By George Siamandas


St. Boniface Museum was originally the Grey Nun's Convent and it is Winnipeg's oldest building. It is also the largest oak log building in North America.


Bishop Provencher had come to St. Boniface in 1818 and for many years tried to interest various orders of nuns to come to the new settlement. But most orders were too small or were intimidated by Red River's frontier conditions. On one of his trips to Montreal, Provencher approached the Grey Nuns who were known as the Sisters of Charity. Of the 38 Grey Nuns working in Montreal, 17 volunteered, and four young nuns were selected. Young ones were chosen so that they would have long productive lives in St. Boniface.

Finally in 1844, four Grey Nuns arrived from Montreal, by voyageur canoes through Rainy River, and then by Red River Cart. The journey had taken 58 days and they arrived at St. Boniface at 1:00 am June 21, 1844. The nuns were Marie Louise Valade (superior), Marie Eulalie Lagrave (nurse, artist, singer), Gertrude Anastasie Coutlee (teacher), and Marie Hedwige Lafrance (teacher). During the arduous journey, Sister La Grave twisted her ankle and rather than leaving her, Indians were hired to transport her during the long portages.


The Grey nuns were primarily teachers but once they arrived they saw that there were many other things they were needed for. They took in orphans and cared for the sick.

The Grey Nuns began meeting the community by doing home visits. And in their first ten years they made six thousand home visits. Over time they established a significant collection of public service institutions including an orphanage, a day school, a residential school and an infirmary in 1871, which would later become the beginnings of the St. Boniface General Hospital.


In 1855 Sister Teresa McDonald was loaned to Red River by the Bytown (Ottawa) Grey Nuns for a 3 year term. Posted to work in the Metis community of Grantown, White Horse Plains, she proved to be very good at health care, with no formal training and became to be known as Sister Doctor. The three year term passed quickly and she had become very close to the community. So much that she bid an emotional good-buy to half of Grantown who had come to see her off at St Boniface. The Metis community of Grantown, felt she was too valuable to give up. A hastily assembled group of horsemen followed her route and kidnapped her from her south bound Red River Cart. Seeing how loved she was in Manitoba, the Ottawa Nuns let her stay the rest of her life in Red River.

The Grey nuns today seem to do very much the same things: help the sick, take care of the old, and they still work in remote areas. The Grey Nuns seem to have long lives living into their 90s. The oldest Grey Nun in St. Boniface today is 108 years old. It could be proof positive of how long women can live if they do not have to put up with men.


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