Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Sisters built first hospitals
They came from afar to meet health care needs of pioneers, natives
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
One of the most important contributions of Roman Catholics in Alberta has been the establishment of hospitals and homes for orphans, invalids and the elderly.
Women's religious orders came to Alberta and launched many of the province's first hospitals. Not only did the orders open traditional acute-care hospitals, they also provided homes for unwed mothers, orphans, the elderly, and the physically and mentally handicapped as well as opening several nursing schools.
Although declining numbers of religious sisters have led most of the orders to transform ownership of their facilities in recent decades, they have left behind a legacy of health care that continues to benefit Albertans today.
It was Bishop Norbert Provencher, whose diocese comprised the entire North-West, who first convinced the Sisters of Charity of Montréal (Grey Nuns) to come and help the Oblates in their missionary efforts, but his suffragan bishop, Alexandre Taché, and Vital Grandin, first bishop of St Albert, and his successor Émile Legal, successfully petitioned many other religious congregations, most of them French or French-Canadian, to come to Alberta to establish more institutions.
Although mostly French-speaking (there were Ukrainian religious as well), learning to speak English was essential, if they were not already bilingual. The Oblate missionaries were instrumental in recruiting and aiding the establishment of these religious communities until the twenties, after which there continued to be a strong working relationship between them.
With the creation of the diocese of Calgary in 1912 and the nomination of Bishop John McNally, and likewise with the nomination of Henry Joseph O'Leary as archbishop of Edmonton in 1920, other religious communities (English-speaking) were recruited to Alberta.
Around 1950, Roman and Greek Catholics made up less than a quarter of the population of Alberta, but a third of hospitals and hospices in the province were Catholic run. This includes the federally owned Blood Indian Hospital, which was established and managed by the Grey Nuns, and Ste-Anne's Hospital at Fort Smith, N.W.T., founded in 1906 by these sisters, and serving Albertans in the northern reaches of the province, as well as residents of the North West Territories.
The experience of establishing and operating these institutions carries many similarities. So as to avoid needless repetition, we focus here on the history a few representative ones from the urban and rural regions, and conclude with a list of them all.
The Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns) first came to Lac Ste. Anne in 1859, but this mission was moved to the more centrally located St Albert four years later. Nursing was one of their duties; they also took in orphaned children, as well as the elderly and infirm.
Foyer Youville, a continuing care institution in that city, is a prolongation of that good work. The building, vacated when the residential school and orphanage was closed during the 1940s, was transformed into a nursing home.
The first hospital in the region was located in St. Albert, but because of the distance from Fort Edmonton, which was booming following the arrival of the railroad, the doctors requested a change in location.
A move was agreed to and the Edmonton General Hospital opened Dec. 15, 1895. The chief-factor of Fort Edmonton donated $1,000 for construction of the building, and the land, worth $3,200 and donated by the Hudson Bay Company, was located on Jasper Avenue between 111th and 112th streets. A school of nursing was established there in 1908.
There was already a hospital in Calgary in 1888. But to assure that Catholics received the religious care in their time of sickness, the Oblates approached the Grey Nuns of Montreal to establish a second hospital there. In spite of very limited means, the sisters agreed to come, and the Holy Cross Hospital was founded in 1891.
The local resistance to the Catholic presence persisted, but the public was soon won over when the excellent nursing skills of the sisters was seen during some epidemics of smallpox and diphtheria. The hospital grew from four beds in January 1891 to 516 in 1967. A school of nursing was established in 1907.
Early on, funds were raised by the Ladies Aid Society and by donations from those who worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway, as the sisters were allowed to board the train and ask for alms. In the 1960s, with membership declining in the religious orders, concurrent with the establishment of publicly funded health care, the Holy Cross was transferred to the Calgary and Rural General Hospital District (Rockyview) in 1969.
