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The Grey Nuns

Canada turns 150 this year but Montreal was founded in 1642, long before Confederation of 1867. The French were the first Europeans to arrive to this land they named Nouvelle-France. Along with explorers were religious clergy. Congregations sent members to begin new chapters and as the numbers of settlers grew and the population swelled, so did the novices joining their ranks.

Eventually Montreal produced its own religious congregations. In 1737 a small Catholic association formed to help the poor. It grew into the order of the Sisters of Charity of the General Hospital, or the Grey Nuns as they came to be called. How the nuns came by their unofficial, and originally derogatory epithet, is a story so interesting it found its way into my novel. And since its protagonist, Larissa, does such a good job of explaining its origins, I leave it to her.

“Did you know that parts of this building go back to the sixteen hundreds? It belonged to the Grey Nuns who ran a hospital. The archway was the entrance to the stables.”
“No, I didn’t. But I’m not surprised you do. That was the color of their habits, I suppose?”
“No, it had nothing to do with that. The founder, a well-to-do widow named Marguerite d’Youville, was frowned upon by for creating a charitable community to help the needy; the wealthy mixing with the destitute just wasn’t done at the time. People, including family and in-laws, signed a petition and they sometimes shouted insults at the nuns on the street. Her husband had illegally traded alcohol and they accused her of continuing his business as well as being a drinker herself. The word grisé in French means drunk. They were, in fact, being called the tipsy nuns. They appropriated the name, so although they were officially The Sisters of Charity, they referred to themselves as Les Soeurs grises or the Grey Nuns, playing on the two meanings of the French word. The name stuck.”
“She sounds like she was quite the trailblazer.”

Today, Marguerite would be deemed a visionary CEO with a successful start up. But at the time she was an outcast and her works went against common thinking. More so because she was a woman. Undeterred, she devoted her life to her cause, ignoring criticism and following her truth. In 1737, she was an oddity, in 1990, she was canonized, making her the first Canadian-born saint. Sometimes it’s all in the timing.

Photo credit: Saint Lawrence River Shrines.

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