The fourth theme in the exhibit concerns the plight of Kingston and Toronto’s Famine orphans. It emphasizes the resilience of these child migrants who lost their parents during the trans-Atlantic voyage and in Canadian fever sheds. Some of the worst suffering amongst Irish Famine emigrants in Ontario occurred in the fever sheds along the Kingston waterfront, where over 1400 of them died in 1847. Their story is told in the annals of the Religious Hospitaller Sisters of St Joseph. They not only showed great compassion for the orphaned children in their care, but also demonstrated initiative and independence at a time when options for women were quite limited.
Professor Mark McGowan at Kingston’s Celtic Cross Famine Memorial in An Gorta Mor Park.
The Famine Irish in Kingston
The Famine Irish died in Kingston in greater numbers than anywhere else in Ontario during the summer of 1847. Approximately 1400 of them lie buried in layers in a mass grave to the south of what is now Kingston General Hospital. Many of them were weakened and exposed to infectious disease after travelling in cramped quarters or on deck for several days on steamers from Montreal, in conditions that were not dissimilar to the coffin ships that crossed the Atlantic. As Stephen De Vere observed after making the journey himself: “In almost every boat were clearly marked cases of actual fever – in some were deaths – the dead and the living huddled together. Sometimes the crowds were stowed in open barges, and towed after the steamer, standing like pigs upon the deck of a Cork and Bristol packet.”
The Famine Irish were cared for by the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in fever sheds erected at the corner of Emily and King streets, on the Kingston waterfront. Their annals contain detailed and moving accounts of Irish emigrant suffering. Monuments to the Famine Irish can be found nearby in An Gorta Mor (Irish for the “the Great Famine”) Park, where a Celtic Cross was established by the Kingston Irish Famine Commemoration Association in 1998. In 1966, some of the remains near Kingston General Hospital were reinterred in St Mary’s Cemetery. They are commemorated by the “Angel of Mercy” monument. Local citizens who died in 1847 are memorialized by another Celtic Cross in McBurney (“Skeleton”) Park. Despite these monuments, most of the Famine dead remain in the mass grave near Kingston General Hospital, marked only by a commemorative plaque.
Kingston Irish Famine Memorials
Kingston Orphans’ Christmas –
“A Painful Scene to Witness”
The main caregivers of the Famine Irish in Kingston were the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, or Hôtel Dieu nuns. They had arrived from Montreal two years earlier in 1845 to establish the Hôtel Dieu hospital. Like their fellow Hospitaller Sisters in Montreal and Sister Bruyère’s Grey Nuns in Bytown, they were overwhelmed by the Irish influx. They record the suffering of Famine emigrants in their Annals of the Hôtel Dieu hospital. In these annals, they speak with one voice to recount “the hardships our poor sisters had to endure”. The annals also pay tribute to their fallen Sister “who fell a victim to Typhus and had to be removed to an isolated room in our hospital. Poor Sr. McGorian died wildly delirious, and asking to be taken to the sheds where the sick were calling her”.
The Annals further reveal the feelings of affection that the Sisters had for the Irish orphans in their care. They recall the arrival of a large number of female orphans on Christmas Eve, 1847. In order to feed them all, the Sisters had to serve “them by rows, as we had not sufficient dishes to serve them all at once,…; ; the poor children ate standing, 10 at a time, so the meals lasted quite a while”. The Annals also recollect the anguish that was felt when the Sisters had to part with most of the children in their care. They attest to the pain of their separation and strong bonds that developed between Kingston’s Famine Irish orphans and their female religious caregivers in 1847 and early 1848.
