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Helping the Fallen: Body and Soul

For the week of Monday July 7, 2008

Rosalie Cadron-Jetté, Mère de la Nativité
© Musée des Soeurs de Miséricorde
On July 12, 1849, Rosalie Cadron-Jetté, Soeur Marie de la Nativité, and seven nuns of the Sœurs de Miséricorde received their formal certification as midwives. This Montréal-based congregation, founded six months earlier by Rosalie, was the first and only religious community in Canada to perform this service.

Born in 1794 at Lavaltrie, Lower Canada, Rosalie married at the age of 17 and subsequently gave birth to 11 children, five of whom died in infancy. Widowed in 1832, she continued to raise her family, surviving by acting as a paid midwife to anyone needing her assistance. In 1840, despite the misgivings and fears of her family, Rosalie began to care for unwed mothers in her home. Undeterred by her extreme poverty and the general loathing of the Montréal community, she continued assisting unwed mothers and poverty-stricken pregnant women in her home until 1845, when she opened the Hospice Ste-Pélagie, the first maternity home dedicated to the care of unwed pregnant women. 

Domestic Science Class. Soeurs de Miséricorde Orphanage, 1950
© Government of Québec, 2006. G. Cloutnez

Bishop of Montreal Ignace Bourget was well aware of Rosalie’s necessary and invaluable work. Offering support, Bourget counselled her to form a new religious institute dedicated to this same mission. Rosalie agreed and, in January 1848, she and seven followers founded the Soeurs de Miséricorde Congregation. By the time of her death in 1864, the institute had grown to 33 nuns, along with novices, Madeleines and working-class women. Most impressive were the 2,300 unwed mothers that had been received and granted asylum in the congregation’s institutions. The public had slowly shaken off its self-righteous prejudice towards the sisters and the fallen women they cared for and had come to recognize that these sisters were not “accessories to sin.”

Soeurs de Misericorde Orphanage, 1925. Can you find all 36 children here?
© Manitoba Historical Society. Joyal-Tellier Collection
In 1865, Church authorities declared the practice of midwifery to be inconsistent with the role of religious sisters. The Soeurs de Miséricorde remained undiscouraged, accepted the new rule, and shifted focus to formal midwife and nursing training for laywomen. For the next 100 years, the sisters established a network of institutions offering healthcare and social assistance to unmarried mothers and their children in other parts of Canada. The Soeurs de Miséricorde developed new approaches to maternal, prenatal and postnatal care by formulating special skills in this field. Their midwifery training program helped keep alive a women’s profession, which the public had always held in high esteem.

The Contributions of the Soeurs de Miséricorde in the Field of Healthcare was designated a National Historic Event in 2006.

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