the Red River. The sun shone and the breath of spring on the prairies was sweet. Meadowlarks trilled a cheerful morning song, offset by the croaking of frogs. The two nuns sitting side by side in their cart, with hearts full of gratitude to God for all His mercies, began to sing a hymn.

Suddenly the air was filled with fierce yells. Was it the terror of the plains, the ferocious Sioux? The travellers were frozen with fright. Still yelling, a body of men sprang out of the bushes by the river and rushed upon the caravan, some to the head of the oxen, others to the cart of Sister Ste. Therese, who immediately recognized them as men from Grantown.

Swiftly and dexterously, before the halted caravan could recover from the shock, the men with a determined air, lifted Sister Ste. Therese out of the cart, touching only the chair in which she sat. Quickly she and her chair were placed beside the woman driver of a cart which the kidnappers had drawn up. Just as quickly, a second woman of their party and her chair were put into Sister Ste. Therese's vacant place beside the astounded Sister Ste. Marie and the marauders drove off with their prize.

It was a triumphal procession that brought Sister Ste. Therese back to St. Boniface. Cries of joy and welcome greeted them everywhere.

People went along excitedly to share in the momentous homecoming. Additional carts lengthened the cavalcade and thirty horse-men escorted it into St. Boniface.

As the procession wended its way past the Cathedral to the convent, the famed bells began to ring out happily, and the jubilant men with their captive, not knowing they were ringing for a baptism, thought it but a fitting honour to celebrate her return.

The love and devotion, as well as the desperate need expressed by the incident, won Sister Ste. Therese permanently for the Red River. She was never again recalled by the headquarters of her Order in the East.

Many useful and happy years of service remained for her in Red River. Her medical knowledge and skill came to be highly regarded in the settlement generally.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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