selkirk, saint-damien, le père brousseau, frank, and ted


So the sale of the school land stirs interesting emotions, and the historian in me wants to sort it out in my head.  

In truth, if it was a  truly worthy cause, we could do something about it. The reality is, the land is a great candidate for housing, trunk farm, whatever. But anyway, I opine. Let’s talk social movements for a minute and its place in Canadian history.

Canada crawls with social movements! What the Company of the Cross did, the vision, the schools, their results was remarkable. Arguably, we (the collective St. John’s family “we”) helped launch a movement in Canadian press and political history with major impact through the Wildrose movement, the Alberta Report, the growth of the West vs. the East.

Anyway, before we all pool our loonies and go utopic Canadian, here’s a story about another movement at the turn of the century in Saint-Damien in Quebec, where a Frank / Ted like priest, launched a movement. Interesting parallels worth noting and blogging about on this Saturday morning.

At the turn of the century, there were no real social services in the province of Québec. Père Brousseau founded a Roman Catholic community to begin to discuss things like indigence and elderly care. One goal of the community was to stem the flow of Québecois headed south to the United States to find work.

Located about 25 miles inland from the south shore of the Saint Lawrence, Saint Damien was a “field of rocks” when Brousseau began his work. At the turn of the 20th century, Saint Damien (known today as Saint Damien de Buckland) had no good roads and not much arable land. Brousseau traveled from  parish to parish to finance and support his social agenda, which was well ahead of its time.  He was well-known in the province, having “begged” at hundreds of masses and meetings.

The compound at Saint Damien was large, consisting of a school and a retirement home, all funded by donations solicited by Père Brousseau. Retirees were sometimes used for maintenance work – those who could work, did.

In 1919, the religious community at Saint Damien was very poor. The founder, Père Brousseau, and the sisters were always begging to survive. They suffered through hard times. The community survived a fire. The fields of Saint Damien were full of rocks, making farming difficult. When we harvested potatoes, we seemed to pick more stones than potatoes.

The sisters made all their clothes, habits, underwear, and bread. They even raised pigs with the help of the retired folks from the foyer. A full-time maintenance man took care of all the necessary repairs around the convent.

After a life of sacrifice, Père Brousseau fell ill at Lac Vert at the brother’s residence and died on 18 April 1920. His body lay in state at the motherhouse, and for two days we prayed at his open casket to celebrate the great things he accomplished at Saint Damien. Monseigneur P. Eugene Roy (who eventually became the Archbishop of Québec) gave his eulogy.

He told a story about how, in the beginning, Père Brousseau went to the bishop in charge of the diocese, asking for support.

The bishop asked him what he wanted.

Brousseau took a torn up, weathered dollar bill from his pocket, waved it, and said, “Here’s my wish, that God provides more of these.”

He saw justly, because all you need to do today to see his works is to go to Saint Damien, where the motherhouse still stands.


After the funeral service we had a big feast with over forty curés and we, the older girls of the convent school, served everyone. I have great memories of the convent at Saint Damien, my teachers, my professors, and my classmates.

Fifty years later, it was a pleasure to see three of my classmates who became nuns. When they left after their beautiful visit, I made them promise to come back soon.


Once I graduated from Saint Damien and received my teaching diploma, things were not so smooth. Once again, I left my family, but this time as a teacher, not a student.

My school was a shanty and the classrooms were cold. To stay warm, I stacked two rows of wood in the stove at night before going up to bed. When I think about doing that today, I was very imprudent; I could have burned alive along with the schoolhouse.

While I often felt isolated and very scared, I made $30 a month teaching and I was very proud to send Papa the paycheck so he could buy a load of feed for his animals.

One night, I woke up to a noise, whose source I could neither name nor place. It was as if some unknown force was surrounding the schoolhouse, scraping all night against the outside bricks. It was dark and I knew no one in the neighborhood.

I was taking care of my eight-year-old brother, Henri then, and I prayed that he not wake up because I did not know what I was going to tell him. I was anxious for dawn to break so I could see what was going on. The scraping went on all night and I stayed in bed.

Imagine my surprise in the morning when I found a small mouse, its tail stuck in a mousetrap I had set a few days ago. My sleeping quarters were in the middle of the attic, and the mouse ran around me, trying to get free all night. I didn’t know how to pay back the mouse for the night’s torture he had put me through.

Sometimes it helps to see things in the light of the day.

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