After century-and-a-half, the Grey Nuns’ mission to help lives on
As a young girl, Jeannine Coulombe saw the ministry of the Grey Nuns firsthand.
They were part her hometown of Legal, north of Edmonton, and in her parish, St. Emile. They started the first school in the village. They started choirs and committees. They brought food to the needy. They took care of the community by focusing on education, health care and social work.
“They were part of the community,” said Sister Coulombe, now 80, the local leader of the Grey Nuns in Edmonton. “I admired them so much, I wanted to be like them. They were caring women. We could see and know their compassion by what they did among the people. They were part of us.”
“I felt there were no nuns like the Grey Nuns.”
Indeed, Alberta hadn’t experienced anything quite like them. In Alberta, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal — commonly known as the Grey Nuns — focused on health care. They established the first health-care ministry at the St. Albert Mission in 1863. In 1895 the Grey Nuns established the Edmonton General Hospital, and still operated it in the 1980s through a management board.
In 1985, they opened the first hospital-based palliative care centre. And in 1988, the General Hospital’s acute care services were transferred to the newly opened Grey Nuns Community Hospital.
“The love of the poor and the needy and the vulnerable ̶ it was so ingrained in us and so beautiful, because that’s what gave us life,” Sister Coulombe said. “We always preferred the vulnerable, the little ones, the outcasts; that was our mission and we really lived it.”
That mission is being celebrated during National Catholic Health Care Week Oct. 6-12, a reflection of 400 years of Catholic health care in Canada and more than 150 years in Alberta.
At his inaugural Archbishop’s Dinner on Oct. 4, Archbishop Richard Smith highlighted the monument outside the Alberta Legislature building that honours all Catholic Sisters for their contributions to the formation of the province. More than 70 religious communities have served in Alberta over the years.
Today, a century and half after the Grey Nuns arrived in Western Canada, their mission lives on through Covenant Health and its dedication to helping the most vulnerable by caring for the whole person ̶ mind, body and spirit ̶ at all stages of life.
“It’s heart work,” said Cecilia Marion, senior operations director at St. Joseph’s Auxiliary Hospital in Edmonton and the Youville Home long-term care centre in St. Albert. “It’s not an easy place to work, but — as the prayer says — it’s in giving that you receive. People that work here, their hearts are full.”
Youville Home is named after Marie-Margaret d’Youville, who founded the Grey Nuns. The first Canadian to be named a saint, she is known as the Mother of Universal Charity for her dedication to all people. Her feast day is celebrated on Oct. 16.
The home that bears her name houses up to 232 seniors, including 18 Grey Nuns. Fourteen of them, including Sister Coulombe, actively help the staff as residents leave their old life behind and prepare for a new one.
“The minute they walk in here, they know this will probably be the last place that they will live,” explained Marion. “So the families, and the people who live here, start a process of grieving when they walk in the door. To walk with people in their grief, and in their struggles, it means being patient, being quiet and being with them. It’s all about the heart.”
While services and care may be similar at other care homes, what distinguishes Youville Home is the mission and values that are lived and displayed every day.
Residents can attend Mass and receive the sacraments on site. The home also offers ecumenical services and plans to add an interreligious prayer space. There’s a day care in the basement, so long-term care residents can interact with the kids. And the home hosts Indigenous drumming circles in which the different generations connect.
“If you sat at the fireplace for 10 minutes, you’d see there’s a lot of action out there!” Marion said. “People are living. They’re having a good time.”
Staff work so closely with residents at Youville Home that they become family. They feel the triumphs and struggles. To honour that, the Youville home has started an Honour Guard. When a resident dies, staff line the hallways as the body is wheeled out of the building. An announcement is made and a homemade quilt and rose is laid on the body.
Marion recalled the day that 91-year-old Ed Wilson formed part of the honour guard to see his wife, 87-year-old Jean Wilson, out of the building. Both were residents at Youville.
“It was so beautiful because he was not alone in his grief,” Marion recalled. “He was surrounded by staff who cared for him and loved him and cried with him in his grief. That’s a beautiful thing to see.”
“The staff are hurting too. We have amazing people who work here. They come in and care for people, not just their bodies but their minds and their souls. They develop relationships with these people. They are very intimate with them. And then they die. Someone else moves in and they start it all over again.”
Marion said anyone who works in social services, education and health has an innate need to help people. At Covenant Health – and in Catholic health care in general – there’s something more.
“To bring those people into the focus of everyday society, it is a mission of Covenant Health to do that. They are a voiceless people. Unless you are touched by it, you don’t really know what’s going on,” said Marion, who has worked for Covenant Health for 11 years.
In times of death, Sister Coulombe also counsels residents and families. Residents have told her, “Sister, we feel that our family members are cared for.”
“If I sit with you, and listen to you and to your cries inside, there’s no time, there’s no technology. It’s the heart. You are important to me because Jesus told me that you are important. The human person is recognized for who he or she is — a human being, created by God, and going back to God.”
Sister Coulombe has a childhood memory of a villager in Legal who alerted the Grey Nuns to a family that was in need. The mother had six children; the father found only sporadic work. The superior herself, Sister Bernadette Dumoulin, went to visit them.
“She went and walked around, didn’t say anything, saw the family outside and came back. The woman was in the garden and she made friends with the woman. And then she started helping the family.”
Sister Coulombe took her vows as Grey Nun in 1957. After graduating from the University of Alberta, she taught on First Nations in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She was a religious education instructor and trained catechists. Then she and other Grey Nuns served as social workers in Colombia until early 2000s, when Sister Coulombe retired.
Recently she moved into Youville Home herself. Does it help having Grey Nuns living in the building?
“Absolutely! They don’t ever stop serving,” said Cecilia Marion, giving Sister Coulombe a hug. “They help at mealtime. They help people eat. They help porter people to chapel, to events. They stop and visit people. It’s the charism that they carry with them. It permeates everything.”
The sisters help keep the staff focused on the mission, Marion said. So does a large portrait of St. Marguerite d’Youville that hangs in her office.
“Her eyes follow me around the room,” she joked. “She is always with me. Her story, I revisit it a lot, because she was someone who was married and had children and really, really felt a calling to provide for the poor. Her undying attention to that, I go back to that.”
“Her ability to work collaboratively with people, and to have good conversations with them, was outstanding. It’s the same skills. It’s the same heart. It’s the same values. I revisit it every once in a while and gives me back my direction and my strength.”
For Sister Coulombe, living at the Youville is also a blessing; she sees the legacy of her sisters each day.
“Our style of religious life in our Church has changed,” Sister Coulombe explained. “There are new communities coming up that are working with pro-life. They are working with evangelization. They are working in different fields. Religious life continues on. Maybe the mission of the Grey Nuns as we knew it, we finished. Glorify us, but send us away.”
“I have such beautiful memories to live on. I think of our sisters upstairs in long-term (care) who have Alzheimer’s. They were women that we looked up to, our Superior-General. But she’s still important to us,” Sister Coulombe said.
“Just think, we crossed Canada, opened schools, hospitals and social work ̶ the poor of the time. Who are the poor of the time now? Mother Teresa would say loneliness. Our people are so lonely. They could be surrounded with multi, multi material things, but they are lonely.”
“But you know, we had a beautiful mission. We have nothing to regret.”