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Compassion & Struggle: Sister Bruyère in Bytown

Compassion and Struggle: Sister Bruyère in Bytown is the exhibit’s fifth theme. It explores her story of female empowerment and independence in caring for Famine emigrants, despite the barriers that faced many women in nineteenth-century Canada. The struggles of Sister Élizabeth Bruyère, who founded the Bytown (Ottawa) order of the Grey Nuns in 1845 and who tended to Irish emigrants in 1847, is told in her own words. Her remarkable letters to the Grey Nuns Mother Superior Elizabeth McMullen in Montreal offer a vivid account of the Famine Irish in Bytown as well as her dealings with Government Agent A.B. Hawke, who was dismissive of her efforts.

Professor Mark McGowan on the Famine Irish in Bytown

The Famine Irish in Bytown
and the Rideau Canal

During the summer of 1847, over three thousand Irish emigrants arrived in Bytown (now Ottawa) having fled the Great Hunger in Ireland. They travelled in steam boats along the Ottawa and St Lawrence Rivers and then by barge from Kingston on the Rideau Canal. Irish emigrants were examined at the Bytown Wharf, near Nepean Point, and at the head of the locks on the Rideau Canal where it enters the Ottawa River. The most seriously ill were sent to Sister Bruyère and the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, or Grey Nuns, who cared for them nearby in Carney House and their Emigrant Hospital on Bolton (now Bruyère) street. Other emigrants were taken to temporary fever sheds erected on the west side of the Rideau Canal on the site where the Laurier Bridge now stands. There was a sizeable Irish community in Bytown before the arrival of Famine emigrants in 1847.

Ironically, the Rideau Canal which provided access for them was largely built by Irish labourers between 1826 and 1832. It is estimated that up to one thousand workers died while building the canal, mainly as a result of infectious diseases such as malaria. They are commemorated by a Celtic Cross monument located where the canal meets the Ottawa River, as well a second Celtic Cross memorial in Kingston. The Famine Irish followed in the footsteps of these labourers and fell victim to a different infectious disease: “ship fever”, or typhus. By early August, the typhus epidemic led to the closure of the Rideau Canal, and Sister Bruyère herself was stricken, though she survived. One hundred and eighty six Irish emigrants perished, over six hundred were treated, and sixty orphaned children were left in her care in 1847.

Mark McGowan Rideau Canal Celtic Cross.

Sister Bruyère’s Compassion

Sister Élisabeth Bruyère showed great compassion and courage in caring for Famine Irish emigrants in Bytown in 1847. She had taken the veil and joined the Grey Nuns, or Sisters of Charity of Montreal, in 1841; Sister Bruyère quickly found her vocation in caring for foundling children and Irish orphans. She also formed a close friendship with her Mother Superior in Montreal, Elizabeth McMullen, with whom she corresponded on an almost daily basis during the summer of 1847. In 1845, Sister Bruyère was sent to Bytown, with three other nuns, to establish a bilingual school for girls, a hospital (now the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital), and a home for the destitute and orphaned and foundling children. She sought to extend the reach of the Grey Nuns by establishing these educational and social institutions with very limited resources.

Nun in habit clasping arms with female child in a dress, three wooden buildings with gabled windows and trees in background.
Bytown Grey Nun with orphaned child in front of Carney and Emigrant Hospital on Bolton (now Bruyère) street, Archives of the Sisters of Charity Ottawa -P-M1/0004

Mark McGowan Mother Bruyère

Bytown Museum Curator Grant Vogl on Sister Bruyère’s compassion

“Her Body Black as Coal”

Sister Louise Charbonneau on Sister Bruyère and Mother McMullen

Sister Bruyère and Mother McMullen

Sister Bruyère struggled to care for the Famine Irish from the moment they arrived in the summer of 1847. As she awaited their arrival, she drew strength and confessed her fears in her letters to Elizabeth McMullen. On 31 May, 1847, Sister Bruyère wrote: “We are expecting the emigrants from day to day; personally I fear them because of the contagious disease. However, I will not refrain from serving them; but I would not want to die from that disease; pray once more for your cowardly daughter”.

Nevertheless, she displayed great courage in the midst of crisis. The Famine Irish influx arrived in Bytown a few days after Sister Bruyère confessed her fear. On 5 June, 1847, the Grey Nuns recorded the first typhus victim, a young girl named Mary Cunningham, in their Registry of the Sick. In their own words:

“As the wooden building which now serves us as a hospital was not yet completed, and we expected to receive numerous patients affected with the typhus, we had prepared the small corner house [called the Carney House] to accommodate them. Mary Cunningham was taken there on June 5 by the Superior, Mother Bruyère, and Sister Normant, a novice. They had to cut out her clothes at the back in order to replace them by clean ones. The poor child was unconscious and in a most filthy condition. Too seriously ill to recover, she died three days later.”

Mary Cunningham was the first of many Irish emigrants to die in Bytown, despite the care of Mother Bruyère and her fellow Sisters. The death of nine year old Anastasia Brennan, whose body was “black as coal” and “emitted a foul odour”, is one of the most harrowing scenes she recorded on 13 July, 1847. Mother Bruyère's letters to Mother McMullen offer the most detailed and vivid eye-witness account of the suffering of the Famine Irish in 1847. They also provide a record of female burden sharing, friendship and leadership in a time of crisis.

