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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence were founded in Montreal by Mother Gamelin. Born Émilie Tavernier in 1800, she had a tragic life. Her Mother died when she was four and her Father died ten years later. Émilie married a wealthy merchant, Jean-Baptiste Gamelin, but in four short years, both her three infant sons and her husband had died, leaving her a widow at the age of 28. Her husband bequeathed her great wealth, but she was left to provide life-long care for a mentally-challenged man named Dodais, who had saved Mr. Gamelin’s life. Émilie Gamelin used her wealth not only to care for Dodais and his mother, but she also began to receive homeless elderly women, orphans, the destitute, and the mentally ill at her two houses. She organized with other lay women to form the Ladies of Charity to provide care for the needy.

Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal was impressed by her work, so much so that he decided to give some permanence to it by inviting the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to come from France and assume direction of her enterprise. But, when the Daughters were unable to come, Mgr. Bourget decided to form a community of Sisters in Montreal to take on the work. In 1843, Émilie Gamelin and six other women became the first members of the Sisters of Providence, with Mother Gamelin as the Superior.

The Sisters of Providence began their work in Montreal. Their mission was broad - they were to meet the needs not being met by others. Thus, they provided many basic social services such as health care; education; child care; and care of the sick, orphans, the elderly and the homeless. In the first years of their existence, the sisters nursed Irish Immigrants who were dying in an epidemic of typhus, and provided a home for Irish orphans. During these years, the Sisters of Providence were led by Mother Gamelin, but she died suddenly of cholera on September 23, 1851.

Mother Gamelin did not live to see the Sisters of Providence spread Westward. They were first called to the West by Bishop Louis D’Herbomez of British Columbia, who needed Sisters to aid in the missions for the Kootenays. The General Council of the Sisters of Providence was prepared to say no. They did not have enough sisters or sufficient finances for the venture, and few sisters spoke English or had experience among Aboriginals. Moreover, the Council was not prepared to demand the sacrifice from the Sisters. But the Superior, Mother Godefroy, asked the Council to reconsider their decision and to ask what Mother Gamelin would have done. The General Council finally accepted the call, and the first Sisters were sent to British Columbia to direct an Industrial School in the Kootenays. In addition, the Sisters of Providence would direct the Saint Mary’s Hospital in New Westminster.

Thereafter, the sisters spread to Alberta. In 1894, six Sisters of Providence were sent to the St. Bernard Mission among the Cree at Lesser Slave Lake. At the Oblate mission, they ran a boarding school and a small hospital. A few years later, the Sisters were sent to Blackfoot Crossing, 70 miles east of Calgary, to open a school on a Blackfoot reserve. In 1915, the sisters moved to a new Indian Residential School, built by the government near the town of Cluny.
The Sisters of Providence did most of their work in the more Northern regions. They began working at St. Augustine Mission near Peace River in 1898. Two years later, they ran a school at St. Henry Mission just north of St. Augustine. That same year, four Sisters of Providence were assigned to the Lake Wabasca area, where they would take on domestic duties, and care of children and the sick at an Oblate mission along the Creek. They also opened a school there.

In 1907, three Sisters of Providence left the mother mission at St. Bernard to aid with a new mission in Sturgeon Lake – a school for Aboriginal and Métis children. Because St. Bernard Mission was too far to serve all the surrounding reserves, St. Bruno was founded nearby on Lesser Slave Lake, and four sisters were transferred there to open a school. One of the later missions of the Sisters of Providence was Assumption Mission at Hay Lake, Alberta. The sisters at St. Augustine Mission were transferred to Assumption to run a new residential school at Hay Lake in 1951.

Prior to the Second World War, the Sisters of Providence provided many institutional needs to compensate for a lack of social welfare programs in the West. They worked at hospitals that also served as orphanages and long-term care facilities for the elderly, and they offered many services at their convents. The Sisters worked mainly in rural areas, where there were few qualified doctors and teachers. For their work, the Sisters were dependent on donations. They would write begging letters and organize annual begging trips, asking for money, clothing, medicine, school supplies and basic supplies. After the Second World War, however, the Sisters of Providence’s institutions and works were largely taken over by governments, so the Sisters became involved in new ventures such as palliative care, home care and combating family violence.

References

LaBissionière, Jean, S.P.. Providence Trail Blazers. Edmonton: Sisters of Providence, 1978.

Sisters of Providence, Holy Angels Province. “Our History.” Retrieved May 19, 2009 from http://www.providence.ab.ca/history.htm
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