Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
July 2, 2001
Evron Sisters tell their story
Book recounts order's 90 years of service in Alberta and Saskatchewan
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron came to Alberta in 1909 but they have been around a lot longer than that.
The congregation is more than 300 years old and its history is filled with stories of persecution and death as well as determination, commitment and zeal for the Lord.
The history of the congregation, particularly its time in Canada, is the subject of a book recently released by the congregation.
Titled Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron in Canada, 1909-1999, the 364-page book was written by former military historian Jean Pariseau. It tells the story of the Sisters of Evron from the viewpoint of their service to children and young people in schools, to native people on their reserves and to the patients in their hospitals.
"The book tells the story of our community in Western Canada with all its ups and downs," explains Sister Mary Ellen O'Neill, superior of the congregation in Canada.
"It shows how these dedicated and generous women overcame tremendous obstacles to establish in several rural communities the apostolic works of teaching and care of the sick."
The book deals briefly with the origins and the work of the congregation in France and Europe before its move to Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The congregation began in 1682 in Evron, France, when Perrine Thulard, a Catholic widow, decided to start a society of women to educate the poor and attend to the sick.
By the start of the French Revolution in July 1789, the order had 200 members and had established a number of schools and hospitals across the country.
But the revolution wasn't kind to the sisters, whose congregation was banned by the revolutionaries and its buildings confiscated and sold.
In retaliation to the sisters' refusal to pronounce the civic oath of the new French government, many sisters were reduced to living in extreme poverty, were mistreated, and even imprisoned and killed.
On March 13, 1794, Sister Francoise Trethet was beheaded along with 12 others at a guillotine in the village square of Ernee. A week later Sister Jeanne Veron, sick with dropsy, was taken to the same guillotine on a stretcher and executed along with five others.
But the suffering and deaths of the sisters bore marvellous results. In the 19th century, their numbers multiplied eightfold. By 1901 the order had 1,660 sisters and owned 318 properties. They taught 30,000 students and cared for more than 3,000 patients in their hospitals.
But new ordeals were in the offing for the sisters, who in the 1880s were again banned from teaching in schools. Since their apostolic work became impossible in France, they settled in Belgium in 1903. The next year they received permission to go to England, where they opened schools and hospitals.
On June 29, 1909, a group of eight nuns left Evron for Alberta, at the invitation of the St. Albert Diocese and the residents of Trochu. No one could have foreseen at that time that some 20 houses would open in Alberta and Saskatchewan over the course of the next 90 years.
Within two years of their arrival, the sisters had opened a school, convent and hospital in Trochu. These were soon followed by another house, a hospital and nursing station in Vegreville and a convent in Strathcona.
The sisters expanded their operations to other places in Alberta, including the Beaver River Reserve, northeast of Bonnyville, where in 1916 they opened a mission among the Chipewyan Indians. Three year later, the sisters arrived in Bonnyville, where they founded St. Louis Hospital and took over the village school. The sisters also served in Delburne, Vermilion, St. Paul, Veteran, Clandonald and Fort Saskatchewan.
After their arrival in Trochu the Evron Sisters always helped missionaries by giving catechism classes for children who had no access to Catholic schools. They went to parishes or communities to teach the basics of the faith to prepare children for First Communion or Confirmation.
At the request of the bishop of Prince Albert, the sisters expanded to Saskatchewan in 1920. By 1925 they had already opened a convent and a 40-bed hospital and a nurses' residence in Tisdale, some 200 km northeast of Saskatoon. This was followed by the opening of a convent and a boarding school in nearby Zenon Park.
The book has a section written by Sister O'Neill that tells how the sisters dealt with the Second Vatican Council and its repercussions as well as how they faced the changes in Canadian society since the 1960s.
The book also gives details about the opening of four other houses in Edmonton.
In the book's conclusion, O'Neill notes that while in the beginning of the last century conditions required that religious take up the task of providing health and social services as well as education, today most of these services are "very adequately" provided by the laity.
"It is true that we were quite comfortable in these settings. . . . However that chapter in our history is closed," she writes.
While the Sisters of Evron continue to be involved in health care in their hospitals in Trochu, Vegreville and Bonnyville, relying on lay staff to administer the facilities, they have also turned to other ministries: as pastoral agents in parishes, in prison ministry, administration, and in rehabilitation programs for physically and mentally challenged individuals.
"Our lives have changed radically from what we once thought was very much part of our religious commitment," O'Neill says. "We have moved toward individual ministries and our concept of community life is understood less as uniformity and more as a life of sharing and solidarity."
There are currently 31 Sisters of Evron in the Canadian Province, all of them in Alberta.
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