Le Typhus, Theophile Hamel, 1848
Theophile Hamel’s votive painting Le Typhus is the only authentic, contemporary image of a fever shed and the suffering of the Famine Irish in Canada. As recounted in the annals of the Grey Nuns, it was commissioned by Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget as an iconic image “representing the typhus seeking to enter the city but stopped at the gate by [the virgin Mary’s] strong protection” (68):
It is installed in the ceiling at the entrance to Notre-Dame-De-Bonsecours Church in Montreal.
The content of the painting has been described in detail by Montreal’s most renowned Irish novelist Mary Anne Sadlier. In her own words:
We have in Montreal a large picture of the interior of the fever-sheds showing with painful reality the rows of plague-stricken patients with the clergy and religious in attendance on them. In the far background, the good Bishop [Bourget] himself is seen in purple cassock ministering to the sick.
[Three orders of nuns also cared for and tended to the Famine Irish.]
First came the Grey Nuns who gave themselves heart and soul to the fearful labors of the vast lazar-house…. Then the Sisters of Providence… took their places beside the coffin-like wooden beds of the fever patients in the sheds…, When these two large communities were found to be inadequate to take care of the ever- increasing multitude of the sick, a thing came to pass which struck the whole city with admiration. The cloistered Hospitallers of St. Joseph [or Hôtel Dieu nuns], whom the citizens of Montreal had never seen except behind the gratings of their chapel or parlor, or in their own hospital wards, petitioned the Bishop to dispense them their vows of long seclusion, that they might go to the aid of their dear sister communities in the pestilential atmosphere of the fever sheds.
The permission was freely given, and the strange sight was seen day by day in the streets of our ancient city, of the close carriage that conveyed the Sisters of the Hôtel Dieu from their quiet old-time convent to the lazar-house…. People pointed it out to each other with solemn wonder, as the writer well remembers, and spoke with bated breath of the awful visitation that had brought the cloistered nuns from their convent into the outer world, in obedience to the call of charity