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Heal the Body, Save the Soul

For the week of Monday August 11, 2014

On August 16, 1637, contracts were signed for the construction of Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, the first hospital built on Canadian soil. This was the formal begining of the Augustines in New France. The Canonesses of St. Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus administered the establishment for more than 300 years in the spirit of religious devotion and charity for the ill.

The three founders, Marie Guenet, Anne LeCointre and Marie Forestier, preparing to embark for New France
© Canonesses of St. Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus of Hôtel-Dieu de Québec [AMHD-Q]

The first three Augustinian sisters arrived on August 1, 1639. They were welcomed and housed by the Company of One Hundred Associates pending the completion of the hospital.

Marie Madeleine de Vignerot, who was the Duchess of Aiguillon and niece of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII, was inspired by the writings of the Jesuit priest Paul Lejeune, who worked with Aboriginal communities in New France. She became the secular benefactress of the Hospital Sisters.

In 1640, the Augustinian sisters took up residence in the Sillery Mission (an outlying village west of Québec City), where they cared for a number of Aboriginals ill with European diseases, including smallpox. They moved back to Québec City four years later and attended to an increasing number of French colonists. Their first hospital, built of wood, was completed in 1646. It could not fit more than a dozen beds, but the canonesses erected huts to accommodate their patients. They expanded the hospital and their convent in 1654 and again in 1695. At the turn of the century, the congregation had 32 nuns who tended to injured soldiers and victims of periodic outbreaks of disease.

Hôtel-Dieu, Quebec, ca. 1822-32
© Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-97, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

The Augustines had to rebuild and expand their buildings several times. The fire of 1755, which left no building in the community untouched, was especially devastating for the Hospital Sisters. In spite of the hardship, they continued to care for people in need, even though the hospital was not completely rebuilt until 1825.

In 1855, the hospital associated itself with the Faculty of Medicine at Laval University. It became a training and research centre, a function it retains to this day. Although the congregation relinquished hospital management to secular administrators in 1962, its rich heritage still bears witness to the remarkable spiritual, social and cultural contribution of the Augustines to our society.

Hôtel-Dieu de Québec is a National Historic Site, and the Contributions of the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus of Québec City’s Hôtel-Dieu in the Field of Healthcare in Canada are a National Historic Event.

For more information on the history of other groups of nuns and nurses in Canada, read the following articles in the This Week in History archives: Helping the Fallen: Body and Soul, Grey Nuns Arrive at Saint-Boniface, The Mother of Universal Charity, The Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada and The Nurse of La Corne.

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