Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 3, 2004
Mystic Catherine gave her all
French sisters found first New World hospital north of Mexico
Catherine of St-Augustine -- May 8
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Brilliant, tall coloured windows in Dieppe's parish church of St-Jacques show three nuns on the sailing ship St-Joseph.
They are members of the Hospitaliers of St-Augustine who left from the French port city in 1639 to found the first hospital in the New World north of Mexico.
They joined other religious, including Blessed Marie de l'Incarnation on an historic three month-long voyage.
Arriving in the colony, they began construction of the Quebec hospital in 1644.
Two years later, as their new Hotel Dieu was being blessed, a teenager back in France, taking her vows in their order, would become a pillar of the early Canadian Church.
Born in Normandy in 1632, Catherine de Longpre, a pious and prayerful girl, at 14 entered the Hospitaliers in Bayeaux. Two years later she felt called to volunteer to leave a life of relative ease and join her sisters in Quebec.
She became bursar and novice master at the Hotel Dieu, working tirelessly to nurse the sick until her early death at 36.
Considered to be one of the founders of the Church in Canada, Mary-Catherine-of-St.-Augustine de Longpre was beatified by Pope John Paul in 1989. Her community celebrates her memory each May 8 on the anniversary of her death.
Catherine's early life is the subject of an impressive bronze sculpture by Jules La Salle on the grounds of the Augustine's monastery in Quebec. She is portrayed as a young woman in France almost clinging to a pillar of her Bayeaux home, gazing off to the unknown Western lands across the sea.
Arriving after a plague-ridden voyage during which she experienced a miraculous recovery from the disease, Catherine found Quebec full of Huron refugees and within a year the colony was suffering from famine.
Nevertheless, she became immediately immersed in her ministry of nursing the sick, learned native languages and gained the respect and admiration of the settlement's residents.
The mystic suffers
A mystic who suffered many internal torments, her saintliness was noted by her peers.
Visitors to Quebec can request a tour of parts of the multi-winged monastery. Blessed Catherine's remains are enshrined in an elaborate reliquary designed by Noel Lavasseur which, since 1985 has become the focal point of the Centre-Catherine-de-St-Augustin.
She is also honoured in the chapel of the complex, where a golden sculpture shows Mother Catherine with two sick children.
It complements another, much-venerated gilded figure of Our Lady of All Graces, donated in 1737 in a gesture of thanks for a rescue from shipwreck.
Low point, literally of a tour of the monastery is a visit to the subterranean cellars that were part of a 1695 wing of the complex.
With their rough, unfinished stone walls and limited headroom, these vaults, some of the oldest surviving structures in Quebec, exude history. As the guide explains the many artifacts preserved here, visitors can almost imagine the cries of the wounded and the tramp of foreign soldiers overhead.
During the battle for Quebec in 1759, the Hospitaliers found themselves nursing more than 1,000 injured residents, then staffing an English military hospital before being forced to surrender much of their space for an army barracks.
The sisters; however, refused to leave their home and managed to co-exist with the new tenants until 1784 when the entire complex was returned to them.
In 1825 a new series of hospitals, independent of the monastery buildings was begun still managed by the order until secularized in the 1900s.
Today Hotel Dieu maintains high standards as a research, teaching and care facility.