Frontispiece to the Annals of the Monastère de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec

A deathbed memoir captured the early history of New France.

Written by Mathieu Drouin

Posted October 5, 2022

In 1639, three Augustine nuns founded the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec — Canada’s first hospital — to treat the colonists of New France and to evangelize the Indigenous population. Major events that took place at the Hôtel-Dieu and elsewhere in Canada were recorded in annals in an effort to preserve the congregation’s history.

The first volume of the annals was written over a period of six years, from 1716 to 1722. Covering some eighty years, it was dictated to Marie-Andrée Regnard Duplessis de Sainte-Hélène by the monastery’s feeble and bedridden former Mother Superior, Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau de la Ferté de Saint-Ignace.

Further entries were written each year from 1755 to 1774, and resumed in 1877.

This first-hand account forms an important historical record not only of Canada’s first hospital but also of the country itself. It describes the major issues of the time — wars, epidemics, religious quarrels — and is one of the only sources of information available about certain events. The initial volume was probably the first book written by a Canadian-born woman.

This document also provides evidence of the essential role played by female religious congregations throughout the history of francophone Canada. The nuns provided social services to orphans, unwed mothers and the poor, in addition to operating schools and hospitals.

The Augustine nuns founded a dozen hospitals in Canada, laying the foundations for Quebec’s current health-care system and fuelling economic growth in the regions where they worked. Now, more than 375 years later, they continue their mission in several regions of the province.

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This object resides at the Monastére des Augustines.

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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