Caring For Famine Irish Orphans
“A Very Painful Scene to Witness”: The Hospitaller Sisters’ Story of Famine Irish Orphans
December 1847.In December 1947, the Chimney of the Mens’ Ward took fire and our dear Sr. Dupuis who saw it first was so frightened that without thinking she sent Sr. Clemence a Postulant, immediately to the College across the road. The Postulant went without hesitation, which incident made us all, laugh very heartily, because as a general thingthe Postulants never goes out of the Cloister. "Of course it is an established custom, to try their vocation and habituate them to the Cloister". All the Gentlemen of the College came to our help immediately. It was about 7in the evening. Many a time, these poor children nearly broke their neck, in passing through the 3rd story of the Hospital, which was not finished, climbing over boards, beams, benches which were strewn here and there and through the end window went up on the roof of the small house and thus could reach the chimney of the sick wards, and they put out the fire which was very great. As there was no dormer-Windows on this house, we were very uneasy that fire could be there, unseen, closed up in that small garret where no one could get at it. The Rvd. Mr. Chisholm calmed our fears, he had noticed a small hole in the ceiling, he shoved his head through it and with great difficulty he succeeded in getting in far enough to see if there was any sparks, happily there was none. This Ryd. Gentleman had as much trouble in getting out as he had to get in, because there was no ladder to get down, no bench or anything else to get to it, as it was vacant. There was only a few shelves along the wall on which he climbed up and then the linens that were on it, came all down on the floor, finally we were all right, this time safe, a good fright.
December, 1847. The cruel disease Thyphoide (typhus) fever, made some ravages among the Emigrants that in a very short time, the town of Kingston and others were filled with Irish orphans, the greatest number. We were asked to take care of them and that the Government would give onepound a month for each, we accepted the offer and directly Rvd. Mr. Macdonell, V.G. had a staircase made at the bable-end of the New Hospital and bought two large stoves and some provisions such as rice, barley, flour, etc. - a large kitchen stove with all its utensils. And Christmas eve 24th of December 1847,Revd. Mr. Macdonell, V.G. came himself with about a hundred of these poor little Orphans, He made them all go up to the Hospital which then was far from being finished, still we were happy to have these large rooms to save the poor Children from misery and the danger they were in of losing their souls. We placed the girls upstairs and the boys downstairs. The only furniture was a stove, two barrels and two boards on the top of them to serve as tables and one chair for the Sister. The walls were not plastered yet, and rough boards served for protection around the staircase, and the windows were fastened with nails. About 30 little cots were sent us and full of bugs, and at that we had not cots enough for half of the Children, we had to put them two or three per bed, then came the bed clothes, blankets, bed ticks, dirty and full of vermin as well as the rags which covered the children, bundles of clothes full of worms and filth. Our two large wards were filled with all these things to such a state that we were obliged to walk on bundles of bed clothes and bundles of all kinds, so as not to walk on the Children. Misery was depicted on the countenance of these poor little unfortunates, several of whom had been sick and very much neglected or rather abandoned.
At 4 P.M. four Nurses came, carrying the smallest and one of the babies, was only a few weeks old, others were very young and very small, almost the greatest number of them; 15 only could help themselves, we kept only 2 of the Women Nurses to stay with us, one was with the boys and the other with the girls and they were a great help to us. When supper time came, we had no dishes to give them their food, so we had to get that of the patients, which consisted of 18 tin plates and as many mugs, spoons, etc. The children had to sit down on the floor around the stove, they were chilled with cold and we served them by rows, as we had not sufficient dishes to serve them all at once, for the little girls, we got the dishes from the orphan girls ward (whom we had before the Emigrants came) and we took the top of a bed otherwise Tester on trestles for a table. I forgot to say that the trestles were barrels; the poor children ate standing, 10 at a time, so the meals lasted quite a while. When bed time came we were very much embarrased, having no other bedding, but what they brought and we were very sorry to put them in such disgusting beds, still we could not do otherwise for the time being. The next day, the Birthday of our Lord, after the morning devotions were over, the Sisters busied themselves the rest of that day, in improving the fate of our dear little Children, who represented so well, to us, the Divine Infant. It was a constant subject of meditation to us, and of thanksgiving also, forthe beautiful occasion given us of rendering some little services to our Good Savior in the persons of these poor little orphans, naked and for saken in suffering.
26th. The following day, we began to provide for their clothing. A lady of the town sent us a piece of cotton and some other persons sent us some old clothes, in good quantity, but very much worn. All this was to be washed and undone or ript and resewed and made over, so that all this took some time. Our Mother wished that we began by the little girls clothes, because they were quicker made. She worked herself till eleven at night and sometimes all night, and she does this very often when we are pressed with work. During a few months, some Ladies and young girls of the town, came to help us to sew every Tuesday.
