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
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
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
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
- 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