Giving birth on the desolate Canadian prairie at the turn of the twentieth century would have been difficult and lonely if it were not for the caring and courageous ministrations of the local midwife. Many children born in one small Manitoba French-Canadian village owe their safe entry into the world to a quiet, unassuming pioneer woman.
Delphine Duprey began her life on June 9, 1871 in Massachusetts, eldest in a family of four boys and five girls whose parents, Maxime and Delphine, had moved from Quebec to work in the mills and then to homestead in the Dakotas. Little Delphine was only eight years old when the family made its way westward by train, flatboat and ox cart to Pembina. She traded her sewing machine to obtain their first home, a small log shack with a sod roof.
Rivard’s recollections of her pioneer experiences include terrifying prairie fires and the hard work of helping her mother garden, raise poultry, tend fifty beehives and care for the younger children. Rivard’s basic schooling allowed her to read and write and do simple mathematics.
On April 5, 1888, she married Jean Baptiste (JB) Rivard, also from Quebec. Their first two children were born in a sod house in Neche, but in 1902, the family packed their belongings on a hayrack and moved to a homestead in St. Elizabeth, a rural French-Canadian settlement in southeastern Manitoba. Rivard cared for her growing family, tended her large garden and beehives, made rugs and quilts and sod butter and eggs. An exceptional cook and homemaker, Rivard was also an excellent seamstress who made her daughter’s wedding dresses.
Her extended family also included boarders – most times the local teacher and often foster children from the Children’s Aid society. Rivard also had the ability to both recognize and treat illness. Once, she saved her son’s arm when the doctor wanted to amputate because of tuberculosis of the bone. This mother of eleven eventually became the “sage-femme” of the district and helped well over two hundred children enter the world.
Dr. Ross, called often, mainly with news of a woman in labour. Calling on J.B. to drive her by horse and buggy. Rivard would head out immediately, often assisting at the birth before the doctor arrived.
Rivard could be gone for a week or more, looking after mother, baby and family. Only when the patient was up on her feet again would Rivard finally consider her job done. Miscarriages and stillbirths were common.
In the early 1950’s, Rivard developed diabetes; yet even her illness did not diminish her community activities. Rivard and Jean-Baptiste retired in 1940 to a small, comfortable house in the village of St. Elizabeth. Grandchildren and great grandchildren fondly remember “Memere” and her wonderful, generous cookie jar.
The sage-femme of St. Elizabeth died on February 14, 1966. Her memory lives on in the community she served with such skill and dedication.