Blood Indian Hospital
The Grey Nuns established three other hospitals in Alberta, in the extreme south at Standoff, in St. Paul to the northeast and at Fort McMurray in the north of the province. Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Hospital was founded at Standoff in 1893, moved to nearby Cardston in 1929, and is now known as the Blood Indian Hospital.
In the St. Paul region, there were several doctors and a small hospital had been established in the town, but the sisters were asked to take over its management. It reopened as Ste-Thérèse Hospital in 1926 with 25 beds.
For many years there was no elevator in the hospital and patients had to be carried up and down the staircases.
The sisters retained ownership in 1945 when they put the hospital under the Municipal Hospitals Scheme by which a tax of three cents an acre provided health care at one dollar a day for residents of the municipality. The transfer of ownership occurred in 1970.
The Sisters of Miséricorde, a congregation from Montr‚al focusing on the care of unwed mothers, established the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton in 1900 at the request of Bishop Grandin. Intended for unwed mothers, the institution served more as a maternity hospital, but took in all kinds of patients, including men and children, the homeless and orphans.
Initially located near the St. Albert Trail, and then in the Oliver district, in 1906, a new hospital (on the west side of 111th Street between 98th and 99th avenues) was completed at the cost of $55,000. A school of nursing was established in 1907.
In July 1969, the Misericordia was relocated to a new site in west Edmonton. The eight-storey building cost $21 million, and had a capacity of 521 beds and 100 bassinets, with an 11-storey school of nursing, a sisters' residence wing and a chapel.
A lay advisory board had been created in 1955 and, in 1991, the Alberta government purchased the hospital. The sisters remained involved as members of the Caritas Health Group, established in 1992, which is dedicated to continued Catholic care in Edmonton institutions which were developed by religious congregations.
Sisters of Providence
The Sisters of Charity of Providence of Montreal came to what is now Alberta at the invitation of Bishop Emile Grouard, to Grouard Mission, near Lesser Slave Lake in 1894. Thirty orphans were waiting for them; within a short time, they had 81, plus 19 destitute elderly women in residence.
The story of the Sisters of Providence in northern Alberta is one of poverty, isolation, deprivation and courage.
Of the half dozen hospitals which this congregation established, St. Martin Hospital at Demarais (Wabasca), is typical. Begun as a boarding school for native children in 1901, it was so isolated that the sisters often stayed for years without leaving.
As well as teaching and operating the boarding school, they visited the sick and administered medicine in times of epidemic, often nursing sick boarders or people of the community stricken with tuberculosis or scrofula.
A temporary hospital was built in 1928, which was replaced by a new 20-bed hospital in 1934. Conditions there were very difficult, with famine in the local population, failed crops, loss of farm animals due to the cold and lack of feed in the winter, combined with numerous fires that destroyed buildings and livestock.
Roads, when they did exist, were often impossible to travel in the winter, and difficult in the spring or during rainy periods. The hospital was closed in 1973, reopened as a day clinic the next year, serving five reserves in the area.
St. Martin's Health Centre, administered by the Slave Lake Hospital, was opened in 1979, but an arsonist's fire forced it to close for a year. Another clinic was opened by the sisters' and some other staff in the interim. After the opening of a new hospital in 1989, the sisters continued to be involved in the health care services in the area.
Need in rural areas
During the early phases of settlement, communities in rural Alberta were in dire need of hospitals. As always, bishops turned to religious congregations for assistance. The Sisters of Providence agreed in 1909 to operate the Father Lacombe Nursing Home at Midnapore, taking in the elderly, the handicapped, and orphans, providing health and palliative care, and schooling for orphans. It was operated solely through the generous donations of Patrick Burns, Charles Duggan and other patrons. Public funding was only made available in 1961.
Bishop Émile Legal recruited the Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron, a French congregation from Mayenne, in the west of France, in 1909. The sisters settled at Trochu, where their compatriots, the Tinchebray Fathers, had established themselves a few years previously.
