The first European
nurses: the Grey Nuns Come to Alberta
The only concession they
made to the climate and the terrain was that they wore moccasins under their
habits. They walked beside the oxen for fifty-two days, from St. Boniface
to Lac Ste. Anne, fifty miles beyond Edmonton--a journey
that today takes twelve hours by train.
It was 1859 and a call
had gone out from the mission at Lac Ste. Anne for Grey Nuns to come and
begin missionary and hospital work among the Indians. Indian medicine still
held sway in Rupert's Land. Midwifery, "summer complaints" and
war wounds were all treated with herbs and plants, methods handed down from
generation to generation. However, 1859 was also the year that Florence Nightingale
published her Notes on Nursing, designed mostly to help mothers of sick children. It
was a departure from what was usually understood of the term “nursing.” Change
was on the way.
Nuns arrived in Rupert's Land in 1862, this time in St. Albert, and had soon
built a hospital, an orphanage and a school. Less than ten years later they
were dealing with a smallpox epidemic that decimated the community and the
surrounding aboriginal communities - two thirds of the population caught the
disease and half of those who were infected died. The following year a Board
of Health was set up for the new North West Territories (no longer Rupert's
Land) and, with the arrival in Fort Macleod of the North West Mounted Police
the first lay hospital was established in 1874.
nurses didn't just nurse--they ran orphanages, they taught school, they kept
a very important garden, and, in between all the other jobs, they cleaned all
of the buildings. In Fort Chipewyan where they arrived in 1874, three sisters
lived on the second floor of the shed that also housed the school, where they
and the volunteer worker took turns sleeping on one pallet. They still did all
the work of nursing, teaching and providing food for their charges. The Grey
Nuns continued to serve the community of Fort Chipewyan until 1993.