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.
Bytown 1847 And The Rideau Canal Irish Monument
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.
Mark McGowan Mother Bruyère
Élizabeth Bruyère And The Ottawa Grey Nuns
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.
“MY DEAREST MOTHER”: SISTER BRUYÈRE’S LETTERS TO GREY NUNS’ MOTHER SUPERIOR ELIZABETH MCMULLEN IN MONTREAL.
Sister Hagan arrived on Sunday morning (13) and she is doing well. She has been accepted this morning for her calling. All of the Sisters agreed, but too late, that this dear child should join with us, and this was righteous from our part. I hope that we shall be wiser the next time. If Sister Hagan’s bed is not already gone, I would wish to keep it with us as it will be used by the next one whom we should send as soon as possible, maybe next month. Whom it will be I cannot say precisely as this will depend upon many circumstances, but perhaps Sister Curran who is in a good shape.
The Providence was good to us last week: a humble seller that we call a peddler has died at our home. Carrying goods making up for some 25 or 30 louis, he bequeathed six louis to his sister who lives in Ireland; the rest of the sum is now ours. We arranged for him a second-class funeral which has cost us £1.2.6.
Bruyere to McMullen letter June 15 1847
This peddler also gave us his horse. I sent for it, but we are still waiting. I fear we will not be able to get it as the parents of the deceased are unhappy not to have inherited.
We received our first emigrant on June 5, and she died on the 8th. We also received a man who was critically ill on June 10. He is now much better. We received as many as seven sick people, covered with lice, on the 11th of June, etc., etc. ; three died on June 12; we were quite saddened to see them leave us so quickly for the other world. They were, however, given the privilege of getting the last sacraments. We received four people on Sunday (13). The hospital (76) was so full that we had nowhere to place all of 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. Only two women were courageous enough to stay up with us, as we are all afraid to contract fever. We have enough people to look after the sick at the convent.
Bruyere to McMullen letter June 15 1847
The Emigration Agent is building us a 33 x 20 adjunct house for the benefit of our emigrants. Our good Father is supervising this charitable work with the aid of Brother Sweeney. Sister Assistante has just received four more people since I have started writing to you. I asked our Father to build another hut as we do not have enough space. We are now looking after 24 people, which might not seem a great number to you, but it is for us as we do not have room enough to accommodate them. Twenty-three of them slept outside, while it was raining last night; the Agent could not find a better place for them, since every house and building in the vicinity is full.
I was much pleased to receive our good Father Larré’s present; but I did not get the chance to look at it, yet. Would you please thank him for me; I cannot write to him now. We are looking forward to greeting him, as well as our dear and good Father Billaudèle.
I humbly ask you to give our heartfelt considerations to His Highness Mgr of Montreal, as well as to our Fathers Billaudèle and Larré. Sister Rodriguez has come back to life. Alleluia ! Our Good Lord is always looking after her health. She is preparing the medication for everyone and I assure you she has got a lot to do.
Farewell my good Mother, pray for us, your children, who are doing everything they can to follow your path in all charity, etc.
Your humble daughter,
Sr É. B.
Bruyere to McMullen letter June 15 1847
(in the margins)
I must tell you how I am upset with our Sisters. I have done what I could to look after the emigrants at night in order to help our poor Sisters, and I have been informed that our dear Sisters have reported this to our Father who is now forbidding me to stay up with them. I was not able to win my point. I am upset.
Madam Hagan is constantly talking of you and the nice welcome you have given her; she is delighted about that.
Send our Sisters’ noble respects to all of our Sisters of Montreal, and we ask them to think of us. We are doing our bit to unite with them in the immense toils you are performing.
Sr É. B.
Bruyere to McMullen 3 July 1847
General Hospital of Bytown,
July 3, 1847
My dearest and beloved Mother,
It seems to me that I have not heard from you for a century. How are you?... Much exhausted, I suppose, our dear Sisters and yourself. Please let us not worry too much and ask an orphan to write us a few words, if our Sisters do not have time enough to write. Newspapers and “Les mélanges religieux” are writing articles about your zeal and your infinite charity towards our poor emigrants.
