Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 9, 2001
Book tells local story of Grey Nuns
A Leap in Faith: The Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada, Vol. II, by Therese Castonguay. Grey Nuns of Alberta, Edmonton, 2001. 384 pages. Paper.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, young women today are offered a grand array of models upon which to pattern their lives.
There are, for example, the suffragettes, like Nellie McClung, who helped women during the last century gain the vote and be recognized as "persons." There are also womanists, like Mary Jo Leddy, who have encouraged women to enter the professions as equal partners with men.
But how do contemporary women, or the rest of us for that matter, understand the role that pioneer religious sisters played in establishing schools, hospitals and other early social service agencies in the western and northern regions of Canada? That is a marvellous story of passion, prowess and bravery just begging to be told.
Sister Therese Castonguay, a Grey Nun living in Edmonton, has recently accomplished the telling of at least part of this noble narrative.
In two volumes she traces the history and service of her order from its beginnings in Quebec through their westward journey and establishment in a vast region of the Canadian nation.
In volume one, Castonguay explains how the order's foundress, Marguerite d'Youville of Montreal, saw her congregation, made up largely of health care workers and teachers, formally recognized in 1737.
After a century of outstanding work in Eastern Canada, the Grey Nuns were ready to expand their ministry. These were the first white women to venture past Lake Superior as they sought to be part of their country's foundational development, native with non-native, in the region now known as Alberta.
In volume two, Castonguay focuses on work in two other regions - Central/Northwestern Saskatchewan and Mackenzie River-Western Arctic.
On June 21, 1844 the first sisters arrived at St. Boniface, Man. - 14 months ahead of the first Oblate fathers. Soon, the Oblates began exploring much further west and north. By 1859 the pioneer Alberta Grey Nuns had arrived at the famous spiritual healing site, Lac Ste. Anne. A legacy had begun which was to stretch 140 years into the 21st century.
The "love for God as Father" spirituality of Marguerite and her sisters seemed a natural missionary complement to the Oblates whose Marian spirituality was profound. Whenever tales of the Oblates are told, it is probable that a Grey Nun story is closely related. Or vice-versa.
Even in 1936, when the sisters were formally asked to help the priests establish the first hospital at Fort McMurray, the superior general, Sister Evangeline Gallant, was able to write: "For almost a century our two congregations have journeyed together on the road of sacrifice and apostolate; I would feel like I was failing a duty, if I was the first one to break this tradition."
Thus, 65 years ago, the Grey Nuns joined the Oblates in founding yet another pioneer health care institution.
Whether it was Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Fort Providence or Inuvik, the sisters were there with or without the priests as part of the Church's mission in education, healing arts or other forms of social service.
The narrative unfolds in terms of development at particular locations, not in overall chronological order. The second volume outlines the first entry into present-day Saskatchewan at Ile-a-la-Crosse (1860).
Expansion to other centres is outlined in considerable detail. Movement to the North was initiated at Fort Providence, spreading south and north, from the headwaters of the Mackenzie in Northern Alberta to Inuvik at the river delta.
The reputation of Grey Nuns hospitals, which once dotted the western landscape, has been firmly established.
Those readers who have a negative impression of native residential schools may be pleasantly surprised to discover quotes from First Nations leaders and others who speak with great appreciation for their training from the sisters. A strong emphasis in Grey Nun teaching was dignity and respect for women and men, the love and care of children and adherence to monogamous marital relationships.
The conscientious and sensitive hand of the author is evident throughout the work. Names, places, dates and other details are recorded with care. Endings and the closures of missions are noted with the same attentiveness as arrivals and new beginnings.
The spiritual depth and adaptability of Marguerite, who lived with many troubles herself and yet joyfully trusted God to carry her safely through the worst human circumstances, was imitated and continued by hundreds of her missionary daughters who penetrated Canada's geographical extremities.
Orders such as the Grey Nuns offered women an opportunity to develop their skills in ways that were not then possible in secular society. Orders like the Grey Nuns have helped the Church develop its understanding of the ministry of women.
A weakness of these volumes is that the narrator avoids descriptions of conflict and dissension within or beyond the order. Her purpose is to convey the story in the best possible light and to put the most positive construction on everything that occurred, as Marguerite might have done. Castonguay was therefore rather selective about the subject matter included.
That said, these books offer much reading enjoyment, provide a sense of justifiable pride and offer a rich resource for future research into more extensive Catholic or ecumenical mission histories.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is an instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary. He has written extensively on the Oblate missions.)