Canada’s First Hospital
In 1644, five years after their arrival, the Augustinian nuns founded the first permanent hospital in New France, the Hôtel-Dieu, exactly where the hospital is today. This order was called to care for the sick as they would Christ. Despite the fact that medical treatment at the time was hit and miss, their hospital had a high cure rate. Today the challenges are very different.
The first hospital in New France
The first three Augustinian nuns arrived in Québec in 1639. They came from Dieppe entrusted with the founding of a hospital, the first north of Mexico. The long history of the institution and the crucial role the nuns played account for the immense value of their legacy. In recent years they have lavished as much attention on transmitting this legacy as they did on caring for the sick for more than three centuries.
A task commensurate with a new country
The Duchess of Aiguillon, a French noblewoman interested in the Jesuits’ ministry to the Aboriginals and hopeful that the zeal of the Augustinian nuns would inspire the Native people to convert to Catholicism, financed the nuns’ journey to Québec. The nuns worked with the Aboriginals in Sillery before settling in the centre of the fledgling town, protected from attack by the Iroquois. They continued to tend to the French and the Native people in the region, rich and poor alike.
The Augustinians were not miracle workers but, thanks to their dedication and the experience they had acquired in France, where they had had a similar role, they managed to achieve astonishingly high cure rates for the era. Seeing God in each of their patients, they served them with compassion using the medications and treatments available at the time. They could also count on assistance from the colony’s first physicians, the most famous of whom was Michel Sarrazin, who in 1700 successfully performed the first mastectomy in North America. His patient, a nun diagnosed with breast cancer, died 40 years later at the age of 77.
Making their own medication
Québec was far from France, and so in order not have to depend on imported medicine, the Augustinian nuns developed skills as apothecaries. They grew medicinal plants in their Hôtel-Dieu garden and quickly mastered the science of medications. By 1800, patients from as far away as Halifax would come to consult with the Hôtel-Dieu apothecary. This tradition was perpetuated by the Augustinians of Québec until they passed the torch to the pharmaceutical industry in the 20th century.
A French-type hospital and convent
At the end of the French Regime, the Augustinian property in the Upper Town consisted of a convent complex typical of the Old World. A chapel and two wings arranged around an inner court were added to the first building. Since the Augustinians were a cloistered order, an exterior wall surrounded the property. In 1755 the monastery and hospital were almost completely gutted by fire. The buildings were rebuilt without delay and, together with the garden, they are now of great heritage value.
Meeting the challenge of continuity
For more than three centuries, the Augustinian community managed Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, which was transferred to the government in 1962 when health and education become government responsibilities. Today, because of the lack of novices, the congregation has undertaken a monumental two-pronged project to transform the monastery.
The first goal of the project is to preserve for posterity the built heritage and rich collections amassed by the Augustinians over time. Their museum will be remodeled to showcase the most precious objects, some of which date back to the 17th century. The history of medicine collection will get special billing. Furthermore, the project will serve to perpetuate the Augustinian mission because the monastery will house a support and residential centre for natural caregivers, thereby continuing the vocation of assistance practiced by the Augustinians nuns of Québec with tireless devotion.
Hôtel-Dieu de Québec is the main place of prayer of the Augustinian sisters. It was rebuilt in 1799 using stones from the former palace of the intendant. A number of well-known artists and artisans have added their personal touch, including Thomas Baillairgé and Antoine Plamondon.
Seventeenth century. Used to make medicine. This item bears marks from the fire of 1755. Collection of the Augustinian Sisters of the Québec General Hospital Monastery.
Late 18th century. Item carved in the Huron-Wendat style. Collection of the Augustinian Sisters of the Québec General Hospital Monastery.