We are, too, giving relief to emigrants, but we are not doing as much as you do. We are lucky despite our little misfortunes, especially when we are comparing ourselves to our Sisters of Montreal. We are accommodating 60 sick people in our three rooms. Convalescing ones are moved to our tents which Government officials provided us. A good number of people die. Two Sisters are assisting the sick in each room; Sister Assistante is with Sister Phelan; Sister Xavier is with Sister Curran; and, Sister Normant is with Sister Conlan, our Novice, who trained at the English school in Châteauguay. Two girls are assisting our Sisters as well. Sisters are looking after the sick alternately. There are sick people at the convent whom we cannot accommodate here. Young shantymen are
Bruyere to McMullen 3 July 1847
good to us and they stay up with us every night at the Emigrants Hospital.
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. They wrote articles in the Bytown newspapers, without signing their names. Our Father wrote in refuting their slanders, crushing the ministers without upsetting Protestants. I do not know if this will be the end of the matter, but I fear for the future. Please pray for us.
I do not know if I am mistaken or not in saying this, but I am determined to leave the Emigrants Hospital if they still hurt us like this, i.e. if these Sirs are allowed to treat us as they would behave toward servants who would not perform their toils. The doctor is satisfied with our care for the sick and says that we could not do more in terms of cleanliness, care, etc. Please pray for us so that everything is done according to God’s wish.
Sister Hagan has recently talked to me about these little silver boxes used for relics. I will do my best to send them to you soon.
Bruyere to McMullen 3 July 1847
St. Joseph’s statue is now in Longueuil; I hope this good Father will send us peace; we are also asking him to look after our dear Sister Saint-Joseph’s health. I ask you to pray with us, too. We are doing all we can to please our good Father St. Joseph. I hope he is glad of us.
I met an old Irishwoman who is asking me to write you about four little children that she left under the Sisters’ care. Their father is named John Brennan, from the County of Kilkenny. Their grandmother’s name is Ellen Brennan. Here are the names of the children: Thomas, Ann, Mary and Catherine (Brennan). Please let me know if you have placed them or if you still have them with you. Their grandmother is anxiously waiting for news and would bring them back with her.
I would ask our good Sister Chèvrefils to send us our belongings as soon as possible, as we need them; she does not have to wait for M. Charlebois. She may send us everything at our shed and we will collect them at our address.
Two candidates have applied to us; they will soon come here; one of them is 36 years old; a wise woman, isn’t she? I think I will be able to bring you a girl to the Noviciate in due course this summer; but I hope this will not deter you from visiting us since it is more than necessary that you come here. My noble respects to our Lord Bishops (9) of Montreal and Martypolis, our Father Superior, Larré, etc., etc. We are sending our thousands of blessings to our dear Sisters and are asking them to think a little bit of us when taking care of the emigrants. We are thinking about them as much as we can. I would like to write to some of our Sisters, but I do not have time for it; I hope they will forgive me. Please make sure that they know how much I think about
Bruyere to McMullen 3 July 1847
all of them. I have to say that we have two fine men who have agreed to do the maintenance
for us; they are both good and very able men, doing every kind of work. These are two shantymen who were nursed here, last winter. They worked for us this spring, and for nothing. Now they are giving themselves to us.
Your poor and affectionate daughter,
Sr. É. Bruyère.
Bruyere to McMullen 9 July 1847
My dear Mother,
I would have left for Montreal if our Sisters were not sick from the fever. I think Sisters Conlan and Curran will recover, but I am afraid for that other young girl whom we hired and who is quite ill…
The Sisters are beginning to feel exhausted and I do not know if they will be able to keep up the work as they cannot count on any help at nights. We pray for you and please pray for us. Two of our young orphan girls have been infected with fever, but it is not too serious for now. Our children, we decided, will be on holidays
Bruyere to McMullen 9 July 1847
until August 15. Yesterday, the 8th of July, was your birthday as well as mine, and we welcomed a young child who was found in the woods 3 miles away from here; he was sun-roasted, the skin of his face gone; he is about 15 days old.
The Canal will be shut on the 1st of August and I would like to get our belongings before that day, if possible. Some of our Sisters sleep on featherbeds, disposed on some berths made of a plank, and others sleep on straw mattresses; we have given everything to our emigrants.
