A tale of helping hands
From 1850 to 1975 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd used these buildings to help destitute women and children in a variety of ways. Once the nuns had left, a citizens’ group opposed government plans to demolish the buildings and build an office block. The buildings have been conserved and converted into cooperative housing, with people there continuing to give each other a helping hand.
In the early 19th century the wood trade and shipyards brought workers and sailors to Québec City, many of whom visited brothels. Lots of poor women, immigrants, and women from the country worked as prostitutes. Even though the practice was tolerated, sometimes they would spend brief spells in prison, usually for vagrancy, before returning to their dreadful conditions.
A lawyer by the name of George Manley Muir suggested the Society of St. Vincent de Paul help the woman by funding a refuge where they could be looked after and educated. A devoted widow, Marie Fitzback, was recruited to organize the project. The refuge was first set up on Rue Richelieu before moving permanently with eight associates and twenty “repentant” prostitutes to the Saint-Louis district.
An important institution
Marie Fitzback was a skilled organizer and extended the refuge on Rue De La Chevrotière, where it now opened its doors to poor children. In 1855 it was named Asile Bon-Pasteur. The following year the Church recognized the new order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, known as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who taught the women a trade and educated the poor young girls, whether they spoke English or French. Along with basic schooling, the arts were also a part of the women’s education. Paintings by the nuns could soon be found in churches across Québec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and the United States, while a printing house was added to a bookbinder’s workshop in 1874. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd were also renowned for their needlework, supplying the clergy with almost 400 soutanes and coats each year, as well as providing a darning service to the public.
These diverse activities raised substantial sums of money for the order, allowing it to continue its mission of providing free help to destitute women and children for decades more. With local support the order was also able to build a number of other buildings.
An uncertain future
Things had changed a lot by 1975. The state was now in charge of education and social services, and nuns were in short supply. At the government’s behest, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd left the buildings they had outgrown, making way for a new office block. But that’s when a group of citizens stepped in.
In 15 years the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood had lost half the people who lived there, displaced by office buildings, a broad boulevard, and an expressway. The citizens’ group was determined to have the Sisters of the Good Shepherd complex converted into apartments, rather than razed to the ground and replaced with offices. Resistance grew. A daycare centre in the building ensured it wouldn’t be torn down during daylight hours, while adults held evening and nighttime vigils, eating and sleeping there as they discussed alternatives.
Housing co-ops and a heritage chapel
In 1976 the newly elected provincial government shelved plans to demolish the buildings, which were instead converted by the Corporation d’aménagement du couvent Bon-Pasteur into seven housing cooperatives for a total of 240 apartments. A daycare, grocery store, offices, and a recording studio completed the makeover.
The transformation was almost miraculous… and it wasn’t the first miracle they had witnessed: According to the nuns’ records, their buildings had been spared by the devastating fire of 1876 when Sister Mary Mullen held up an image of Our Lady of Purity and the flames suddenly changed direction. The entire Saint-Louis district had burned down—apart from the nuns’ buildings and the historic chapel built in 1866–1868 and today classified as a historical monument.