Miss Burnel, a Protestant Minister's daughter and several others came and Mrs. Burnel herself, sent us by her Daughter, linen for the sick. She also came herself to see us with other friends of hers and almost always gave us some money at each visit. No matter how active we were, we could not changed them children's clothes before the 7th of January following.Afterwards we rendered the same services to the good little boys but with greater labor and trouble, because some of them were all over covered with scabs, they were in such a state, that they were hardly recognizable after they were better and cleaned up. Our Mother made an ointment and they were rubbed with it and in a very short time they were better. In the meantime they were all changed, dressed neatly and looked very happy and contented to be with us. Rvd. Mr. McKey came twice a week to teach Cathecism and the Sisters taught the little girls. Rvd. Mr. Chisholm and O'Neil heard their confessions. We were happy to procure to them this doublefold good. As our Chapel was too small to contain them all, we used to send them to High Mass and Vespers to the Parish Church on Sundays and Holy days with the Governess. On Ash Wednesday, we assembled them all in their Wards, and after the Priest had given the Ashes, in the Chapel, he
went up to their wards and gave it to them. One would think that the dear innocent little beings understood all about the Ceremony, they looked so pious and devout. Several of the little ones were sick but we lost only two, one two months old and the other four years old. Our dear Sisters of Montreal did not forget us, they unceasingly sent us clothes, furniture, linen and money by 10, 15, 20 and 25 pounds, or 40, 60, 80, and 100 dollars.
January 22nd, 1848. The 22nd of January 1848 our respected Father, Rvd. Mr. A. Macdonell, V.G. came for our Holy Renovation. He made the meditation the three days previous to it, that is during the Recollection and gave 1 sermon before Communion of the Renovation day, without any ceremony, as usual, we had simply singing and benediction of the M.H. Sacrament at 4 P.M. Again, in the month of January 1848, 30 emigrant orphans, boys and girls were sent to us, with the previous number we had already, the whole formed a large family to sustain. In August following, Bishop Phelan told us to place them out as the Government decided not to pay any more for them and we were too poor to keep such a number without some special help. And as we were strangers, we placed none without a ticket or note from the Bishop or His V.G. When anyone came to ask for a child, we used to place them in rows and people took their choice. I assure you it was very painful to witness such a scene, when any of them heard their name mentioned, they knew they were going, they began to cry and could not be consoled at seeing themselves separated from their companions in misfortune and from their Mistresses, who also done their share of weeping. Our dear Sr. Dupuis was charged with the boys and Sr. St. Joseph with the girls. At the end of April the greatest number were placed and there remained only 5 or 6 boys, we place them in the Kitchen under the care of Sr. Emelie. About 15 little girls remained under the care of Sr. Latour, in a room close by the Wards. Afterwards the sick took the orphan's place in the large Hospital. And the Rvd. John Farrel made a collection, to finish the wards which were not yet plastered. He got 80 pounds, $320.00, which sufficed to complete the 2 wards. The third storey was not touched, so we had to wait for another aid from Divine Providence. The Rvd. Mr. John Farrel did not gather that money without trouble, but his great Charity and indefatigable zeal, made him forget the trouble or toil.
The Hotel Dieu, Montreal at once threw open its doors to her welcoming her as they would an Angel from Heaven. A neat pretty suite of rooms was daintily prepared for her, but those, she refused to occupy, saying, "I have given all I possessed for my dear poor, old and infirm, shall I now spoil my little sacrifice by living like a Royal Princess? A princess indeed I shall be, but it shall be a Princess of Poverty." Nor could the good sisters prevail on her to accept anything except a little corner in one of the public wards, where from her humble abode she could see her dear sick and minister to their every need. It is related of this saintly Lady in the early Annals, Hotel Dieu Montreal, often at night or in the early morning was she found at the bedside of some poor patient who had rang her bell, thus forestalling the busy Sister Hospitaller in this sublime work of charity. Thus she lived and thus she died; a loving martyr of devotion to God's suffering members; her countless acts of devotion and love no doubt recorded in letters of Gold in the great Book of Life. How true it is - there are many saints whose lives are so hidden, only God and His Angels know them as such.