The sisters opened a hospital immediately upon their arrival, in a temporary building. When St. Mary's Hospital was built in 1910, all the construction material had to be carried overland by wagon from the railhead at Didsbury or Olds - an expensive proposition indeed.
The hospital was officially recognized by the Alberta government only in 1912, but this brought in the much-needed revenue of 50 cents per patient per day. A modern 29-bed hospital opened in 1950, expanded as the Trochu Health Care facilities in 1974.
All along, the sisters received the help of the Hospital Aid, a committee of local fundraisers. The sisters withdrew in 1979, but the institution continues under lay administration.
Although from the start, the French congregation planned to settle in Calgary, having obtained Legal's permission and purchased valuable land there, following the creation of the Diocese of Calgary in 1912, this was not to be. The new bishop John McNally, who carried considerable anti-French sentiment, told them they were not needed.
Other communities were more welcoming. A year after their arrival in Alberta, the sisters established a hospital at Vegreville, which operated out of the church's rectory until 1911, when St. Joseph's General Hospital, a 40-bed facility, was opened on the current site. A school of nursing was opened in 1915, which at the time of its closure in 1971, had graduated 468 registered nurses.
In 1919, the Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron established a third hospital, this time in the French-Canadian community of Bonnyville, which they named St. Louis Hospital in honour of the patron saint of the parish.
The sisters also ran a boarding school in the same building. A new hospital was completed in 1929, and thanks to the Ladies Christian Organization, funds were raised to support the hospital.
The hospital was operated by the sisters until 1976 when a lay administrator was chosen. With the amalgamation of nearby Duclos Hospital with St. Louis, in 1986, the Bonnyville Health Centre was created; the sisters transferred their ownership in June 2005.
Sisters from Halifax
The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (Halifax) came to Alberta in 1925 at the request of Archbishop Henry Joseph O'Leary. They opened hospitals in Westlock (Immaculata) in 1927, Hardisty (St. Anne's Hospital, now the Hardisty District General Hospital) in 1929, and the Seton General Hospital, in 1930, in Jasper. The Jasper facility was initially known as St. Martha's Hospital, but the name was changed to honour Elizabeth Seton, the foundress of the order.
The sisters financed their own hospitals, although Seton received a $25,000 grant from the Canadian National Railways to start off, and annual grants of $2,500. In spite of these large gifts, the initial cost of Seton Hospital was around $52,000, with $10,000 of equipment and furnishings.
The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul (Kingston) came to Alberta at the invitation of E.W. Day, for whom is named the town of Daysland, where they established Providence Hospital in 1908. It was then the only hospital east of Edmonton on the CPR line. It has now been amalgamated into the Daysland General and Auxiliary Hospital and Nursing Home District.
Their St. Mary's Hospital at Camrose was a much more formidable affair. Bishop Henry Joseph O'Leary laid the cornerstone of the 50-bed hospital, valued at $100,000, which opened in 1924. Four doctors were on staff from the start and there was a nursing school. Three additions were made, but in 1989 a completely new facility was opened, providing more space for modern equipment and services.
The Sisters of Providence (Kingston) were also present in Edmonton. In 1915, at Legal's request they established a hostel for girls, and during the twenties, O'Leary asked them to take responsibility of St. Mary's Home for Boys in Edmonton.
In 1927, Sister Mary Angel Guardian, who had come to Alberta at Daysland in 1908, and Sister Mary Alacoque, who was then Superior of St. Mary's Home, were delegated to approach O'Leary and petition for the establishment of a nursing home for aged pioneers in Edmonton. In 1929, a 120-room apartment block was purchased by the sisters and converted into a home for the aged.
Very quickly, it became obvious that the House of Providence did not have sufficient space for long-term patients and care for the aged. In 1930, it became known as St. Joseph's Hospital for the Chronically Ill. A new four-storey building was opened in 1948, and provision had been made for additional storeys, which were added in 1955.
