Note for an Abandoned Child

Infants born out of wedlock were often left to the care of nuns.

Written by Mathieu Drouin

Posted February 15, 2023

“You must call him James,” says this note, which accompanied a child abandoned to the care of the Augustinian nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec, on September 7, 1815. The infant was placed in the “tower,” a pivoting half-cylinder that allowed a person outside of a cloistered nunnery to deposit property — or, in this case, a child — for the nuns.

The fate of James — he was indeed baptized James Corneille — was neither unique nor rare in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1845, the Augustinians of the Hôtel-Dieu took in nearly 1,400 children at the request of the government of Lower Canada. Many of them were born out of wedlock — a circumstance which often condemned the child abandonment and the mother to shame.

Nearly half of the children taken in by the Augustinians died very young. This grim statistic reflected the very high infant mortality rate in Canada at the time. The orphans who survived were entrusted to a wet nurse chosen by the Augustinians, and were sometimes adopted.

What happened to James? An addendum to the note tells us that he died on December 8, 1818, at barely three years old.

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This object resides at the Augustinian Monastery.

This article originally appeared in Cinquante Merveilles de nos musées: les plus beaux trésors de la Francophonie Canadienne. The special interest publication was part of Projet Portage, a five-year initiative to connect history lovers in French and English Canada, generously supported by the Molson Foundation.

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