A new exhibition at Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University explores famine-time immigrants in Montreal and the selfless acts of those who helped them during the summer of 1847.
Opening on April 1, “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” delves into Montreal records to bring the story of the religious orders who came to the aid of Irish immigrants when they needed it most.
The exhibition is presented by Christine Kinealy, founding director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and a professor of history at Quinnipiac, in collaboration with Jason King, Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Moore Institute at Galway University, and the Arnold Bernhard Library.
The year-long exhibition looks at the thousands of Irish who left Ireland to escape the famine and immigrated to Canada. Upon arrival in Canada, however, the suffering of many famine Irish continued, as they remained among the poorest of the poor and some of them were stricken with typhus fever following the long voyage.
In acts of extreme kindness, a number of people in the English and French Canadian communities came to their aid and provided shelter and support for those ailing and dying. Leading the charge in helping the Montreal Irish were the Sisters of Charity, also known as the Grey Nuns.
“The story of the Grey Nuns, and of the other religious orders who helped the dying Irish immigrants, is one of kindness, compassion and true charity,” Kinealy said.
“Nonetheless, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants perished in the fever sheds of Montreal. They had fled from famine in Ireland only to die of fever in Canada. This is a remarkable story that deserves to be better known.”
Visitors to the exhibition can expect to see an 1848 painting, commissioned by the Bishop of Montreal, depicting the Grey Nuns in action as they tended to the poor, maps outlining the fever sheds where the sick were kept in isolation, records the Order kept on the children they attended when they had lost their families and a Grey Nun habit (a black and brown dress despite their name) among other items collected over the past six months.
Another interesting item in the collection is a letter written by one of the sisters, telling a person that they had items of their father's following his death and were attempting the return the items to his family. Speaking to IrishCentral, Christine Kinealy said that this shows the level of kindness and compassion shown by the nuns during these years. Putting themselves in danger of disease, they tended the sick and looked after newly-orphaned Irish children.
“These children left their homeland, embarked on a long voyage, arrived to Canada and then lost their parents. The Grey Nuns were then so kind to them – what would have happened to these children if it wasn’t for the Grey Nuns?”
“It’s important to remember that the nuns were also French-Canadian, they weren’t Irish. It just shows the general compassion they had to put their own lives in danger for others.”
The Grey Nuns were founded in 1738 by Marguerite d'Youville as a religious association to care for the poor. The congregation became an official religious institution meaning the nuns swear normal three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as an extra pledge to devote their lives to the service of suffering humanity. From the 1840s onwards, they expanded enormously to become a major provider of healthcare and other social services throughout Quebec, Western and Northern Canada, and the northern United States.
The exhibition will be available to the public from April 1, 2015 to March 18, 2016 in the Lender Special Collection Room in the university’s library. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The exhibition will be officially launched at a private event on Tuesday, March 31, by the Canadian Consul General (New York); Quebec Delegate to New England (Boston); and the Irish Consul General (NYC).