Laying the foundations

A look back at the role of religious women in bringing health care to the Peace Country

The dedicated lives of religious sisters have left a permanent mark on the development and history of the Peace Country. Particularly in the realm of health care, they provided a foundational inheritance that paved the way for the survival and sustainability of several towns and cities. It’s a legacy the region remains indebted to unto this day.

The Peace Country was one of the last regions of the Canadian West to be settled. The Catholic Church, with several of its missionary orders, were vital to its settling. It was the humble example of consecrated women, living only to serve God and serve others, who established many of the first hospitals and nursing homes in the region.

So, in the lead-up to an article on present work to bring Covenant Health services to this region, we offer this article to give just a small sample of the long history and legacy of Catholic health care in the Peace Country, and the religious women who made that legacy possible. Much of this information is provided thanks to several historical works available in our archives.

Throughout the history of the geographical region that we today call the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, there have been 18 different congregations of religious women that have served and shaped its missions.

Dating back to the late 1800s and onwards, missionary orders like the Sisters of Providence, the Grey Nuns of the Cross, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Ste. Chretienne, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Les Recluses Missionaires, and many others have served the area. Even into the 1950s, there were still 222 religious sisters working in the archdiocese. By the 2010s, this number was down to 15, and presently there are only two School Sisters of Notre Dame who remain.

The Sisters of Providence were one of the most prominent religious orders in the archdiocese, serving the missions of Grouard, Peace River, Fort Vermillion, Wabasca, Sturgeon Lake and surrounding communities. Health care and education were two services the Sisters of Providence provided, and in these areas they were an indispensable asset wherever they went.

The Providence sisters established the St. Joseph Hospital in Grouard (1909-1933), the St. Therese Hospital in Fort Vermilion (1925-1972), the Sacred Heart Hospital in McLennan (1929-1973), and the Providence Hospital in High Prairie (1937-1972).

Two sisters set off by dog sled from High Prairie for a sick call in Grouard. Photos courtesy of ‘History of Grouard, High Praire and Surrounding Areas, Vol. 1’

The Sisters of Providence arrived in Grouard in 1894, and established the first hospital there in 1908. St. Joseph Hospital operated out of a two-story building near the St. Bernard Mission Church, with six sisters and three lay persons on its staff. It would be one of the earliest health care operations for the Peace Country.

Because the railroad by-passed Grouard, the population increasingly migrated to High Prairie, and the demand for services in that community soon outweighed the demand in Grouard. In reaction, Bishop Joseph Guy, Apostolic Vicar of Grouard at the time, approached the Sisters of Providence for their assistance in bringing vitally needed health care to High Prairie.

When St. Joseph Hospital ceased operation around 1933, the sisters subsequently turned to High Prairie to establish a larger hospital facility there. They acquired an acre of land in August of 1937 and quickly got to work.

This operation became Providence Hospital, named not only in honour of the sisters, but as a thanksgiving to God whose Divine Providence made possible these much-needed health care resources. It began to receive its first patients on Oct. 27th, 1937, operating with five-beds. Due to the demand, this five-bed hospital was constantly at capacity and overcrowding, and so a new wing was added in the fall of 1938. Throughout the following decades the hospital further expanded in staff and facilities. The hospital received full accreditation by the Canadian Council in Hospital Accreditation in 1967. (Information gathered from ‘History of Grouard, High Praire and Surrounding Areas, Vol. 1’ – Paul and Myrna Lemay)

The two-story hospital located at St. Bernard’s Mission in Grouard.

The Sisters of Providence were also vital in bringing health care to McLennan, a central location in the development of the Peace Country and the archdiocese. The Sacred Heart Hospital was officially opened and blessed on Dec. 14th, 1929 with several Providence Sisters running the facility under the direction of their superior Sister Agapit de Pologne. It operated as the primary health care facility for not only McLennan, but also for the nearby communities of Girouxville, Donnelly, Falher and elsewhere.

Given the vast area it served, it was not long before the hospital needed to expand. First, in the early 1930s, the sisters’ chapel moved from the hospital to their residence to allow for 10 more beds. Expansions in infrastructure, new equipment, services and personnel continued all through the following years. In the 1950s, the hospital added a new wing with 40 additional beds, doubling its previous capacity. In this new wing, midnight Mass was celebrated on Dec. 25th, 1954, with the Blessed Sacrament thenceforth permanently dwelling in the hospital’s new chapel.

The first sisters of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph’ arrive in McLennan to establish the Our Lady of the Lake Nursing Home. From l-r, Srs. Plamondon, Dumaresq, Renaud and Maitre.

The archdiocese then turned to other health care services needed in McLennan. In May of 1966, under the direction of Bishop Henri Routhier, OMI, the Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake) nursing home was established. Sisters with the Religious Hopsitallers of St. Joseph were staffed at the nursing home in its initial years.

This was not the first health care facility in the Peace Country that employed the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph.

Almost 20 years earlier, in 1950, a group of Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph sisters from Ottawa established the Hotel Dieu in Whitelaw, a nursing home and medical centre that served several generations of seniors with 35 beds and 23 nuns on staff. It was purchased by the town of Fairview in 1979.

This was a fate that befell many of these religious-run health care facilities. As services expanded to larger and larger degrees at McLennan’s Sacred Heart Hospital, work was underway by the early 1960s to transition its operations from the Sisters of Providence to the town of McLennan. Critical to this effort was the fact that public ownership would provide better opportunities for the hospital to apply for government funding. At the end of 1967, the District Hospital Board was formed in order to fully purchase the hospital from the Sisters of Providence. In 1970, its operations and administration fully turned over to this board.

The five founding sisters of Holy Cross Hospital in Spirit River: Srs. Croix, Alban, Martha De La Croix, Germain Hurtubise, Marie Wilfred, of the Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the March 2023 edition of Northern Light