Our History Began with a Remarkable Woman
Élisabeth Bruyère (1818 - 1876)
Born on March 19, 1818, Mother Élisabeth Bruyère was a woman with a warm and compassionate heart, ever attentive to the needs of her time and a deeply committed Christian who sought the social, moral and spiritual betterment of Bytown, known today as Ottawa.
Her father died when she was only six years old. She spent her childhood in Montréal where her mother earned a living working as a servant. Élisabeth cared for her two brothers while attending school under the direction of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. From the age of 12, she lived in St. Esprit, Québec, where her mother's cousin, Émilie, became her surrogate mother, teacher and mentor. Émilie also prepared Élisabeth to begin her teaching career.
Divine Providence was already preparing Élisabeth for her mission. Élisabeth heard a calling to make the service of the poor her way of life. She was only sixteen when she was sent to teach at the Rural School of Saint-Esprit village. In 1839, Élisabeth entered the Congregation of the Grey Nuns of Montréal thereby walking in the spiritual footsteps of Saint Marguerite d'Youville. In 1841, she pronounced her vows of religion.
Her Superiors, who chose her as the Superior-Foundress for Bytown, admired her remarkable qualities. On February 19, 1845, she left Montréal with three other professed Sisters, a postulant (a candidate for admission into a religious order) and an aspirant (a person who aspires, as one who seeks or desires a career, advancement and status). On February 20, 1845, Mother Bruyère and her companions arrived in Bytown. The mission of love, service and compassion began—a mission which continues to this day at Bruyère.
Elisabeth Arrives in Bytown
At the time of her arrival in Bytown (which wasn't to become Ottawa for another twenty years), English, Irish and Scottish immigrants had come to the area to seek work during the construction of the Rideau Canal. With the French-Canadians, they formed the population.
Pain never failed to resonate in Élisabeth's loving heart as she reached out to everyone. The people of Bytown were in need of every service Mother Bruyère and the Sisters provided. She accomplished things that her meagre resources could never have produced.
Barely three months after the Sisters' arrival, a school, a general hospital (a mini Hotel-Dieu, which is the predecessor of the Ottawa General Hospital and Bruyère, opened on May 10, 1845), a home for the aged, an orphanage and a home for abandoned children came into existence. Mother Bruyère and her group also provided services to the poor in their homes.
In 1847, Irish immigrants arrived from their famine and plague-stricken homeland. Only two short years after the opening of the hospital, the Congregation faced a severe typhus epidemic. Compassion, a quality of the heart, became a quality in action. No one wanted a lazaretto in their neighbourhood.
The land purchased by Mother Bruyère to build the Congregation's Mother House and the expanded version of the hospital, became the ideal location on which to build the lazaretto where nine of the most seriously ill, plague-stricken victims could be safely cared for. Patients began to arrive on June 11, 1847. Mother Bruyère rejoiced in this work of mercy, even though she feared contagion.
She and her Sisters firmly believed that God's grace keeps one's courage strong and sustains one's physical strength, especially in times of great need. Five hundred and seventy-eight patients are treated by the Sisters between June 1847 and May 1848, when the Immigrant Hospital closed. Seventeen of the 22 Sisters contracted the disease while caring for the Irish immigrants, but none of them died. The population of Bytown had shown sympathy to the immigrants and was full of admiration for the Sisters.
Mother Bruyère's compassion for the suffering and helplessness of the Irish immigrants had inspired the Sisters to open their hearts and hands. Gratuitous self-giving and loving compassion for the sick and the poor, the ideal set by Mother Bruyère upon the Sisters' arrival in Bytown in 1845 had been shown to the typhus victims.
Élisabeth Bruyère passed away on April 5, 1879 leaving behind a well-established community of 198 Sisters living in 23 different convents. She also inspired work that transcended Ottawa’s boundaries. Inspired by her leadership and continuing her mission, sisters from the Grey Nuns have done much work in various capacities to serve in Eastern Ontario, Quebec and the world over.
Her Strength and Later Years
Mother Bruyère was a woman with apostolic vision as she walked in Jesus' footsteps. The charisma of compassion moved beyond the boundaries of Bytown as Mother Bruyère continued to respond to new challenges.
In 1850, the Mother House was built to bring the orphans, the elderly and the sick under one roof. Mother Bruyère responded to the needs of the poor in other areas of Canada and the United States, where schools and works of charity such as orphanages, hospitals and homes for the aged were needed.
She was a woman of strength, audacity and apostolic commitment, qualities which are rooted in her faith. Her commitment to the service of the poor, the sick and the needy was marked by her spiritual bond with Saint Marguerite d'Youville. Mother Bruyère's compassion extended to all forms of poverty and misery through various pastoral initiatives in Bytown and beyond. She and her Sisters offered loving service to all those who knocked on their door; no one was ever turned away.
For 31 years, Mother Bruyère witnessed to the Father's compassionate and merciful love while also bearing the responsibility for her young Congregation. As she stated at the end of her life: "All was blessed by God because all has been accomplished in conformity with His Holy Will." (Dec. 24, 1875).
Her heart, overworked by this unconditional gift of self to God and to others, Mother Bruyère died on April 5, 1876 at the age of 58. The mission of love, service and compassion was left in the hands of the Sisters of the Congregation. To this day, Mother Bruyère's mission remains in the hands of those who continue to provide service at Bruyère.