Farewell good Mother and believe us in saying that we are not insensitive of the pain you are experiencing. Our Father is praying for our Montreal and Bytown communities after each morning mass; he always begin with the Salve Regina before saying the Litanie de Saint-Joseph.
We give our noble considerations to his Highness Mgr of Montreal, as well as to Mgr Phelan, to our Father Superior, and to Father Larré. We send blessings to all of our dear Sisters. Farewell, farewell. I will go to Montreal with Sister Leblanc if his brother does not send her the money; M. Curran will pay for my trip.
Your devoted and affectionate daughter,
Sr. É. Bruyère.
Bruyere to McMullen 13 July
Bytown, July 13, 1847
My dear Mother,
I think you remember well that Jean-Baptiste Leblanc, our Sister Leblanc’s brother, is owing 1 000 to our Sister who is now obliged. I have done my best to collect this money last year; I sent him two letters since then and we have never gotten any reply. Our Sister Leblanc is afraid that her calling will then be delayed if her brother does not pay her. This is what is going to happen, most probably. Would you be kind enough to ask for him and to ask him, in the name of his own sister, that he must give her the money which he enjoyed so far, without paying interest.
Bruyere to McMullen 13 July
He may think his sister bad-mannered, but she asks him to think that he must have given her the money back, whether he would have liked it or not, if she had married. She must act like this towards him now, under these circumstances. I must ask you, my good Mother, not to mention to Sister Leblanc of Montreal that our own Sister Leblanc is writing so strongly to her brother, as the former would be sad to know this. Farewell, my good Mother, and please forgive me for giving you so much trouble with all this.
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.
Your wholly devoted daughter,
Sr. É. Bruyère.
Bruyere to McMullen 15 July
Bytown, July 15, 1847
My dear Mother,
I received Sister Deschamps’s letter tonight… It is not so encouraging. May God be blessed… Sister Lavoie has gotten the fever this morning and so has Sister Hagan last night. The two others are much better; I expect many others will get the fever. Every day brings up more and more stricken emigrants! I do not know if we will be able to keep up: Fiat voluntas ! Prayers, prayers, they are our sole weapons and our sole support. Please pray a bit for your Sisters in Bytown, who are heartfully praying for you too. I am waiting for your news
Bruyere to McMullen 15 July
just to let us know how our poor Sisters are doing. I thought my poor daughter Nagle would stay with you and take care of you, but she is now also ill. May God be blessed. I hope she will answer the calling if she is to die.
Farewell, good Mother, and I pray the Lord so that you may still be vigorous enough to support so many of these hardships and to give strength to our poor Sisters. Farewell. Father Molloy has contracted typhus. We nurse him in one of their houses, nearby the convent.
Forever your child,
Sr. É. Bruyère.
General Hospital of Bytown,
July 29, 1847
My beloved Sisters,
I did receive our dear Sister Lagravell’s letter, which has much pleased us. How is our dear little Sister Ouimet ? We are sad to learn that she was ill ! She enjoyed such a good health before… Alas ! Everything changes so fast in this world, in just a little twinkling… How many changes for the last two months only ! I will not write you again about the public hardships which are both affecting Lower and Upper Canadas, and especially our Mother-House. Sisters who were lucky enough to escape from the contagious disease are better placed to tell you how much devastations have risen out of pure charity. Five of them have already been immortally rewarded 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 fevers ; Sisters Saint-Joseph, Hagan, Curran, Lavoie and Conlan. The latter came here as a Postulant in June. Two of our other girls who were nursing patients are now also fever stricken. Reverend Father Molloy is also seriously ill ; we are taking care of him at our Hospital. All our other Sisters are better, but we fear that our little Sister Lavoie be suffering from the heart. This good child would perform her vocation on next November 21st. Our Sisters Pigeon, Leblanc and Phelan will perform theirs on August 15th, if they can go into retirement before that date.
We treat more than 60 fever-stricken emigrants, night and day. The other night, Reverend Fathers administered every sick people so as no one should die without getting the last rites. Disease are 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 take care of our stricken Sisters, and the Sisters take care of the emigrants. We are a party of 17 Sisters, including one who is at Montreal; we are 16 here, and six are ill, four are assisting at the Emigrants Hospital, one is nursing Reverend Father Molloy, and the rest of us are looking after the most urgent matters. We do not have time to make our exercises; I did not do my orison for the last eight days, and the others are working even more than I am. We are not able to find anyone to help us taking care of the emigrants, whether we would offer gold or money.
