Sr. Monique Bourget has since her teen years always wished to help the poor. She is doing that now as a doctor in the African nation of Benin, running community health programs. Linda Couture

‘I really wanted to touch poverty’

  • January 6, 2024

With a medical degree from McGill University, a masters in epidemiology and a PhD in public health, Montreal’s Sr. Monique Bourget could be rightfully addressed as Sister Doctor Bourget.

However, Bourget belongs to the Marcelline order that has, according to its website, a charism of “evangelical humility” and because of this, joined with a natural humility, Bourget does not insist on honorifics.

When she was a student in the 1980s at the College Marcelline, a Montreal school run by the congregation she would later join, she was “like any other adolescent.” She had lots of friends, loved to play sports and had no thoughts of a vocation to religious life.

That changed after a mission trip to Guatemala. Bourget lived for a month with a small community of Capuchin Sisters that ministered to families living in extreme poverty.

“I really wanted to touch poverty, physical poverty, up close,” said Bourget. “That was a very important to me.”

Bourget pinpoints a chance encounter with a little boy in the street as being the moment her vocation was made clear to her.

“He looked at me and I looked at him, and then something happened. I really felt this voice or this call that says, ‘I was nude, and you put clothes on me. I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink,’ which is from the Gospel of Matthew. And I thought, well, this is what I should do. I should give my life to God and help the people, the poor people. So, when I came back (to Montreal) from that experience, I told my parents I wanted to go into religious life.”

As Bourget was only 18 and had shown promise of a bright academic future, her parents were understandably cautious.

“My parents said, ‘well, fine, but you must continue your studies,’ ” laughed Bourget.

In fact, their parental concern fit well with the ethos and charism of the Marcelline order, which is not only dedicated to the education of young women but, says Bourget, “the congregation also wants the sisters to have a profession.”

Bourget was accepted at both McGill and the University of Montreal.

“I entered McGill medical school as a pre-med and 15 days later entered religious life,” she told The Catholic Register.

“I was going to McGill on my bike and wearing my habit. My mom always said I was a danger for the traffic because people would be looking at me and not concentrating on the road.”

In 1994, following the completion of her residency at St. Mary’s Hospital, the congregation sent her to Brazil, where the order has a large hospital in São Paolo.

“I got to Brazil at the right time, in the right place with the right persons,” said Bourget.

“The Brazilian government was starting the family medicine program. The ministry of health knew about our congregation, and they said, ‘we’d like you to start the program.’ The sisters said, ‘well, we have a physician who does family medicine, so I think she can help.’ So, I started the program in 1996 with a nurse and another physician, and we organized the teams.”

In the poorer, eastern area of São Paolo where Bourget was working, the city is densely populated.

Bourget put together multi-disciplinary teams that each cared for 200 families. The community-based health program was “a real success.”

“The government continued to invest, and we got bigger and bigger,” said Bourget.

When she finally left Brazil in 2019 for her current posting in Benin, she had created 254 medical teams. It was not just an extensive public health care network that Bourget left behind. There was also a new hospital and a medical school, both of which she had helped establish and direct.

When Bourget arrived in Benin in the middle of the COVID pandemic, she already had some familiarity with the West African country.

Ten years earlier, the Mother General of the community had “sent us this challenge to go to Africa.” Bourget, together with her brother Dr. Louis Bourget, a maxillofacial surgeon, had been making an annual, two-week medical mission trip to Benin “to do mainly surgeries, but some also consultations in the community and organizations of the hospital.”

“When the Mother General told me in 2019 to go to Benin, I knew where I was going,” she said.

Her experience in Benin has been a very different from the one in Brazil. Partly due to lack of government support for community health programs, and partly due to political and cultural resistance to any individual or group perceived as European, Bourget’s experience and expertise is largely untapped.

“I think it is giving me a lot of humility because in Brazil I was on the top and everybody wanted me,” said Bourget. Now she finds that she is “having to sort of negotiate and find the places where you can assist.”

With the same level of energy that she displayed in Brazil, Bourget has sought out those places of need.

She has organized a parish-based program of support and education for pregnant women and babies that is now in 12 parishes. She does medical visits for the 660 children enrolled in the school run by her congregation. When she returns to Benin in the new year after a visit home to Montreal, she will begin the work of establishing a palliative care unit at the local hospital.

But beyond the sharing of her medical and managerial expertise, Bourget is taken up with the sharing of a vocation that began with her momentary encounter with a little boy and a desire to serve the poor.

“I think, spiritually, it is interesting to see the Catholic Church in Benin growing, right? It’s a young Church, so it’s nice to see signs of hope. And we have three young women that want to become Marcelline sisters. I think it is nice to tell people, to tell young people, that it’s still worth it to give your life to God, and it’s a nice way to live.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.