Grey Nuns

   Grey Nuns, the name commonly given to 6 distinct Roman Catholic religious communities of women, all spring from the original foundation, the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général, in Montréal.

Youville, Marie-Marguerite d
St Marguerite d'Youville, the foundress of the Sisters of Charity, was the first candidate for sainthood born in Canada (courtesy Grey Nuns [Sisters of Charity] of Alberta).
Grey Nuns Convent, Montreal
The entrance to the Grey Nuns Convent, Montreal, a 19th century picture of a far older edifice, one that exists to the present.

Grey Nuns

   Grey Nuns, the name commonly given to 6 distinct Roman Catholic religious communities of women, all spring from the original foundation, the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général, in Montréal. There, in 1737, a young widow, Madame d'YOUVILLE, formed a charitable lay association, which opened a house for the poor. Ten years later they took on the management of the Hôpital Général of Montréal from the Charon Brothers. The brothers who had been running the hospital had been very popular and the general population, who resented the change, mocked the sisters as "les sœurs grises," that is "grey women" or "tipsy women," in reference to Madame d'Youville's deceased bootlegger husband. In 1755, when their religious community was officially recognized, they kept the nickname sœurs-grises, and their traditional grey habit, as reminders of their humble origins.

It was not until the 1840s that the question of expansion to other locations arose. They decided at first to follow the pattern of cloistered communities by having each foundation become an independent community. In 1840 they took over the management of a hospital in St-Hyacinthe, Québec; in 1844 they ventured much farther afield to St Boniface, Manitoba, on the Red River; in 1845 the sisters undertook the work of teaching in Bytown [Ottawa] and in 1849 opened an orphanage in Québec City. In 1855 the Grey Nuns established a community in Toledo, Ohio, to tend to the sick and those who had been orphaned by cholera, thus establishing their ministries in the US.

Some of the foundations in Canada have existed for more than 150 years but several facilities, especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, were established in 1920-40 during the Depression. These foundations, except for St-Boniface, which needed the support of the Montréal community, became centres of distinct congregations that kept shared traditions with the original order, yet developed different works and spiritualities based on the needs of each community. Another development saw 2 English-speaking offshoots of the Ottawa community established in Yardley, Pennsylvania (1921) and Pembroke, Ontario (1926).

In 1844 Bishop Provencher successfully persuaded some of the Sisters of Charity of Montréal to move to St. Boniface to assist with the missionary work in Manitoba. Subsequently, in 1858, Bishop Taché convinced three nuns, Sisters Emery, Lamy, and Alphonse to move to Lac St. Anne in Alberta. The three Grey Nuns moved to what is now the City of St. Albert, AB, and upon their arrival in 1863, they established an orphanage. One year later, again responding to the needs of the community, the orphanage evolved to incorporate a school, and hospital, and by 1949 the foundation included a long-term care facility for seniors. From the modest beginnings of the school that was run from the convent in St Albert, the St. Albert Catholic School District has become the oldest school division in Alberta.

The Grey Nuns have devoted themselves to compassionate services and supporting society's most vulnerable through their charitable organizations, long-term care facilities, hospitals, respite centres and schools. Recently, many facilities on the prairies and the Atlantic Provinces that have been run by the Grey Nuns have experienced an evolution that has refocused their support from healthcare and education to social support. Communities that flourished into the 1960s experienced a decline through the 1990s, but the Grey Nuns continue their work in Canada and in the United States and South America.

Due to the decreasing number of Grey Nuns, the stewardship of many of their facilities in Canada are gradually being taken over by local and provincial administrators.