Grey Nuns Sisters Jeannine Coulombe, left, Marie Rose Hurtubise (sitting) and Dora Durand in front of a statue of their foundress, St. Marguerite d’Youville. Photo by Lasha Morningstar

The Grey Nuns played an integral role in Alberta’s Church

By  Lasha Morningstar, Canadian Catholic News
  • April 23, 2015

St. Albert, Alta. - It was in the fall of 1859 that the Grey Nuns arrived in Alberta, welcomed by Fr. Albert Lacombe at Lac Ste. Anne with ringing church bells and dancing First Nations people.

It was not an easy life for the first Grey Nuns, these intrepid women whose motto was to go everywhere for Jesus and the poor, and several of the 30 sisters who remain in Alberta shared the historical lore. They are retired now but continue to keep active as they carry the history of their order close to their hearts.

Sr. Dora Durand, a sister for 60 years, is the leader at Youville Home in St. Albert. Durand knew she wanted to be a nun when she saw a film about the sisters in the Northwest Territories.

“Here they were in a sled going to visit one native home and then another native home. That was my desire. To go up to the North.”

But first it was south and 20 years at the Blood Reserve. Finally, she got her social work diploma in Quebec, worked in the Northwest Territories and moved to Edmonton where she worked as a social worker with young offenders.

Sr. Marie Rose Hurtubise is in charge of the chapel as a sacristan. She first knew she wanted to be a nun when she saw sisters praying in the chapel.

“I thought ‘I want to spend time in the chapel. Being a nun I can have more time and dedicate my life to God.’

“My twin sister was not sure that she was going to do the same thing. We were so close. We had the same affinities. She tried it out and then she said ‘Good bye.’ And I stayed.”

Sr. Jeannine Coulombe was the 13th child in a family of 16. She watched the Grey Nuns in Legal.

“They were so wonderful, so warm. They would teach all day and visit homes of the poor at night, and sometimes do their laundry,” she said.

“When I was in Grade 5, my teacher cared for each student as if they were the only one. I thought ‘That is what I want to do.’

“My real crisis was at 18 when I was looking for a meaning in life,” said Coulombe. “‘Why the heck am I here? Why was I born?’ I was searching for meaning.”

But then love — a boyfriend — entered the picture .

Said Coulombe, “He had his farm, his house, his cattle. All he needed was a wife. I wasn’t ready.

“I told my Dad ‘I want to do a good Grade 12. I have to go away (to the Sisters of Providence in McLennan).’ ”

She told her boyfriend, “I want to go to the convent. Let me try it first.”

A priest there showed her she was searching for a life as a religious.

“The Sisters of Providence were good to me, but my heart was with the Grey Nuns.”

Her boyfriend? He waited for her for three years and then gave up.

“I chose Jesus,” said Coulombe.

The sisters bring up the subject of the residential schools. They say they gave everything in those schools for love for Jesus and the poor. They said they loved those children.

Hurtubise told of an instance when she saved her classroom of young children when suddenly, they all started falling asleep. She had them stand up clap their hands, do exercises, run around the gym. But then they fell asleep again.  She thought,

“Something is up.”

In fact they were being poisoned by a gas leak. She hurried them out back to their rooms.

“The guy came and fixed it but it was close,” she recalled. She was later told, “You saved their lives.”

Now there are no new Grey Nuns.

The sisters believe their lifestyle is irrelevant for today’s generation. But make no mistake, they say. Religious life is not ready to die; it is just evolving.

They noted that at one time there were no active sisters; all women religious were contemplatives. But the Grey Nuns came and led an apostolic religious life. Now religious life is evolving again.

These vibrant nuns know they have realized their mandate.

“I really believe that if Jesus Christ is loved and followed, and the poor reverenced, we have accomplished our mission,” Coulombe said.

(Western Catholic Reporter)

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