Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns)
Since they first set foot on the east bank of the Red River in 1844 on their journey by canoe from Lachine, Québec, the Grey Nuns of Manitoba have responded to their community. They have provided a wide range of health, education and social services throughout Manitoba and the North. Excellent businesspeople and managers, they are also women of love and compassion.
They were the first religious women to come west when Manitoba was not yet a province, nor even part of Canada. In response to the growing need to receive and care for the sick, the sisters became incorporated in 1871, one of the first acts of incorporation in Manitoba, and opened St. Boniface Hospital, the first independent hospital in St. Boniface and all of Western Canada. The four-bed house was located on the site of the current St. Boniface Hospital.
Over the following century, St. Boniface Hospital continued to expand under the Grey Nuns’ leadership and quickly became known for several innovations in health, including performing the first heart surgery in Manitoba in 1959. Throughout the years, the Grey Nuns went on to establish several institutions that sought to respond to unmet needs.
Their mission of caring and compassion encompassed all of Manitoba, as once established in St. Boniface, the Grey Nuns turned to communities beyond the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, settling in St. Norbert and St. François-Xavier where they went to teach. Later, in 1867, the sisters travelled North, to Fort Providence on a health and education mission, to Chesterfield Inlet and on to Yellowknife. Their mission also expanded beyond present-day Manitoba to Alberta, in 1859.
Since 1844, roughly 1,100 Manitoban women joined the community, and after professing their vows, became nurses, teachers or directed works in Manitoba and elsewhere, while others left to take part in missions around the world, in Africa and South America.
Many of the works founded by the Grey Nuns have stood the test of time including the St. Boniface Hospital, Ste. Rose General Hospital, Centre Taché and Foyer Valade (now Actionmarguerite), Youville Centre, the Centre de Sante Saint-Boniface Health Centre, Sara Riel, St. Amant and St. Mary’s Academy which later transferred to the Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
Acknowledging the harm done to Indigenous communities through residential schools has touched the Grey Nuns deeply as they were present in fifty-two residential schools. Since 2008, the Grey Nun congregation has collaborated with Indigenous communities, organizations such as the Clan Mothers and those who have been traumatized by the residential school experience, to help rebuild relationships with First Nations people in the spirit of reconciliation.
Foreseeing the decline in their numbers, the Grey Nuns in Manitoba have taken steps to ensure the sustainability of the institutions and works they established. They have stepped back from active governance but remain engaged in providing guidance and support to ensure their mission of care and compassion carries on for generations to come.
Courtesy of the Archives of the Grey Nuns of Montréal. The arrival of the Grey Nuns in St. Boniface on July 19, 1844.