The first postulant to enter the new Institution was Angela Brouillette who entered the Novitiate March 14th, 1846 in quality of Domestic Sister. As she was a good industrious pious sister, devoted to her work and most respectful to the Sisters and had entered the month of dear St. Joseph, all agreed this was a sure proof of his approval and benignity. She died Christmas Day 1864 having faithfully served the Community eighteen years.
On June 1st, same year, Lucy McDougall, a Kingstonian by birth, entered the Novitiate in quality of Choir Sister. This good sister was a very good Hospitaller kind and patient, the sick loved her and confided all their difficulties to her as she understood their language perfectly. She died January 19th, 1898, thus giving 52 years devoted service to our Lord. She was but 23 years old when she entered and 75 when she died. May she rest in peace.
Another postulant came to aid the sisters June 28th, 1846. Others had entered but persevered only for a short time, having as our Divine Lord puts it, "thought more of their Father and Mother then of Him", being too lonesome they had returned to the comforts and indulgences of Family Life. The name of this dear child was Mary McGorian. She entered the Novitiate fully determined to persevere if God so willed. God was pleased with her good will and earnestness; she served the sick and orphans faithfully and well.
When the tide of Emigration had set in in Ireland, the ship that conveyed the poor Irish Refugees became infected with the dreadful germ of Typhus Fever. Pent up in the great floating Morgue or Death Trap, nearly all the poor exiles fell a victim to Typhus fever. When the Boat reached our City, the terrified inhabitants were afraid to allow it to land, fearing the spread of the living plague. The General hospital was rapidly vacated, as was also its many sheds adjoining, the infected patients placed therein and notices placed here and there requesting nurses or sisters to attend their needs. Two of our good sisters at once offered themselves, Srs. McDougall, Professed Sister and Sister McGorian, a novice in white veil. With maternal tenderness they nursed the poor sick Emigrants, watched at night by their dying bedside and closed the weary eyes when death came as it often did to claim its victims.
The sufferings and hardships our poor sisters had to endure were incredible, owing to poor accommodations and unsanitary surroundings. Finally they too fell a
victim to Typhus and had to be removed to an isolated room in our hospital. Poor Sr. McGorian died wildly delirious, and asking to be taken to the sheds where the sick were calling her. Dear Sr. McDougall in an adjoining room, heard the subdued tramp of many feet that evening and with that curiosity attributable to all the daughters of Mother Eve, left her bed feebly to peep through a tiny chink in the doorway, just in time to see her faithful companion of her toils and privations, carried secretly away to be interred privately. Later on she recovered and often told the story herself saying in her quaint old fashioned way, "I made a doleful Meditation on Death and Grave yards that evening for I was sure I would be the next". However in the wise designs of Providence she was spared to give over half a century good work to our Lord, dying only in 1898.
Excerpt from History of the RHSJs Vol II 3rd Ed (LIB2000-607) p 220.
While waiting for their group of these sick immigrants to reach Kingston, the government had "sheds" built there also for them. The Hospitallers of St. Joseph had founded a Hôtel Dieu in this town only two years previously so they cared for these sick persons until late in the autumn.”
A young professed Sister contracted the malady and died. Other Sisters were attacked and recovered only after a long convalescence.
Excerpt from the Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital, Kingston, Christmas Eve, 1847.
When supper time came, we had no dishes to give them their food, so we had to get that of the patients, which consisted of 18 tin plates and as many mugs, spoons, etc. The children had to sit down on the floor around the stove, they were chilled with cold and we served them by rows, as we had not sufficient dishes to serve them all at once, for the little girls, we got the dishes from the orphan girls ward (whom we had before the Emigrants came) and we took the top of a bed otherwise Tester on trestles for a table.
I forgot to say that the trestles were barrels; the poor children ate standing, 10 at a time, so the meals lasted quite a while. When bed time came we were very much embarrassed, having no other bedding, but what they brought and we were very sorry to put them in such disgusting beds, still we could not do otherwise for the time being.
Excerpt from the Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital, Kingston, January 22, 1848.
