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Positions of Power


Just as women in religious missions symbolized an idealized notion of womanhood, they also represented a break with these notions. Mission work allowed women to leave the space of their family's home and their hometown and venture into a new environment. An act that was, in many respects, both brave and adventurous.

Becoming a nun, in particular, was an alternative to marriage and family of onGerneral Hospital, Edmonton.  Glenbow Archivese’s own. Both nuns and the wives of missionaries came to occupy positions of great responsibility and authority in the missions. They often helped to establish and operate the orphanages and schools. For instance, the Grey Nuns eventually spread out from their first mission work at Lac Ste. Anne to be present at many Roman Catholic missions. At these they usually operated schools. One of the first projects of the Sisters of Evron when they settled in Trochu in 1909 was the opening of the first private boarding school for the area's children. Also, the Daughters of Wisdom arrived from France and Eastern Canada for the specific purpose of founding a boarding school in Red Deer.

Women usually became the medical experts in mission communities before the establishment of hospitals. Annie McDougall, John McDougall's sister-in-law describes how people would come to the women for help in childbirth, setting broken bones, curing illnesses and many other ailments. During the influenza epidemics of the 1870s, this role became very important and dangerous. Elizabeth McDougall was active in nursing those sick with influenza and even when her whole family became sick she was the only one to remain healthy. The Sisters of Evron also led in the establishment of hospitals around Trochu and in other locations throughout Alberta.

These orders of religious sisters used what little resources were available to open the first hospitals in small communities; the Sisters of Evron upon their arrival converted a granary into a temporary hospital, the necessity of which became immediately apparent when a typhoid epidemic hit in 1910. Finally, missionary wives often took over the running of the missions while their husbands were away on frequent trips, acquiring supplies from the forts, hunting or visiting distant native tribes to gather converts. The women then took over their husbands' responsibilities, such as giving sermons or directing construction of buildings.

Women played an important role in the early mission field. Although white women had been discouraged from settling in Western Canada, around the mid-19` century they were increasingly viewed as a civilizing force. Missionary women were to act as role models for Aboriginal women, teaching them the attributes of a proper lady, which they would in turn teach to their families and communities. However, missionary women, while symbolizing traditional femininity, also represented a break from it, since their work and responsibilities often required that they step outside the domestic sphere into the public role of religious leaders of their communities.


  • Castonguay, Thérèse. A Leap in Faith: The Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada. Vol. 1. Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, 2000.
  • McDougall, Annie. "Pioneer Life in the 1870s." Alberta History 1998 46(3): 25-27.
  • McDougall, John. Parsons on the Plains. Ed. Thomas Bredin. Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1971.
  • Rutherdale, Myra. "'I Wish the Men Were Half as Good:' Gender Constructions in the Canadian North-Western Mission Field, 1860-1940." Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women's History. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British Columbia


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