HAMDEN – The great Irish famine immigration to the United States in the 1840s is well known, but less celebrated are the heroic efforts of three orders of Catholic religious sisters in Montreal, Canada, who cared for tens of thousands of immigrants who had contracted typhus fever during their voyages on overcrowded ships.
Depicting that story is a new exhibit at Quinnipiac University titled “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger,” which will run through March 18, 2016.
Christine Kinealy, founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac and co-curator of the exhibit, said the “Grey Nuns” were actually the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, an order founded in 1737 by Saint Marguerite d’Youville, whose late husband was an illegal bootlegger.
“It was a pun,” Ms. Kinealy said of the term “Grey Nuns.” In French, “gris” means both “tipsy” and “gray” (or “grey”). “It was a way of disparaging them. But when they decided [on a habit], it was gray-brown, very beautiful, and then the name ‘Grey Nuns’ stuck.”
The famine immigrants to Montreal were also cared for by the Sisters of Providence and the Hospitallers of St. Joseph (or Hôtel Dieu nuns), a cloistered order who petitioned the bishop to dispense them from their vows of seclusion so they could minister to these very sick immigrants.
As the title suggests, it is the “Grey Nuns” who are spotlighted in this exhibit because more is known about them, Ms. Kinealy said. “The records that the nuns kept are called annals, and as I said, they are all handwritten and written in French, and we have copied that. We have great records about the young people, the orphans, and we have a list of the children, which is very moving when you see how young they were,” she said.
“They kept really thorough records, and so we know from a day-to-day basis what they did for the orphans,” she said.
The records were not widely shared, so little was known about the sisters’ work, she said. “They were only translated about 10 years ago,” she said. “The nuns didn’t promote themselves; they didn’t boast about what they’d done.”
Here’s what these Sisters of Charity of Montreal did:
They were the first religious order to care for these sick and dying Irish immigrants, according to a blog about Irish Canadian Famine Research (https://irishcanadianfamineresearcher.wordpress.com/).
Thousands of famine-fleeing immigrants came to Canada in 1847 because it was cheaper than coming to the United States, Ms. Kinealy said. Many of them arrived with typhus fever, which is spread by lice and overcrowding. The immigrants were quarantined in “fever sheds” in the Montreal neighborhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles.
“This is a great story because people who looked after the sick were actually very vulnerable themselves, and we know that about 15 nuns died looking after the Irish immigrants,” Ms. Kinealy said.
Despite the efforts of religious orders and others, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants died, she said.
Among the exhibits is a reproduction of “Le Typhus,” a painting by Theophile Hamel that was commissioned by Montreal Bishop Ignace Bourget and completed in 1848.
“It’s probably the first painting that depicts the Irish famine anywhere in the world because it’s a contemporary painting,” Ms. Kinealy said. “It’s on the ceiling of the chapel [Notre-Dame-De-Bonsecours Church] to this day.”
The painting shows the image of a man who has been searching for his wife and has just found her body. “That poor man is holding his dead wife in his arms and he’s despairing, so it’s very, very moving as well as beautiful. And it depicts the very sisters who gave so selflessly at the time,” she said.
Also in the painting, in the background, is Bishop Bourget, who commissioned the painting to give thanks to God for surviving typhus himself. “On the top is the Virgin Mary, and she saying to typhus, ‘No, you can’t come any further.’ It was completed in 1848 when the famine was still raging in Ireland and the immigrants were still arriving in America,” she said.
Other exhibit items include a habit worn by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal; a replica of the bonnet they wore instead of a wimple; copies of the annals documenting their work; maps; personal letters; and more.
“Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” is housed in the Lender Special Collection Room of the Arnold Bernhard Library at Quinnipiac University, 275 Mount Carmel Ave. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.