The Reverend Fathers Oblates’ General Superior sent us a nice golden-coated statue of St. Joseph. It was sent a year ago and has just arrived here. We have put it on the altar of the parish church where people are gathering twice a day and praying good God so that Priests and Sisters stay healthy. A grand-messe is observed everyday and we make a novena to St. Joseph at night, ending with the blessing of the Most Holy Sacrament. People and priests will march next Sunday, August 1st, with drums and music in honor of Father St. Joseph; we are leaving our souls into his hands and we hope he will bring back health to our poor sick people.
Please send our great respects to your St. Bishop and to all of your good Fathers, and in particular to Reverend Father Aubert; and so that all these good souls pray for us. To all of you, our dear beloved Sisters, we bless you heartfully. Again, we ask you to pray for us. It must well be that next time we write to you is to inform you that some of our Sisters have died.
Farewell, farewell, with the help of God; should the union of our hearts last forever and we will always be, in this world and in the other, your beloved and affectionate Sisters.
Sister Bruyère, Superior.
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.
Selected Letters From Chief Emigration Agent Anthony Bowden Hawke (Archives Of Ontario. Toronto Emigration Office Records, Or Hawke Papers. Series Rg 11-1 Chief Emigrant Agent's Letter Books, Ms 6910), And Élisabeth Bruyère’s Replies.
[They] scattered disease and death to a fearful effect wherever they have congregated in any considerable numbers. Added to this 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. Fortunately for them a great many had friends and relations settled in the province who were able to render them assistance – but for this circumstance the calamity would have been much more severely felt.
I have the honor to state for the information of the Governor General that by yesterday post, I received a letter from... Father Telmon P.P By Town, requesting payment of the amount due the Sisters of Charity for services to sick emigrants – a document of considerable length. He remarks upon the Bytown Board of Health Report I have also received two reports from the Chairman of the Bytown Board, and a letter from the Emigrant Agent G.R. Burke, on the same subject.
The history of the claim is as follows. Early in the season – on the 5th of June – the number of sick at Bytown had increased so fast that suitable accommodation could not be procured and the Emigrant Agent entered into an agreement with the Sisters of Charity to take as many of the sick emigrants as they could find accommodation for at 15/67 per week – including board, washing, and nursing, but excluding funeral expenses, wine & medical attendance. The Board of Health admit the justice of their claim, but decline including the charge in their accounts, because the expenditure was not under their control.
The amount claimed by the Sisters of Charity is £5184.108.40.206/ A regular fee has been furnished, & Mr. Burke, the Emigrant Agent, has endorsed its contents, & it will form an entry in my funeral account general for expenses incurred by the Board of Health during the current year.
The arrangement with the Sisters of Charity I regret, because I consider that the sick might have been taken care of at a cheaper rate. The agreement was however sanctioned by the Government Agent for their services I have every reason to believe have been faithfully rendered, and as the Sisters of Charity complain that they have contracted heavy debts for supplies of food... which they are called upon to pay, I must respectfully beg, that a certifiable warrant may issue in my favor for the sum of £5220.127.116.11/ to enable me to pay the aforementioned claim.
I received your letter of the 28th Oct in due course of post, desiring me to inform you what course you had better adopt in forwarding certain emigrants now in at Bytown to this agency.
As far as I can learn there is no probability of the Rideau Canal being opened this season, and they must therefore be sent over land to Prescott, or back to Lachine + up the St. Lawrence.
I agree with you in thinking the last course the best, & you had better therefore adopt it. It will be an expensive business at best; the expense of sending these people from Grosse Isle to Quebec, and from there to Bytown – a place they never should have been sent to. Their maintenance there, the cost of their passage back to Lachine & from thence to Kingston – nor is this the worst – for I really do not know what we are to do with them after they reach this agency. Send us therefore I beseech you as few as possible. Compel every one who can to get their daily bread from their labor to go to work. We have including sick in hospital, the widows and orphans, upwards of a thousand, and are daily receiving fresh emigrants to our numbers. Ought not the people of Bytown to do something as well as other places? – no plan, as you know, that Government can adopt, can bring relief to these people in all their wanderings. The Government & the expenditures must soon cease, for the Emigrant fund has long since been exhausted.
