Grey Nuns’ Legacy
A historical narrative of the Grey Nuns’ Legacy, produced in collaboration with the Société du Musée du Grand Châteauguay.
Châteauguay is one of the places where the Grey Nuns’ legacy has been preserved. The rich legacy they left us extends back nearly three centuries. To preserve and promote it, the city and representatives of the Grey Nuns of Montréal agreed in 2019 on a plan to renovate the cemetery, grotto, cross and stairway, and to create a historic route on the Île Saint-Bernard knoll. Let’s take a look at how it all began.
The Grey Nuns and the Seigneury of Châteauguay
The Seigneury of Châteauguay, purchased by Marguerite d’Youville in 1765, was used to feed the sick by farming its very fertile soil. For a long while, the seigneury was the community’s most important location after the Montréal “general hospital” (poor house). After the seigneurial system was abolished, the Grey Nuns kept Île Saint-Bernard in Châteauguay and the Commune. In 2014, the three last Grey Nuns living on Île Saint-Bernard left, after the congregation had been in the area for 249 years.
Just a few years ago, the community had ceded most of the island it owned to the Québec government, on the condition that it would be protected in perpetuity and accessible to the public. That part of the island was turned into the Refuge faunique Marguerite-D’Youville, named in honour of the founder of the Grey Nuns of Montréal. The Île Saint-Bernard knoll, acquired by Ville de Châteauguay in 2011, is a heritage jewel in the collective assets accessible to everyone.
The cross on the mound
In 1832, when a cholera epidemic was raging in Châteauguay, Father Pierre Grenier had a red cross erected on the mound to ward off the scourge. The epidemic subsided. For 20 years, the public made pilgrimages to the cross.
In 1854, Sister Deschamps had the cross replaced by an 18-foot rotunda, a circular building with a crucifix at the centre.
On September 16, 1891, another 7-foot cross was erected after the rotunda tipped over in a storm on January 13, 1890.
On April 8, 1922, lightning broke the cross where it stood, but it was replaced. On January 19, 1949, a storm demolished it again and a new wrought-iron cross was put up. Since May 20, 1953, the cross has been lit at night. There have been five crosses in all.
The grotto was built in 1957 in honour of Notre-Dame de Lourdes for the preservation of Île Saint-Bernard when the St. Lawrence River was channelled to build the seaway. The original plans called for the seaway to pass right through the island, but by dint of prayer and negotiation, the plans were changed. Today the seaway skirts around Île Saint-Bernard.
The construction of the seaway stretched from 1954 to 1959. It connects the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River with the Atlantic Ocean.
In May 1896, the decision was made to bury the sisters from the community on the top of the mound on Île Saint-Bernard. The cemetery was restored in 1948 to make double tombs, in order to bury more sisters there. The cemetery is still at the top of the hill on the island.
Only Grey Nuns are buried there, with the exception of two orphans, who were adopted by the Grey Nuns and spent their lives with the sisters on the island. Their tombstones are different from the others. The other tombstones are all identical; there is no hierarchy. The higher stones mean that three nuns are buried in the same spot. On January 4, 2000, the remains of 1,480 nuns were buried in the cemetery. They did not choose their burial plots; they are buried one next to the other. The Grey Nuns also have a plot in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery for needy people with no family. Marguerite d’Youville’s remains have been in the Sainte-Anne de Varennes Basilica since fall 2010.