Saving the Famine Irish: the Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger

by irishcanadianfamineresearcher

Irish FaminePainting on the ceiling of Bon Secours Church in Old Montreal


Sister Marlene Butler received information from a friend in Connecticut about the exhibition telling the story of the Grey Nuns who gave selflessly to the Irish Famine immigrants in Montreal.  Within a few days, Sister Anne Marie Beirne called to tell her she had received information about a conference to be held at Quinnipiac University from June 3 to 6.  During the Conference there would be a presentation entitled “Sacred and Sacrilegious Women’s Testimonials:  the Grey Nuns and Maria Monk” by Jason King from the University of Galway.  They went for the talks on Friday, June 5 and to see the exhibition.  They were warmly welcomed and experienced a very inspiring day including a visit to the exhibition.

Jason King explored the controversy around Maria Monk that erupted in 1836 around accusations of institutional concealment of females and child victims of illegitimacy.  There was a sense of public fascination “with the concealed women and children incarcerated in these institutions to develop lurid fantasies about them.”

In his presentation, King argues that “the sacred images and religious iconography of French-Canadian and Irish female religious caring for Montreal’s famine immigrant in the “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibit were directly influenced and shaped by the sinister impressions of Maria Monk a decade earlier, which they sought to repudiate and replace”. He wanted to show that these sisters worked in a very anti-Catholic environment.

According to King, the annals of the Grey Nuns of Montreal  gave  the best and most detailed accounts in North America  describing  the plight of the Irish famine immigrants.  The Grey Nuns  worked with the women and orphans in the fever sheds in Old Montreal.  Many of them  lost their lives caring for the women and children.  The Grey Nuns were the first to be called to care for immigrants in the fever sheds.  Following them were the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph.  The only image of them is in the painting of Theophile Hamel “Le typhus” ( 1848).

Click here to be linked to the Grey Nun annals