Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 6, 1999
A history of heroic Grey Nuns
Sister's book scans religious order's pioneering work in West
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Written large in the history of the Church of the Canadian Northwest are the Sisters of Charity of Montreal - the Grey Nuns.
Trading Quebec's Old World culture for the harsh frontier, the Grey Nuns responded to the Gospel challenge and numbered among the region's earliest missionaries.
Their history is now the subject of a book by Sister Therese Castonguay, an Edmonton Grey Nun who knows how to make history come alive.
Leap in Faith - The Great Nun Ministries in Western and Northern Canada is the first of two volumes narrating the arrival and missionary endeavours of the Grey Nuns from Montreal to the far West.
Volume II, to be complete in about a year, will cover the history of the order in northern Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Zaire.
Leap in Faith depicts the founding of the Grey Nun missions in Alberta at the request of the Oblate missionaries in a clear, fast-paced way that can hold the reader's attention.
Beginning at Lac Ste. Anne in 1859 when the sisters arrived by Red River cart, and leading the reader onward through a span of 140 years, Leap in Faith highlights the reality and challenges of each period, capturing vividly the courageous spirit of these women religious.
The book depicts the factors that motivated the sisters to come to Western and Northern Canada: A deep faith and a desire to bring healing to the sick, comfort to the dying, education to the children and the Word of God to everyone.
"The sisters we imbued with the spirit of their founder, St. Marguerite d'Youville," writes Sister Marcia Wiley, provincial superior of the Grey Nuns, in the book's preface. "They were filled with enthusiasm, strong determination, perseverance and profound faith."
To capture the essence of the primitive settlements and their development as well as the challenges and hardships encountered by the missionaries, Castonguay thoroughly researched the Grey Nun archives (and the public archives) in Montreal, St. Boniface and Edmonton.
It took her a year full time and a half-year part time to research and complete the 324-page book.
What surprised Castonguay the most was "the heroism they had."
"Despite the difficulties of travelling and the lack of facilities, they never quit. They would have never done what they did without faith," she told the WCR.
Castonguay also learned how vital a role the Grey Nuns played in the development of Western and Northern Canada.
"They were foundresses of most of the first hospitals and schools in cities and towns in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta."
Founded in 1737 by St. Marguerite d'Youville, the Grey Nuns began trekking to the northwest more than a century later at the invitation of the Oblate missionaries. They arrived in St. Boniface, Man., in 1844.
"One cannot read, except through tears, the unbelievable dangers faced by the Grey Nun pioneers when they first embarked, in 1844, for a 59-day voyage of 3,500 km, in two-wheel carts drawn by oxen, in birch bark canoes, doing at least 78 portages when rapids had to be bypassed," writes Castonguay.
Fifteen years later, travelling by horse-drawn buggy, three sisters arrived in Lac Ste. Anne. They spent 52 days covering 1,400 km of rough roads between St. Boniface and the Alberta mission.
In 1863, they came to St. Albert where they continued teaching and caring for the sick and elderly, living in a log cabin loaned to them by pioneer missionary Oblate Father Albert Lacombe.
As needs arose, new Alberta missions were opened:
Leap in Faith is for sale at the Grey Nuns Regional Centre or Edmonton General, Grey Nuns or Misericordia hospitals.
- In 1884, an Indian Industrial School in Donbow (High River).
- In Calgary in 1891, a hospital ward which became Holy Cross Hospital.
- A hospital and school at the Blood Reserve in 1893.
- Edmonton's General Hospital in 1895.
- In 1896, the sisters took charge of an Indian school on the Peigan Reserve.
- In 1920, a convent for girls at Legal.
- In 1926, St. Therese Hospital in St. Paul.
"In it you will find why they came, what they did and why we are leaving," said Castonguay. Today there are 97 Grey Nuns in Alberta and the Northwest Territories; in the early 1970s there were 250.