In August following, Bishop Phelan told us to place them [the orphans] out as the Government decided not to pay any more for them and we were too poor to keep such a number without some special help. And as we were strangers, we placed none without a ticket or note from the Bishop or His V.G. When anyone came to ask for a child, we used to place them in rows and people took their choice.
I assure you it was very painful to witness such a scene, when any of them heard their name mentioned, they knew they were going, they began to cry and could not be consoled at seeing themselves separated from their companions in misfortune and from their Mistresses, who had also done their share of weeping.
Excerpt from Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital.
When the tide of Emigration had set in in Ireland, the ship that conveyed the poor Irish Refugees became infected with the dreadful germ of Typhus Fever. Pent up in the great floating Morgue or Death Trap, nearly all the poor exiles fell a victim to Typhus fever. When the Boat reached our City, the terrified inhabitants were afraid to allow it to land, fearing the spread of the living plague. The General hospital was rapidly vacated, as was also its many sheds adjoining, the infected patients placed therein and notices placed here and there requesting nurses or sisters to attend their needs.
Two of our good sisters at once offered themselves, Srs. McDougall, Professed Sister and Sister McGorian, a novice in white veil. With maternal tenderness they nursed the poor sick Emigrants, watched at night by their dying bedside and closed the weary eyes when death came as it often did to claim its victims. The sufferings and hardships our poor sisters had to endure were incredible, owing to poor accommodations and unsanitary surroundings. Finally they too fell a victim to Typhus and had to be removed to an isolated room in our hospital. Poor Sr. McGorian died wildly delirious, and asking to be taken to the sheds where the sick were calling her.
Professor Mark McGowan on Famine Irish orphans in Kingston
“A Most Outrageous Attack” –
Riot on Kingston Wharf
In general, Catholics and Protestants worked together to alleviate the suffering of the Famine Irish in Kingston, but on occasion religious tensions did surface. One such incident occurred on the Princess Royal steamer on Kingston’s wharf on August 1st and 2nd, 1847. The Princess Royal was captained by Henry Twohy, whom John Young had accused of treating his “living cargo” of Irish emigrants “just like cattle” when they arrived on the Toronto waterfront on August 13th. Almost two weeks earlier, Captain Twomy was involved in another altercation in Kingston on August 1st when Father Higgins boarded the Princess Royal to provide care for an ailing Catholic migrant. On board, he was taunted by members of the crew who shouted “Down with the Pope”.
The next day, crew members of the Unicorn docked nearby stormed the Princess Royal in retaliation, and a riot almost broke out on the wharf. Captain Twohy summoned the army, but the crowed was dispersed by Bishop Patrick Phelan and Kingston’s Mayor, Thomas Kirkpatrick, before any violence occurred. Nevertheless, a war of words broke out in Kingston’s press about who was responsible for the incident, before Father Higgins was absolved at an inquest later in the month. The Princess Royal incident was sparked by sectarian animosities that were similar to the false charges of proselytization levelled against Sister Bruyère in Bytown and the Slabtown murders on the Welland Canal in 1849. Ultimately, they reveal that religious tensions lingered beneath the surface and occasionally flared up as a result of the Irish Famine migration to Canada West.
Professor Mark McGowan on the Kingston Famine Irish Riot
Toronto’s Widows and Orphans’ Asylum
Unlike in Bytown and Kingston, orphaned Irish children in Toronto were not cared for by female religious but an institution that was specifically created to house them: the Widows and Orphans’ Asylum. The asylum was established “for the care and maintenance of the destitute widows and orphans of the Emigrants of 1847” in the Bathurst Street Barracks complex in late summer. According to the Report of the Managing Committee for the Widows and Orphans Asylum (Toronto: Roswell and Thompson, 1848), it was originally intended only to care for emigrant women and children whose providers had died in Toronto; but it opened its doors to “other destitute widows and orphans then wandering through our streets friendless and helpless” (8). The institution was short lived, and closed its doors after the crisis had abated in the summer of 1848. More importantly, the Asylum was unique in Canada for its meticulous record keeping and insistence that the orphaned children it placed with families and in apprenticeships were given contractual terms of agreement so that they were not exploited as they moved into a new phase of their lives.