There were several other expansions and improvements, but a new 200-bed St. Joseph's Auxiliary Hospital was built in the 1990s and continues to provide a much-needed service in south Edmonton.
The congregation of Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate was established in Ukraine in 1892. They accompanied the Basilian Fathers to Edmonton in 1902, but soon settled in Mundare, and in other Ukrainian communities across the Canadian West.
They educated young people, established kindergartens, taught in elementary schools and secondary schools, colleges and catechetical schools, and also worked with the sick and elderly in hospitals and shelters, the homeless and orphans.
After nursing patients in their Mundare school, they opened a 24-bed hospital in 1929, the first Ukrainian hospital in Canada. A second hospital was opened at Willingdon in 1935 in a small rented house. An almost-complete facility was lost to fire in 1935, and immediately reconstructed in 1937. In 1959, the new establishment was named Mary Immaculate Hospital.
Daughters of Wisdom
The congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom (les Filles de la Sagesse) is another French order which came to Canada towards the end of the 19th century.
A small group of these sisters came to Red Deer in 1908, and established a boarding school at St. Joseph Convent there. Five more sisters came to Castor in 1911 to manage a hospital for which their congregation paid three quarters of the $12,000 building cost.
The sisters at Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital faced poverty, overwork, typhoid, and very arduous living conditions initially, as the building was unfinished when the sisters arrived.
During the spring of 1912, the sisters broke the ground for a garden with a pick axe, as a garden was an absolute necessity in those days.
The hospital is now under the sponsorship of the Alberta Catholic Health Corp.
The Sisters of St. Martha (Antigonish) were established as a service order in 1900. The sisters came to Lethbridge in 1929, after being invited by Bishop John Kidd of Calgary. They bought a small existing hospital and replaced it with a 125-bed hospital within two years.
Finances were tight as the Great Depression was very hard on the region and crops were practically nonexistent. Nevertheless they managed to pay the bills and continue. The sisters withdrew in 1985 from St. Michael's Health Centre.
The Banff establishment was, previous to 1934, a sanatorium that used the hot mineral springs in the area for treatment, hence the name, Mineral Springs Hospital.
During the first years, the hospital specialized in treatment with the mineral waters, taking arthritic patients and Workmen's Compensation patients, but this trickled to a near halt by 1950, when other methods of treatment proved to be more effective.
The hospital was by then in dire need of replacement, but money was short. The sisters agreed to rebuild on the condition that the townspeople would accept the Municipal Hospitals' Scheme, which had been refused previously.
When a plebiscite was finally held in 1955, the vote was 90 per cent in favour. The new hospital was opened in 1958 as a general hospital. Ownership was relinquished to the Alberta government in 1988, but the Banff and Lethbridge hospitals remain within the Alberta Catholic Health Corp.
In 1934, the region outside the national park also had an active coalmining industry. The sisters established a convent at Canmore, where they visited the sick, ran a kindergarten and taught catechism. Theirs was the first social service centre in the Diocese of Calgary. The sisters withdrew to Banff in 1961; their convent has since become a parish hall.
In their involvement with the mining community, the sisters opened St. Alphonsus Convent at Blairmore, in 1939, where they provided a kindergarten and social services for nearby towns as well such as Coleman and Bellevue. These services later became associated with the Crowsnest Pass Family Service Bureau.
Gov't limits Church hospitals
In 1958, with the passing of the Alberta Health Act, grants for construction and for day-to-day operation became available, but private hospitals - most of these were Church owned - could no longer be built. Money was still available for upgrading, but it entailed a great deal of paperwork.
As well, during the 1960s, when most religious communities were least expecting it, recruitment in the orders declined in an unprecedented fashion, and most congregations transferred ownership of their hospitals to the province or municipal government.
A few of them maintained a position on the board of directors of the governing council, and the Alberta Catholic Health Corporation was created to regroup former Catholic owned hospitals and maintain the mission and identity of Catholic health care in the province.