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Sisters of Charity—the Grey Nuns

Grey nuns and children outside a convent

In 1737, the founder of the Grey Nuns religious order, Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais (Mère d'Youville), banded together a group of devout women dedicated to helping the poor and the sick in Montréal. More than 100 years later, Bishop Alexandre Taché, O.M.I. would approach the order asking them to send some of their members to minister to the people of the Canadian West.

During their long trek westward the three Sisters of Charity of Montréal—the Grey Nuns—selected for the mission followed in the footsteps of the French Roman Catholic missionaries who had first explored the frontier. However, Sisters Emery, Lamay, and Alphonse would lay claim to their own place in Canadian history as the first women missionaries in Alberta.

They joined Father Albert Lacombe in Lac St. Anne in 1859. Within weeks of their arrival they had begun classes, opened a dispensary and taken to converting the local Métis and Aboriginal populations. In 1863, they moved to the St. Albert mission, where they would leave a deep impression on the province’s history. In addition to tending to the spiritual needs of the mission’s Roman Catholic populations, they opened the first hospital in St. Albert in 1881, which also served as a school and orphanage. Teaching and nursing would occupy most of the Grey Nuns’ energies as the sick, the orphaned and the elderly all came under their care. In 1936, they helped to establish the first hospital at Fort McMurray, and by 1940 had created the first complete Indian Residential School. The Grey Nuns would also staff other residential schools operated by the Oblates. Residential schools arose in part from the belief that the most effective way to reach the Aboriginal People of the West was through education. However, the geographical isolation of many of Alberta’s Aboriginal communities meant that attending a day school was not practical. Residential schools brought children to larger communities, where they received food, lodging and education.

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