Colour portrait of middle aged woman wearing a veil, dark nun’s habit and a large silver cross, looking away from viewer.
Portrait of Mother Élisabeth Bruyère, founder of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa.
Black and white diagonal illustration of street map, one block with five buildings, including church with steeple, 2 two storey buildings with windows, 1 outbuilding, and on L-shaped three storey building.
Bytown Street Map with Carney House and Emigrant Hospital in 1847 on Bolton (now Bruyère) street, Archives of the Sisters of Charity Ottawa -P-M1/0005
Letter Excerpt: Élisabeth Bruyère to Elizabeth McMullen, 15 June, 1847.
“The hospital was so full that we had nowhere to place all the patients. You would have been greatly edified had you seen Father Telmon and some of his most notable parishioners, as well as shantymen, hastily put up wooden huts to shelter those poor people.
Most of the Sisters gave their straw mattresses; several their beds. Today, all those that had a blanket gave it good-heartedly to protect these poor unfortunate ones from the cold and the rain. Our novices seem real mothers to the suffering; it is a great comfort to me.”
Letter Excerpt: Élisabeth Bruyère to Elizabeth McMullen, 13 July, 1847.
“At ten forty five, our poor little emigrant [Anastasia Brennan] died. At one thirty, I went with another Sister to prepare the body for burial. We dared not remove all her clothes… she emitted a foul odour when we moved her.
We hastened to cover everything and put her in a coffin to have her taken to church, and then to the cemetery. Her body was black as coal. I think that she will not be the last case.”
Letter Excerpt: Élisabeth Bruyère to the Sisters of Charity of Montreal at the Red River Settlement, 29 July, 1847
How many changes in only the last two months! I will not write again about the public hardships which are both affecting Lower and Upper Canada, and especially our Mother-House. The Sisters who were lucky enough to escape from the contagious disease are better placed to tell you how much devastation has risen out of pure charity. Five of them [in Montreal] have already been rewarded in heaven for their zeal, and many others are suffering in their beds, and will probably die soon. We have five Sisters here who are struggling with typhoid fever.
We treat more than 60 fever-stricken emigrants, night and day. The other night, the Reverend Fathers administered to every sick person so that no one should die without getting the last rites. Disease is killing them in less than three hours; fortunately enough, the cool weather is now a thing of the past and a good number of them will recover. Pray for us, our good Sisters; we need it much. I cannot write you as much as I would like to; we must ask for lay people in order to help take care of our stricken Sisters, and the Sisters take care of the emigrants.

“It is a Scandal”: Sister Bruyère’s Struggles

Despite her compassion and courage in caring for Irish emigrants, Mother Bruyère received little support from the civil authorities in Canada West. She was falsely accused by the Anglican Minister, the Reverend S.S. Strong, who served on the Bytown Board of Health of proselytization in seeking to convert Protestant patients to Catholicism in order to receive treatment. “We are being annoyed by certain ministers of the Anglican, Scottish and Wesleyan Churches who do not limit themselves to their ecclesiastical function but who want to be masters in the hospital and treat us like domestics,” she wrote to Mother Superior Elizabeth McMullen on 3 July, 1847.

Mother Bruyère was also falsely reproached by the Chief Emigration Agent in Canada West, Anthony Bowden Hawke, of squandering government funds. Hawke sought to restrict relief spending on Famine Irish emigrants throughout Ontario, and especially in Bytown. He displayed some sympathy in his correspondence for “the very large number of them who are too feeble to work” whom “the farmers are afraid to employ” (20 September, 1847), or who were denied entry into the United States (16 October, 1847). Yet he also expressed the common prejudice that the Irish were prone to “hang about the sheds eating the Bread of Idleness” (January 18, 1848).

Professor Mark McGowan on the Hawke Papers

Excerpt from Hawke Papers, 16 October, 1847, p. 153

“They are generally dirty in their habits and unreasonable in their expectations as to wages. They appear to possess little ambition or desire to adapt themselves to the new state of things with which they are surrounded.
The few who possess any money invariably secrete it and will submit to any amount of sufferings or have recourse to begging in the streets and the most humiliating and pertinacious supplications to obtain a loaf of bread from the Board of Health or the Emigrant Agents rather than part with a shilling. Hitherto such people have been an exception to the character of our immigration, but this year they constitute a large majority.”

Ultimately, Hawke met his match in Mother Bruyère. He was condescending and dismissive of her claims for reimbursement of expenditure she had incurred in treating Famine Irish emigrants. “The arrangement with the Sisters of Charity I regret,” he wrote on 29 October, 1847, “because I consider that the sick might have been taken care of at a cheaper rate”. “The Government consider the arrangement made with the Sisters of Charity at Bytown extravagant,” he added (7 December), demanding they reduce their claim. Mother Bruyère was indignant and held her ground. “Allow me to say that it is a scandal to act in such a manner towards us,” she replied on 11 December. She also threatened to “obtain the payments of the Government debts by the way of legal suit”. The Grey Nuns were then reimbursed in full.

The Irish in Bytown expressed their gratitude to Mother Bruyère and the Sisters of Charity. In an article entitled “An Irishman to the Irishmen of Bytown and the Ottawa”, their newspaper The Packet paid tribute: “The Sisters of Charity! – ladies who do honor to humanity – whose virtuous self-sacrificing benevolence raises them… [into] hand-maids of Heaven. These ladies were the attendants of the poor Emigrants” (18 December, 1847). Having taken the veil, Mother Bruyère was expected to submit to spiritual and temporal, inevitably male, authority. Yet she drew strength from her friendship from Mother McMullen. She ultimately prevailed in struggle her against Hawke to provide care for the Famine Irish.