I am obliged to have by this evening’s boat for Toronto in consequent of poor Mr. McElderry’s death. He was an excellent man & I deeply regret his loss.
The Government consider the arrangement made with the Sisters of Charity at By Town extravagant, and I fully concur in the opinion. Under the circumstances, if the expenditure is still going in, some other arrangement must be made, and I would strongly advise the Lady Superior or the head of the establishment to consider the matter of consent to a reduction – say 20 or 25 percent – on the total demand. Either of those rates would be much higher than has been paid elsewhere. Let me hear from you as soon as possible.
To G.R. Burke Esq. Signed A.B. Hawke
By Town Chief Emigration Agent, C.W.
Kingston 8th ...1847
Bytown, 10th December 1847
The Bytown Emigrant Agent, Mr. Burke, handed me the letter and notes that you have sent to him. May I be allowed to pre sent some observations which will in the meantime answer the questions? you have addressed in those documents.
It seems to me that the Administration and the Government have acted towards us with very little regard concerning the payment. Was it right to make us wait for the payment, when it is well known that our Establishment is far from being set up and consequently unable to keep up with the expenses required for the maintenance of the Emigrants. We have been obliged to contract debts so as to have what was required for their support. During Summer, we had credit but were obliged to pay the highest prices, and since the beginning of Autumn, the persons who furnished us formerly, fearing that the Government would not pay us, refused to advance us for the future; in consequence of which we were forced to borrow money with interest to continue our attendance with the Emigrants. Many weeks ago we could have bought provisions for half price on the market, by paying ready cash. We have sustained considerable losses and the Administration of the Emigrants is certainly the author of them; for had we been informed from the beginning that we were to be so treated, such conditions would not have been accepted.
Secondly we are asked if the price for each sick person can be reduced. Sir, you have been greatly misled by the report of the Board of Health, for that report, which is nothing but a mixture of false statements and lies, says that we charged 15/0 per week for children as well as (for) adults. This is false; for
Is it right and becoming to ask a reduction of prices at the end of the season? It is after almost all of us have caught the sickness, and suffered so much; it is after we have spent all we had; it is after you have taken the benefit of our services; it is finally when you think you need no more of our services, it is then you ask a reduction of prices! Tell me, Sir, frankly, do you think you are right? You were aware of the prices in the beginning of Spring; why not then make your observations? We might then possibly have acquiesced to your demand, for you know, Sir, that our Establishment is not a speculation. The delay of the payment has rendered the reduction of prices impossible at present. The Administration will, next Summer, propose its conditions as we will ours. If then we accept the hard charge of attending on the Emigrants, it will not be till we be provided with sufficient means for their support. If they decline accepting the office of our services, they will find elsewhere, if they can, other nurses who may be more capable [and] more charitable thanthey think we have been, and who may support the Emigrants at less cost.
I remain, Sir, Your Ob[edien]t Serv[an]t, Sister É. Bruyère, Supre
I have just received a letter from Mr Burke together with a letter written by you to him, dated 7th instant.
Allow me to say that it is a scandal to act in such a manner towards us. I am not surprised that the Government qualifies the arrangements taken with us (as) extravagant, after it had so little justice as to delay so long for the payment of its debts. I wonder it does (not) go further and does not complete the iniquity by refusing altogether to pay. Some persons here being of [the] opinion that it would do so, we were advised and directed by lawyers to obtain the payment of the Government debts by the way of legal suit. The difference of rates in (different places does not prove that we charged too much. You should know that almost everything is dearer in Bytown than in Kingston, Montreal, or Quebec. Besides we are aware of the expenditures made in other places; and [in] such places where the Emigrants were deprived of the necessaries of life, there was not such a disproportion as you say comparatively to our prices.
