The Good Shepherd Watches Over Unwed Mothers
This lovely building designed by architect David Ouellet in the neo-Gothic style was constructed between 1878 and 1887 to house Hôpital de la Miséricorde, where the Sisters of the Good Shepherd provided accommodations for unwed mothers whose babies were to be put up for adoption. This was only one of many works of charity of this religious community—the first of its kind founded in Québec, in 1855, by Marie Fitzbach, a mother herself.
A mission of caring
At first, a small group of women led by Marie Fitzbach took on the task of rehabilitating female prisoners. Soon this handful of dedicated women formed a religious community called the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, refuge of sinners. They expanded to minister to other destitute women and opened Hôpital de la Miséricorde, where they took in women who had conceived a child out of wedlock—a mortal sin according to the religious prescriptions of the time.
In 1878 these nuns, known as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, moved to a new building on rue Couillard, where pregnant women were given support and care and a place to stay. Professors and interns from Université Laval’s Faculty of Medicine right next door supervised the obstetric clinic. In 1901 the sisters also opened Hospice Bethléem, where anonymous mothers who did not want to keep their illegitimate children dropped off their babies by means of a revolving door, without being seen.
A change of the guard and a return to their roots
Hospice Bethléem was renamed Crèche Saint-Vincent-de-Paul and moved to another part of town. Hôpital de la Miséricorde was annexed to it in 1929. Next came the Madeleines de Béthanie, connected to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who called the building Maison Béthanie, the name still used today.
With the government of Québec’s sweeping reform in the 1960s and 1970s to assume responsibility for social services, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd closed the institution for unwed mothers and the hospital in 1972.
They returned to Maison Béthanie in 1992, where they opened the Musée Bon-Pasteur, which chronicles the history of their congregation and provides an overview of the social history of ostracized women and abandoned children in Québec in the 19th and 20th century.
Marie Fitzbach, Venerated Founder
Marie Fitzbach’s life is quite uncommon for the founder of a religious congregation. An orphan, she came to Québec to work at age 16. In 1828 she married her employer, merchant F.-X. Roy, and had three children with him. After his death, Marie went to work as a servant in a presbytery. In 1849 at age 43, this woman of great faith went to live with the Sisters of Charity of Québec, where her two oldest daughters were postulants. It was there that an activist Catholic lawyer asked her to take former female detainees under her wing. Five years later Marie Fitzbach founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Québec, an order that spread to several regions of Québec between 1860 and 1881, then to Ontario, British Columbia, Africa, Brazil, and Haiti in the 20th century.
Since 1985 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd have taken steps to have their founder, Marie-Josephte Fitzbach, beatified.