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
Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Church was consecrated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1847, six weeks before the massive influx of Irish Famine emigrants during the summer of that year. The church that is most closely associated with the Famine Irish, however, is not St. Patrick’s but rather Notre-Dame-De-Bon-Secours (colloquially known as the Sailors’ Church). Thirty years earlier, in 1817, Father John Jackson Richards, or Jean Richard, first gathered Montreal’s Irish Catholics for English language worship in Bonsecours Church. As the founder of Montreal’s Irish Catholic community, Father Richards worked tirelessly to care for Irish Famine orphans alongside the Grey Nuns in the city’s fever sheds during the summer of 1847. He perished on July 23rd. The death of Father John Jackson Richards is recounted in the annals of the Grey Nuns (pp. 43-44):
One of the most poignant cultural artifacts from the Irish Famine Migration of 1847 is the jacket worn by six year old Thomas Quinn, who was left orphaned with his brother Patrick (12) on Grosse Ile in September of that year and adopted by the French-Canadian Bourque family in Nicolet. Their parents were James Quinn and Margaret Lyons from Strokestown, County Roscommon. Although the Quinn brothers survived the trans-Atlantic voyage on board the Naomi, one of the most notorious of the “coffin ships”, 196 of their fellow passengers (out of a total of 421) perished at sea or in quarantine on the island. Thomas Quinn’s jacket is now part of the collection at the Archives du Séminaire de Nicolet, and was displayed in the Being Irish O’Quebec exhibit at Montreal’s McCord Museum in 2009. As a material culture artifact, its miniature size provides a palpable reminder of the vulnerability of the Irish children who were left orphaned in a new land in 1847.