Sir, I say it over again, had you demanded a reduction in the beginning of (Spring]we would have possibly consented to it; but after so many and so heavy expenses, after so many losses caused by the delay of payment, we cannot consent to it now. As for the arrangements to be taken for the future, we will treat of them after the pay ment of our debts by the Government. The total amounts (to be paid]
We have received
Your Ob[edien]t Ser[van]t Sister É. Bruyère, Supre
“An Irishman to the Irishmen of Bytown and the Ottawa”, The Packet(18 December, 1847) Transcript
You have this year beheld the sad spectacle of your fellow country-men thrown in thousands amongst you, suffering under most aggravated calamities. These calamities emerged beyond the sphere of your preventative aid, but their existence, when openly appealing to your senses, were mitigated by your sympathy. The Emigration of the season found the Government unprepared for its reception – no prospective measure was adopted to guard the Province from the evils which accompanied it – no cautious foresight of our Canadian Ministry provided a preventative to mitigate the horror of pestilence, whose breath wafted the exiles to our coast. The shores of our Rivers became the graveyard of our Countrymen, and the expiring sigh of the lone exile mingled with the first note of his harp’s freedom, as it thrilled through our Canadian forests. It is true that a noble spirit of benevolence pervaded Canada, and the claims of our destitute and dying fellow creatures were acknowledged in the Cities whither they roamed in search of employment or homesteads. Montreal, Kingston and Toronto had their public Hospitals, with Medical attendance for the sick – the Government provided, also, for the wants of the poor and needy, and food was bountifully supplied. In these places, Officers were appointed by the Government to carry out necessary regulations. In Bytown, also, an Agency for the Emigrants was established, but Bytown had no public Hospital. The first boat that arrived was laden with the unfortunate victims of disease – every boat that subsequently passed left its quota of sick, until the Town became a Lazaretto. There was no public Hospital to receive them. The inhabitants dare not take them beneath their roofs without introducing pestilence to their families.
What was to be done? Were they to die and rot upon the wharves? – to perish openly in the streets? – to be thrown by the crews of the barges ashore wherever a boat touched between Kingston and Bytown? The health and safety of society was opposed to it – the common feelings of humanity revolted against it. The Emigrant Agent, Mr. Burke, saw but one course open – to send the sick to an Hospital erected by the Superior of a Catholic institution in Bytown. If it was his duty to behold them laying about the wharves, fields and streets – loathsome spectacles of disease – engendering plague and pestilence in the place, – he did wrong. If his duty lay in having the helpless victims attended, and their sufferings relieved by every means in his power – that he performed. In the performance of his duty night and day Bytown witnessed his exertions. Was the paltry pay he received (a Raft-pilot’s wage) his inspiring motive when certain sickness – probable death – appeared as the certain consequence of his fidelity. Never!
Even the Carters of Bytown, who daily carried to the grave or Hospital their loads, had a higher motive than mere pay to inspire them. But to the Hospital they were sent. In the Hospital they were attended by the Sisters of Charity.
The Sisters of Charity! – ladies who do honor to humanity – whose virtuous self-sacrificing benevolence raises them high above all others of their race, and typifies them hand-maids of Heaven. These ladies were the attendants of the poor Emigrants, and with their own hands performed the most menial drudgery. Through the lingering length of our long Summer days with heroic fortitude they labored to assuage the anguish of our suffering fellow-creatures – breathing the air of pestilence, and fearlessly striving with grim tyrannical death to rescue those sufferers from his grasp: through the long hours of the night they kept their posts by the couch of the dying – with the groans of suffering humanity ringing in their ears – with Heaven the only witness of their Heaven-inspired exertions.
Irishmen of Bytown! You know this to be the language of truth – you know this was the conduct of those who attended your countrymen in the dark hour of their sorrows – you well know that the wealth of the world would not command such attendance elsewhere, or induce any creature to undergo the toil and fatigue, or to run the risk attendant on such services. These females had a higher motive than pay to inspire them; and highest in the honor – foremost in the gratitude of all who sympathise with suffering humanity – should their character stand. Heavy expenses attended this Hospital, and we are told the advisers of the Governor General find fault with the Emigrant Agent for having the unfortunate Irish Emigrants thus attended in their sickness, and refuse to pay this institution its claim upon the Emigration Agent! Does our Government act on principles so contrary to reason – so inconsistent with every idea of justice?