Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 7, 2000
Foundress born 200 years ago
Providence Sisters to celebrate anniversary of Emilie Gamelin's birth
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
At the age of 28, Emilie Gamelin had lost her parents, her husband and her three children.
The way in which she lived out her grief in early 19th century Montreal formed the roots of a religious order which today has more than 800 members around the world.
On Feb. 19, the Sisters of Providence will mark the 200th anniversary of Emilie Gamelin's birth with a celebration at St. Joseph's Basilica.
"When I think of Emilie, I think of passion, compassion and devotion," says Sister Carla Montante, provincial superior of the Sisters of Providence.
"As she was living out her grief process, she drew her passion from Mary . . . who became her model and inspiration in living compassionate charity."
Gamelin connected with others who were experiencing grief, by visiting those who were imprisoned, caring for the elderly who had no place to live and giving food to the poor.
Finding there was too much work for her to carry on alone, she gathered a small group of women to help her. Together they cared for the sick, the poor, immigrants, orphans and the disabled.
The bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, recognized a need for their work to continue, and in 1843 he founded a community of religious women, originally named the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor. It was renamed Sisters of Providence because of the sisters' profound trust in providence. Gamelin took her vows in 1844 and was elected the first superior.
Gamelin's devotion to the poor was learned at an early age from her parents and shared by her husband. But most remarkable was her "tangible" trust in providence, Montante says.
"There is a wonderful story that she would come up to the communion rail at Mass, bang on it and say 'Your poor have no food.' Then she would leave, and always she would find the food she needed to carry on her work."
Just as the sisters faced the tragedy of Gamelin's sudden death in 1853 from cholera, they began to respond to requests for their services from other communities. Three of the seven sisters left Montreal for the northwestern United States, but never reached the U.S., landing in Chile where the order still operates today.
In 1856, another group reached the state of Washington, and from there spread northward into western Canada in 1886.
Today, the Sisters of Providence operate two hospitals in B.C., Father Lacombe Nursing Home in Calgary, and Providence Centre and Providence Renewal Centre in Edmonton.
"Emilie left a legacy of compassionate care," says Montante. "She was tutored by God, you could say, in knowing that the poor are special to God.
"That sense of being in touch with those who are suffering today, with the needs of today, is her legacy."
Those needs fall broadly under the umbrella of health care, education and social service, Montante says. Sisters of Providence provide homes for the aged, prison ministry, care for the disabled, the lonely and the sick, and interim housing for women and children experiencing family violence. Their ministries reach from Canada and the U.S. to Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Egypt, the Cameroons, the Philippines and El Salvador.
"As needs were made known, and as the sisters themselves expressed the need for more help, they were sent."
Montante says that just as Gamelin gathered women to help her, whom she called the Ladies of Charity, the Sisters of Providence today draw lay men and women called "Providence Associates" into their work.
"We have been very blessed with men and women who want to live our spirituality and also want to be involved in our mission," says Montante.
"It really follows Emilie's legacy, and it benefits us because different people have different skills to offer."
There are currently close to 1,000 Providence Associates worldwide, surpassing the number of vowed members of the order by almost 200.
And while there are signs of growth - in the Philippines, for example, where the community has grown from five to 14 members over the past 10 years - Montante acknowledges that their numbers have fallen.
"We are experiencing a sense that we may be small in numbers, but that presents opportunities, it encourages a transformation of community structures and new forms of community life within the order."
And just as their foundress trusted in providence to deliver what was needed for her work, the sisters today carry on that legacy.
"In (Emilie's) early life, she was drawn by trust in providence, and when we look at the needs of today, we are faced with the same call to trust.
"We live her dynamism, her trust in providence, and her devotion to the poor. It is as alive today as it was in Emilie's day."