Grey Nuns Srs. Jeannine Coulombe, left, Marie Rose Hurtubise (sitting) and Dora Durand stand in front of a statue of their foundress, St. Marguerite de Youville.


Grey Nuns Srs. Jeannine Coulombe, left, Marie Rose Hurtubise (sitting) and Dora Durand stand in front of a statue of their foundress, St. Marguerite de Youville.

February 9, 2015

It was in the fall of 1859 that the Grey Nuns arrived in Alberta, welcomed by Father Albert

Lacombe at Lac Ste. Anne with ringing church bells and dancing First Nations people.

But a year later, Lacombe took Bishop Alexander Taché up to a hill outside of what is now St. Albert and showed him a wide vista of land that could be used as a settlement and farming.

Now, 165 years later, Sister Jeannine Coulombe, a Grey Nun who lives at Villa Marguerite in Edmonton's west end, shows the impressive vista to a visitor.

It was not an easy life for the first Grey Nuns, and several of the 30 sisters in the order who serve in Alberta today shared historical lore from the nuns' work and life with the Missionary Oblates.

One story close to their hearts is that of Father Lacombe during a smallpox epidemic among the First Nations people. He visited the camps, found babies lying on their dead mothers and brought them to the sisters.

One day, the sisters' orphanage area was packed. They sent word to him. "There is no more room. Father, we don't have any more room."

Lacombe was in an outpost camp and sent an aboriginal man carrying a baby girl to the sisters. He wrote, "Sisters, I know you are full to capacity. But I know with your big hearts you will not refuse this little girl. If you don't have anything to dress her in, take my cassocks and sew her a dress."

That is how close the nuns were with the Oblates. They worked with them, suffered with them – these intrepid women whose motto was to go everywhere for Jesus and the poor.

Their official date of arrival in St. Albert is 1863. They were the Grey Nuns – Soeurs Grises to the francophones.

They are retired now but continue to keep active as they carry the history of their order close to their hearts.

Sister Dora Durand is the leader at Youville Home in St. Albert, the one who makes decisions for those who are infirm.

"My responsibility to is to be aware of all the sisters' needs. I have five sisters on the long term who I visit every day, and see what their needs are. Those who can come to chapel I bring them to the chapel."

A sister for 60 years, she adds "I give them courage, help them out. I am not a nurse. Sometimes I feel like that; do their beds, help them dress.'"


Durand knew she wanted to be a nun when she saw a film about the sisters in the Northwest Territories. "Here they were in a sled going to visit one native home and then another native home. That was my desire. To go up to the North. But lo and behold, when I made my first profession, they sent me way down south to the Blood Reserve.

Consecrated Life

"I was 20 years there. When we opened up the mission on the Blood Reserve, we did a lot of social work with the people who were having problems. I never worked as a social worker there in an agency."

Finally, she got her social work diploma in Quebec, worked in the Northwest Territories and moved to Edmonton where she worked as a social worker with young offenders.

Bumps along the way?

"If I would not be happy, I would not be here today," Durand replies and laughs.

Sister Marie Rose Hurtubise is in charge of the chapel as a sacristan.

But she does more. "Every morning I feed residents breakfast. The staff is so happy to have some help. It is volunteer work. I also drive the sisters wherever they need to go, play the organ every other Sunday. My identical twin plays the other week.

"It's a lot of fun."

During the day, Sister Marie Rose loves sewing baby blankets for the Lurana Shelter. "I'm always busy, busy."

She first knew she wanted to be a nun when she saw sisters praying in the chapel. "I thought 'I want to spend time in the chapel. Being a nun I can have more time and dedicate my life to God.'

"My twin sister was not sure that she was going to do the same thing. We were so close. We had the same affinities. She tried it out and then she said 'Good bye.'

"And I stayed."

Sister Marie Rose went to normal school. But when she went to Ottawa for further study she said "No, I don't want to teach anymore."

She was given tests and the nuns discovered she would be a good accountant. "So I was an accountant for 20 years. Loved it. Loved balancing the books. Computers came and I did the Grey Nuns' archives for 19 years. But I am retired now."

Another sister at the interview, Jeannine Coulombe was the 13th child in a family of 16. She watched the Grey Nuns in Legal.


"They were so wonderful, so warm. They would teach all day and visit homes of the poor at night, and sometimes do their laundry.

"When I was in Grade 5, my teacher cared for each student as if they were the only one. I thought 'That is what I want to do.'

"My real crisis was at 18 when I was looking for a meaning in life," said Coulombe. "'Why the heck am I here? Why was I born?' I was searching for meaning."

But then love – a boyfriend – entered the picture .

Said Coulombe, "He had his farm, his house, his cattle. All he needed was a wife. I wasn't ready.

"I told my Dad 'I want to do a good Grade 12. I have to go away (to the Sisters of Providence in McLennan).'"

She told her boyfriend, "I want to go to the convent. Let me try it first."

A priest there showed her she was searching for a life as a religious.

"The Sisters of Providence were good to me, but my heart was with the Grey Nuns."

Her boyfriend? He waited for her for three years and then gave up.

"I chose Jesus," said Coulombe.

The sisters bring up the subject of the residential schools.

They say they gave everything in those schools for love for Jesus and the poor. They said they loved those children.


Sister Marie Rose told of an instance when she saved her classroom of young children. Suddenly, they started falling asleep.

"I said, 'Wake up! Wake up!'" She had them stand up clap their hands, do exercises, run around the gym. But then they fell asleep again.

She thought "Something is up."

In fact they were being poisoned by a gas leak. Sister hurried them out back to their rooms.

Propane gas was escaping from pipes at the top of the room.

"The guy came and fixed it but it was close," Sister Marie Rose recalled. She was later told "You saved their lives."

Now there are no new Grey Nuns.

The sisters believe their lifestyle is irrelevant for today's generation. But make no mistake, they say. Religious life is not ready to die; it is just evolving.

They noted that at one time there were no active sisters; all women religious were contemplatives. But the Grey Nuns came and led an apostolic religious life. Now religious life is evolving again.

These vibrant nuns know they have realized their mandate.

"I really believe that if Jesus Christ is loved and followed, and the poor reverenced, we have accomplished our mission," Coulombe stated firmly.