Sr. Loretta Gaffney, centre, a member of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in Kingston, Ont., bows her head after laying a wreath to remember one of the order’s members who died aiding victims of the Irish potato famine who passed through Kingston. Photo by Therese Greenwood

Sisters join in remembering part of Kingston’s tragic past, Irish potato famine

By  Therese Greenwood, Catholic Register Special
  • May 23, 2012

KINGSTON, ONT. - A simple yet dignified ceremony held May 19 on the waterfront of this southeastern Ontario city marked a tragic local anniversary: The death of more than 1,400 Irish immigrants fleeing the 19th-century potato famine.

Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada, Ray Bassett, laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish government in commemoration of the estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants who came through the area in 1847 fleeing Án Gorta Mór, “The Great Hunger.” Of those, an estimated 4,300 arrived in Kingston after contracting typhus on crowded “coffin” ships, with 1,400 dying after coming ashore to what was then a town of only 10,000 residents.

The majority of the Irish immigrants were Catholic, noted organizer Tony O’Loughlin, president of the Kingston Irish Folk Club.

“Kingston at the time was mixed Catholic and Protestant,” he said, “and people of both faiths brought the sick into their homes and many became ill themselves.”

Folk Club members formed a flag party for the commemoration, the first time the group has hosted a ceremony to mark what might otherwise be a forgotten part of local history.

“There is a responsibility to remember those who came before and what they went through so we could have what we do today,” said O’Loughlin.

Among those laying wreaths was Sr. Loretta Gaffney, retired archivist for the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, who dedicated a bouquet of spring lilacs to the memory of a congregation member who sacrificed her life aiding victims of the epidemic.

The typhus tragedy was a key moment in the Kingston history of the Religious Hospitallers, who arrived in 1845 to found Hotel Dieu Hospital. The French Canadian sisters took up residence not far from the shoreline where immigrants disembarked and their early ministry focused on Irish immigrants who flooded the region, including hundreds of orphans whose parents died from disease and starvation.

“The congregation played quite an important role in the epidemic,” said Rodney Carter, the current archivist for the St. Joseph Region Archives. “Four sisters from the cloister ministered to the sick and each became ill. One of them, Sr. Mary Magorian, died.

“Up until that time they were cloistered, but they got permission from the bishop to leave the cloister to go to the fever tents along the waterway. They went daily to provide comfort as much as possible, a clean environment and decent food.”

The sisters opened their hospital on Brock Street, still under construction, to meet the needs of the sick. On Christmas Eve of that year, they took 100 orphans into their care.

“There were so many that the children had to eat and sleep in shifts,” notes Carter. The order’s efforts to assist would continue for years in the aftermath of the epidemic.

“It gave them more of a public profile,” said Carter. “It was really a small order to begin with, about a dozen sisters, and because they were cloistered they were not seen out and about. These sisters were willing to go out and care for the sick at great personal cost and that was an important step in establishing themselves within the Anglo community of Kingston.”

In 1998, the City of Kingston named a small park at Ontario and West Streets Án Gorta Mór in honour of the Irish victims, with a Celtic Cross memorial installed onsite the following year. In 2002, a Celtic Cross Memorial was unveiled in McBurney Park, known to Kingstonians as “Skeleton Park” for its origin as a cemetery. A burial ground for local citizens from 1813 till 1865, it was the original interment site for 300 residents who fell victim to typhus, many after attempting to help stricken immigrants.

The day-long remembrance event included a carpooled tour of Kingston’s Celtic Cross monuments, as well as a discussion on Kingston’s role in the “Great Irish Starvation,” workshops in tin whistle, bodhran and Irish language, and a ceili featuring traditional Irish music and dance.

(Greenwood is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.)

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