Old postcard depicting the Hôtel Dieu in Edwardian Times.

Published in The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, March 6, 2010.

An exhaustive retrospective document issued in 1906 by the Hotel Dieu called to mind the importance of that health institution in this city’s early history. The record, which appeared in a Montreal newspaper in March of that same year, reported that between the hospital’s creation in 1642 and the publication in 1906 of the first-ever account of its past, the Hotel Dieu had treated some 194,921 patients. This astounding figure is all the more remarkable considering the fact that prior to 1826, when located on St. Paul Street, the hospital had only 26 beds.

Established by Jeanne Mance in 1642, the Hotel Dieu and its nursing sisters, the “Hospitallers of St. Joseph”, have played a pivotal part in Montreal’s rapid development. That historic function is commemorated in one of the city’s least known museums which is, appropriately enough, adjacent to the mid-nineteenth century massive greystone structure on Pine Avenue.

Constructed in 1992 as part of Montreal’s 350th anniversary celebrations, the “Musée des Hospitalières de L’Hotel-Dieu de Montréal” opens on an outstanding seventeenth century oak staircase (imported from Lafleche, France) which leads easily enough into the museum itself. As its name suggests, the building is dedicated to the work of the Hospitallers of St. Joseph, established by Jerome Le Royer in 1635, along with two other congregations dedicated to converting and teaching the Amerindians.

The “Hospitallers of St. Joseph” arrived in Canada in 1659. They worked at the old Hotel Dieu on St. Paul Street as nursing nuns, apothecaries, and administrators. In 1861, they moved to “Terre-de-la-Providence”, a 150 – acre plot of land situated on the eastern flank of Mount Royal. There, a new hospital and monastery were built on what would later become Pine Avenue. The change in location was a profound one, especially for sisters who constituted an inclosed order. To help the facilitate the transition, the nuns even brought with them the remains of the interred sisters from the previous centuries.

The museum attempts to explain the essential role played by the Hospitallers throughout the history of the Hotel Dieu. Its collection is most impressive. Their archive, for example, consists of over 20,000 artifacts that have been meticulously preserved over the centuries. It would contain more had in not been for losses suffered on three different occasions by fires (1695, 1721,and 1734) which took place at their previous site in Old Montreal. One, in 1695, even consumed the remains of Jeanne Mance.

There are both permanent and temporary exhibits, the latter “Care and Compassion” running until December of this year. It celebrates the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Hospitallers of St. Joseph in Montreal. The permanent collection traces the evolution of medicine and the hospital, particularly through the ninteenth century. Some exceptional  old  black and white photos accompany you on that journey.

The museum re-opened for its nineteenth season on March 3. In addition to the it, there is also the possibility of visiting the Mother House’s adjacent chapel built with the very stones transported from the old sanctuary on St. Joseph Street (now St. Sulpice). Nine Sunday afternoon guided visits to the chapel along with nine visits to the monastery’s gardens are scheduled this year. To learn the exact dates, or for any other information, consult their website at www.museedeshospitalieres.qc.ca or telephone 514-849-2919. The good sisters even have a page on Facebook!

Books and other items relating to the history of Montreal, of the Hotel Dieu, and Hospitallers of St. Joseph are available for purchase in the museum’s attractive Book Shop.

Opening hours: Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.; Saturday and Sunday, 1:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.  Closed Sunday.

Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hotel-Dieu de Montréal,
201 Pine Avenue West,
Montreal, Quebec H2W 1R5