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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
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The Grey Nuns
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The Missionary
Oblates of Mary

The Grey Nuns

The Sisters of
Assumption

Mission Communities

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A group of Grey NunsGenerally known as the Grey Nuns since the establishment of the community by Saint Marguerite d’Youville in 1737, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal answered Bishop Provencher’s plea for help and travelled to the Red River Settlement in 1844. In 1858, three more made the trip from Montreal to establish a mission at Lac St. Anne, arriving in the autumn of 1859.1  Their journey was long, and began with a train ride through the United States to Minnesota and the sisters finished the first leg of their trip in an ox-drawn Red River cart. Of the three sisters, Sister Emery (Zoé Leblanc) was the eldest, the other two, Sister Adèle Lamy and Sister Alphonse (Marie Jacques) were only 23. After a few months in St. Boniface spent learning from the Grey Nuns who had come to the region earlier, the three sisters departed for Lac St. Anne, accompanied by a young Métis woman. Marie-Louise (only her first name was known) spoke Cree and was the group’s interpreter; it is likely she was also their language teacher.

Upon their arrival at Lac St. Anne, home to approximately 200 people, the sisters established themselves in the house which the Oblate missionaries had made available to them. About 30 people greeted the sisters as the rest were out on the Prairie involved in the buffalo hunt—then their principal living. The Sisters were only at Lac St. Anne for five years when they moved to the mission at St. Albert. Regardless of their residence, the sisters assumed a multitude of tasks, be it teaching the people to read, write, or pray. While tending to the necessary gardening, cooking or sewing, the sisters freely taught the skills they employed to anyone who wanted to learn. They also found the time to study the Cree language, in order to converse with the locals. When the sisters were still at Lac St. Anne they prepared a 185-page grammar text which was incorporated in Father Lacombe’s dictionary of the Cree language, published in 1874.

The Holy Cross HospitalThe mission at St. Albert became quite important and prosperous, and the Grey Nuns played a significant role in this. From a school, an orphanage and a very basic hospital, the sisters eventually ran a large school for the children of the area. At the inauguration of the province in 1905, 150 students were enrolled in the school, which also accepted boarders. The sisters taught at St. Albert until 1975, marking 115 years of permanent residence and contribution to the community. From the hospital annex which was constructed next to the mission in 1870 (considered to be the first hospital in Alberta’s central region) rose, in 1895, the Edmonton General Hospital.

As well as administering their affairs at the St. Albert Mission, the Grey Nuns also oversaw all of their other Western missions. Since their humble beginnings at Lac St. Anne, their numbers increased continually. Following the three sisters who went to Lac La Biche in 1862, more nuns travelled to the missions of the Athabasca-Mackenzie in 1867, where a dozen missions and several hospitals were ultimately established.2 In 1897, the provincial council of the Vicariat of the province of St. Albert oversaw the development of 10 missions and residential schools from Île-à-la-Crosse to Fort Providence, Fort Chipewyan to Dunbow in southern Alberta. The manager of all of these missions was Mother vicar Eugénie Letellier who was also the administrator of the Edmonton General Hospital. During the following years, Mother vicar Léa Dandurand opened the St. Paul Hospital in Saskatoon and the mission at Fort Resolution. Mother vicar Agnes Carroll, who had established the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary in 1891, founded the Beauval mission between 1907 and 1910. Additional missions were established including the one in Legal in 1920.

Grey nunsIn 1915, the terms "mother vicar" and that of "vicariate" were dropped in favour of "provincial superior" and "province." The Provincial Superior Mother Saint-Grégoire (Marie-Louisa Béliveau) established St. Thérèse Hospital in St. Paul in 1926. The Grey Nuns of the province of St. Albert accepted the transfer of several missions which had been established in Alberta and Saskatchewan by the Grey Nuns of Nicolet. An establishment was put into place at Portage-la-Loche in 1943.

During the 1950s, several huge projects were managed by the Grey Nuns. In 1962, a new hospital was built in St. Paul to replace the old one which was no longer adequate; a new building was constructed at Lac St. Anne, the d’Youville Home in 1966; and the Grey Nuns Regional Centre became a part of Edmonton in 1967. The more isolated regions were not forgotten and in 1967, a mission was established at Buffalo Narrows, SK; Morinville in 1971; Zenon Park, SK in 1977; as well as at Tuktoyaktuk. It was Sister Marguerite Laforce who agreed to allow the sisters to own the Grey Nuns Hospital in Mill Woods in Edmonton, which opened in 1988. Sister Faye Wylie approved the establishment of La Salle Residence in 1988, and played an important role in the establishment of St. Joseph’s College Bioethics Centre during that same year. In 1992, she was instrumental in establishing the Caritas Health Care Group in Edmonton, which regrouped all of the Catholic health institutions. The sisters also kept a nursing school to train their nurses. One must also remember that before the establishment of the welfare state, the Grey Nuns financed their own institutions. It was not rare during the difficult years of the 1930s and 1940s that the delivery of a newborn was paid for in firewood.

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