Greg Humbert digitizes Catholic hospital history. Photo courtesy Greg Humbert

Historian preserves nuns’ hospital legacy

  • February 18, 2022

As the legend goes, Haitian-Canadian Dr. Saint-Firmin Monestime was persuaded to join the team at Mattawa Hospital after an impromptu stop for lunch on his way to Timmins in the summer of 1951. The northern Ontario town’s previous doctor had passed away earlier that year and the community successfully convinced Monestime to remain and take his place.

For several years Monestime made great contributions to the health and well-being of the community, founding the town’s nursing home before moving into the political arena. In 1964 he was elected to office in Mattawa, making history as the first Black mayor in Canada.

Monestime’s story is just one of many captured by historian Greg Humbert in his new digital history book on the Mattawa Health Hub published by the Catholic Health Alliance of Ontario.

Small communities know what it means to be without a doctor or to have to travel long distances to seek medical care, says Humbert. The support and appreciation that those in towns like Mattawa have for their hospitals and nursing homes is unmatched.

“The value that local people have for their health-care facilities, especially in rural communities, continues to inspire me,” said Humbert. “They wanted their people that got sick in their community to be close to home so their relatives could visit them. Dr. Monsestime is a fascinating story because he and his family made the decision to build a private nursing home to care for people locally that were his patients often. They ran it for many years (now the Algonquin Nursing Home run by the hospital).

“The dedication of the local doctors, nurses and community to make sure that their people are cared for locally always struck me.”

For many years now, Humbert’s passion has been documenting and digitally preserving the stories of the founding and operation of Catholic hospitals and the contributions of women religious to these institutions in Canada. To date he has digitized over 600 history books of Catholic hospitals and nursing homes nationwide.

Of the many stories Humbert has documented and digitized, the Mattawa hospital story holds a special place in his heart. Humbert was born in nearby North Bay and after completing his studies at St. Peter’s Seminary in 1975, Humbert was a priest for 21 years before transitioning out of the priesthood. He has since chronicled and promoted Catholic health care, serving on the Mattawa Hospital Board for nine years and continues to chair its ethics committee.

Working with the Catholic Health Alliance in Ottawa, Humbert, who is now retired living with his wife Jennie in Crystal Falls, Ont., has connections with people at all the Catholic hospitals in Canada as well as congregations of religious women. Early on he began collecting copies of their hospital books. With just over 50 congregations involved in health care, Humbert thought it would be a great idea if he could get books that represented these congregations in every province in the country. Shortly before he retired from full-time work in 2007, in the earlier days of the Internet, he took a look at the wealth of resources on his shelves and decided to make them available online to people across Canada and beyond.

The impact of nuns such as Élisabeth Bruyère, considered the mother of health care for Mattawa, the three pioneering Sisters of Charity “Grey Nuns of the Cross” who travelled from Montreal to Mattawa to begin their health-care mission in northern Ontario and the countless others who travelled the country to rural areas, he says, cannot be measured. Without buildings they would work out of their convents, living above and keeping four or five beds on the main floor until funds could be raised to build better facilities.

They provided care for the entire community, Catholics and Protestants alike. Patients were always impressed by the kindness and care they received from the sisters and doctors and would rally behind them whenever there was a need for a better building and other facilities. They fundraised to build their first substantial hospital and that has continued over the years, including building the newest hospital building in Mattawa which opened in 2008.

Despite the lack of funds and challenging conditions in those early days, the sisters always found ways to serve the community. When the sisters had to move away from health care because of declining numbers, they created lay boards that continued the Catholic identity and legacy of their health-care organizations.

“I’ve always been amazed at the amazing dedication of the religious sisters in Canada and the work that they did and the places they went many times in very difficult conditions and yet they did it to serve smaller communities,” said Humbert. “I was always struck by that and continue to be. That’s the motivation for me to do what I do and the passion I have.

“The congregations of sisters had to move away from health care because their numbers were depleting, and I just wanted the history of Catholic health care to be preserved. The reality was that the congregations of religious women began health care in this country in the early 1600s. For over 200 years, they were the ones who ran it all over the country, so I didn’t want that legacy to be lost.”

In 1997 the governance and management of the hospital in Mattawa was transferred from the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa to the Board of the Mattawa General Hospital, officially entrusting lay people with the hospital mission. The Catholic Health Sponsors of Ontario remain charged with ensuring Catholic identity of the mission remains. 

“It’s lay people now who are continuing that legacy in actual hospitals and running these institutions as Catholic hospitals as a mission of the Gospel,” said Humbert. “So the legacy has continued and we always say when I worked with the board that it’s a living legacy. My project is not just about history. It’s certainly about celebrating where we came from and not forgetting that but it’s also celebrating the fact that lay people today could continue that ministry in so many ways and all over the country.”

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