Collaboration with Women's Religious Congregations
Women’s religious congregations provided vital auxiliary services to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Northwest Territories. These congregations included the Sisters of Charity of Montreal/Nicolet (more commonly-known as the Grey Nuns), The Sisters of Providence, the Daughters of Jesus, the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and the Faithful Companions of Jesus. Some of the congregations came from France, while others were formed in Quebec.
The first congregation to aid the Oblates in the North West of Canada was the Grey Nuns Four Sisters - Marie-Louise Valade; Gertrude Coutlée (Sr. St. Joseph); Hedwidge Lafrance; and Eulalie Lagrave - arrived in 1844, opening a convent in St. Boniface to teach young girls at the request of Mgr Provencher. The arrival of the Oblates in the West in the next year marked the beginning of their collaboration with the sisters.
The various women’s religious congregations provided many practical services for Oblate missions, to allow Oblate priests to concentrate on missionary work and spiritual matters. Their duties were largely in the realm of education, health care and social welfare. They opened schools and educated the young; they took in orphans, and cared for the abandoned elderly, the infirm and the sick; they opened hospitals and care centres; and, later, they would run government-funded hospitals and schools. Sisters also did domestic work for missions – laundry, cleaning and cooking. Because these women were bound by a vow of poverty, they did not need to be paid.
The Grey Nuns worked at a number of these government-funded and regulated schools, including those at Dunbow, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Providence and Île-à-la-Crosse. With respect to their hospital work, this included the Edmonton General Hospital (1895), the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary (1891), and Ste-Thérèse Hospital in St. Paul, Alberta (1926). The Sisters of Providence also worked at nine residential schools in the West.
In the 1920s, the government began building new schools which were called Indian Residential Schools. The existing Indian Industrial Schools either closed (Dunbow) or became Indian Residential Schools. Oblates continued to serve in various roles in the Residential School system – again usually as Principals. Lay brothers served in varying roles, as required. Later, as farming operations were established along with the Missions and schools, the lay brothers also contributed to the farm labour.
The sisters, led by a Mother Superior, were teachers, child care workers, nurses and domestics. At times, the Mother Superior and the Principal in charge, who was often an Oblate, clashed over matters such as salaries. The Sisters of Providence, working at residential schools in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, entered into an agreement with the Archdiocese/Vicariate Apostolic, in 1893, to work only for living expenses. Although this was intended to be a temporary arrangement, the Sisters were repeatedly denied requests for salaries. As unsalaried workers, the Sisters were materially dependant on the Archdiocese.
Various women’s religious congregations also ran convent schools throughout Alberta and the West, starting in St. Albert. Most of these schools served White as well as Métis communities (such as Île-à-la-Crosse). Convent or mission schools existed in many locations – Edmonton, Red Deer, Pincher Creek, Morinville, Lac la Biche (after 1905), St. Augustine Mission (after 1907).
Collaboration between Women’s Religious Congregations and the Oblates continues today, through the exchange of archival information and their mutual mission to preserve the heritage of Canada’s Catholic community.
Boily, Carole. Les soeurs grises et les oblats: 154 ans de collaboration. In Raymond Huel (Ed.).Western Oblate studies 5 : proceedings of the fifth Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada, Centre culturel franco-manitobain, Winnipeg, May 27-29, 1999. Winnipeg : Presses universitaires de Saint-Boniface, 2000.
Castonguay, Thérèse. A Leap in Faith: The Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada, Vol. 1.Edmonton: The Grey Nuns of Alberta, 1999.
Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.
Levasseur, Donat, (O.M.I.) Histoire des Missionaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée: Essai de synthèse. Vol. I: 1815-1898. Montréal: Maison Provinciale, 1983.
Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.
McCarthy, Martha. From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.
McGovern, Margaret, S.P. “Perspective on the Oblates: The Experience of the Sisters of Providence.” Western Oblate Studies 3: Proceedings of the Third Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers, 1994.
Mignault, Alice, (S.A.S.V) Cent ans d’Espérance, les Soeurs de l’Assomption de la Sainte Vierge dans l’Ouest canadien, 1891-1991, Édtions S.A.S.V., Nicolet, 1991.
Mitchell, Estelle, Les Soeurs Grises de Montréal à la Rivière-Rouge, 1844-1984, éditions du Méridien, Montréal, 1987.
Roberto, Claude. “Relations entre les Oblats et les autres communautés religieuses dans le fonds oblat de l’Alberta-Saskatchewan.” Western Oblate Studies 3: Proceedings of the Third Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers, 1994.
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