The Grey Nuns Journey to the Far West and Abroad
It all began in 1857 when Bishop Alexandre Taché made a request to Mother Julie Deschamps, Superior of the Grey Nuns. He explained, “There are so many needs in the far west of Canada! Would you have Sisters ready to leave everything and come to the new mission of Lac Sainte Anne?” “Yes,” she said. “Our calling is to bring the Good News to all; however, there is one condition. Will you be able to provide for their spiritual needs and their daily bread?” The Bishop replied, “The missions are extremely poor; I cannot even assure you that the Sisters will have the necessities of life.” Mother answered, “In this case, they shall fast along with the priests and the people and we shall ask God to help them.” This historic encounter was the foundation stone of a ‘mission’ that has provided for the needs of thousands of people. It also defined the commitment of the valiant missionary women.
For the service of God and of the poor, Mother Deschamps wanted women, who were energetic, strong, compassionate, and generous like Marguerite d’Youville. She would ever remind them: “Take good care of the poor.” These words epitomized the life of the Grey Nuns. Grounded in a spirit of “gift of self”, the chosen young women accepted joyously and faithfully their commitment that would become “love at work” in keeping with the mission of The Grey Nuns of Montreal.
On 19 September 1858, three Grey Nuns left Montreal en route to the West. Sister Emery (Zoé Leblanc), 31 years old, became the “doctor” of the district. Sister Adèle Lamy, 23 years old, became the sacristan, the cook, and the gardener. Sister Alphonse (Marie Jacques), 23 years old, became the teacher, holding daily classes for children and women eager to learn.
The Grey Nuns reached Saint Boniface, Manitoba, forty-two days later. They remained there for nine months to acclimatize themselves and learn from the native people and their Grey Nun Sisters who had been there since 1844. On 3 August 1859, the heroic missionaries bade farewell to the Grey Nuns in Saint Boniface, Manitoba. They were accompanied by Marie-Louise, a young and courageous Métis interpreter. The great adventure continued for another fifty-three days. Through sloughs, muskegs, creeks, and rivers they crossed the prairies. Over the plains, they plodded along with the six ox-carts, pestered by flies and mosquitoes especially when they retired for a much-needed sleep under their tent, following a frugal evening meal and prayer. They suffered greatly from the elements and from a growing and uncomfortable lack of privacy as families joined the caravan on the way.
At last, on 24 September 1859, at 3:00 p.m., the caravan arrived at Lac Sainte Anne, Alberta. The church bells rang out and Father Albert Lacombe joyfully greeted the Sisters, while the Métis and Natives welcomed them with a dance. After a prayer of thanksgiving in the church decorated as on a festive day, Father Lacombe led them to their temporary home.
Within a week, the Sisters had visited every family with Marie-Louise. They began to study the Cree language, taught school to both adults and children, visited and cared for the sick. Coming to share the labours of the missionaries and of the people, they also shared their poverty and the severity of the time. Painfully aware of the lamentable situation, Father Lacombe visited other sites searching for ministry and livelihood possibilities. He was successful in finding such a location, which he named “Saint Albert Mission”; and preparations were made for an eventual move to the “promised land”.
On 23 March 1863, the three Grey Nuns and Marie-Louise, having packed their meagre belongings, bade farewell to their friends at Lac Sainte Anne. They brought with them seven orphans and travelled the full day by cart to reach Saint Albert. For over a year, they resided in a small log cabin while their own house was being built. Even in this limited space, they sheltered a 100-year old man.
It was on 18 September 1864 that Father Lacombe blessed the new convent. Without delay, the Sisters opened a school, an orphanage, and a rudimentary hospital where many people of various faiths and ethnic origins found compassion and deep respect. This “promised land” soon became a beehive of activity. The Grey Nuns’ mission of educating and healing continued with dynamism, love, and expertise. These valiant women, ever pushing the margins in joyful hope, remained confident in the infinite tenderness of our loving God, in the faithful presence of Jesus, and in the unfailing power of the Spirit.
Treasuring their mission of “love at work”, the preparation of future Grey Nuns became a privileged responsibility for the Sisters. Generous local young women came forth in faithful response to the gifts of the Spirit and in view of the mission.
Over the years, more than fifty (50) faith-based mission ministries were established in the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan (Canada), and Zaire (Africa). In keeping with their charism and with boldness, they led the way into our era of technology and passionately transmitted the flame of a mission of love, of faith, and of service to all peoples.
Our missionary journey is an open-ended story with a past, a present, and a future. Indeed, the legacy of love handed down to the Grey Nuns by their Foundress, Marguerite d’Youville, is not simply historical; it is ever vibrant. Today, as in the past, the Grey Nuns of Saint Albert are blessed with a unique group of dedicated and caring women ready to serve and respond to the needs. Hence, to consider our mission yesterday, today, and tomorrow is to view the same mission carried out in different ways amid different peoples, in different times, and in different locations. Indeed, our pride rests not in having been, but rather in being relevant to the times. It is as women of presence, women of prayer, women ministering in partnership with the laity, and as advocates for the poor that we journey among the marginalized, in solidarity with a thousand faces.