Blessed Emilie Gamelin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence, lived in Montreal from 1800 to 1851. When she was a child, her parents taught her to help those who were needy or suffering. Her own life taught her, too, what it was to be needy and suffering; she lost both her parents when she was very young and had to rely on the charity of relatives for her care and education. She had a happy and prosperous marriage, but her husband died after only four years, and her three children died, too, as infants. The young widow put all her energy and finances into helping the poor, sick and oppressed. She organized with other lay women to form an organization, the Ladies of Charity, to care for the sick poor, to visit political prisoners and to provide a home for orphans and homeless elderly women. Needy people of all sorts flocked to her for help.
The bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, founded a community of Sisters in 1843 so that Blessed Emilie Gamelin’s works of charity would continue even after her death. Blessed Emilie also joined this group and became the foundress of the Sisters of Providence. “Sisters of Providence” was the name the people gave them, because they were very poor and they relied on God’s Providence (God’s loving care) to provide what they needed to help the people. Everywhere the Sisters went they praised God’s Providence and taught others to rely on God, too.
Bishop Bourget told the Sisters of Providence that it was their calling to meet needs that were not being met by others, so they were open to respond to the multiple needs of the poor. In pioneer days, when there was almost no public provision for basic services in health care, education, child care, and what we would today call social services, the Sisters had to refuse many more requests than they could possibly accept.
It was only a few years before people in other areas began to ask for Sisters of Providence. The Sisters were asked to help with many different needs, such as care of the sick, care of orphans, the elderly and the homeless and the education of children. Most of the Sisters’ work was done in frontier areas where other people were not available for this work or not willing to go there–especially if it meant working for no salary, as the Sisters did for decades.
The first mission of the Sisters of Providence in the Canadian West was Saint Mary’s Hospital, New Westminster, B.C., established in 1886. Their works in the Canadian West spread rapidly to the prairie provinces and the Yukon. Again, they were called on for every need: education, child care, care of the elderly and the homeless, health care and care in the home.
Providence institutional ministries till the 1940’s (and even later in the more isolated missions), met many needs. A hospital, for instance, might also take in old people and orphans and look after them for years, and a residential school might also take in old people and set aside a place to care for the sick. It was quite usual for a Sister to carry out a number of different ministries according to the needs to be met. In common with other pioneers, the Sisters learned much on the job and used all their courage and inventiveness to do the best that they could.
The Sisters served mostly in rural areas, where it was very difficult to get qualified help in their work. Besides carrying heavy workloads, the Sisters had very little to work with. Their early letters home were “begging letters” asking for medicine and clothing for their boarders and patients and for other people who came for help. They asked for school supplies, toys and musical instruments for their pupils, and asked for basic supplies like oil for lamps and cloth to make clothing for the needy. And when the barges came with crates of donations, the Sisters and the children would gather round to gasp and wonder and sometimes weep with joy at the things they received. The Sisters also organized annual begging trips in order to get money to maintain the institutions they operated for the care of the aged, the homeless and the sick.
It was during World War II that the social safety net which is now part of our national identity really took shape. Today Canadians take it for granted that it is a public responsibility to provide help for our citizens’ most basic needs. Between 1950 and the 1980’s most of the Providence institutions and works were taken on by the public through government at one level or another. The Sisters of Providence now look to new horizons such as palliative care, pastoral care, and ways to combat family violence. Like Mother Emilie Gamelin, they keep trying to see with a larger vision and to dare with a larger heart.
Blessed Emilie Gamelin
Theological Reflections on Providence
Sister Lina Gaudette, an educator and Sister of Providence for over 60 years, has written the book Theological Reflections on Providence. The culmination of her years of teaching, studying and reflecting on Providence enabled her to share her thoughts through this manuscript. Each section is available in a text format through the links below.
“These reflections arise from insights found in Sacred Scriptures and in some of my favorite authors. Over time the language – but not the meaning – may have been altered somewhat as I mulled the message in my mind and tried to live by it.”
– Sr. Lina Gaudette, SP (1921-2011)
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