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Midwife of Mercy

1/1/2015

Eric Durocher

Toddlers and babies in the care of the Misericordia Sisters

Toddlers and babies in the care of the Misericordia Sisters are pictured in a Montreal nursery circa 1909. (Photo by T.G. Proulx, courtesy of the Archives of the Misericordia Sisters)

For as long as Donald Recore could remember, a vintage picture of an elderly nun hung prominently in his grandparents’ living room in Plattsburg, N.Y. About 30 years ago, he finally asked, “Who is that?”

“One of your grandmothers,” his Grandpa Ted told him matter-of-factly.

“Well, he answered my question,” said Recore, a member of Father Francis X. Chagnon Council 3525 in Champlain, N.Y. “But it raised a more important one: How do I have a grandmother who is also a nun?”

Recore, who now oversees a Knights of Columbus Insurance agency in Plattsburg, discovered that the answer lies in the life story of Rosalie Cadron-Jetté, also known as Mother Marie of the Nativity, whom Pope Francis declared venerable in December 2013.

In 1845, acting on a request from Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal, the widow Jetté founded a religious community to care for unwed mothers and their children. Despite strong objections from her six surviving children — including Léonard, Recore’s great-great-grandfather — Rosalie founded the Sœurs de Miséricorde de Montréal (Misericordia Sisters of Montreal).

Now, more than 150 years after her death, Sulpician Father Éric Sylvestre is quick to make a connection between Jetté’s mission of mercy (miséricorde in French) and Pope Francis’ call “to go out to the peripheries.”

Father Sylvestre, who serves as the postulator for Venerable Rosalie’s cause and is a member of Sainte Marie Council 3258 in Montreal, said, “In welcoming and taking care of single mothers, who were ostracized by society at the time, Rosalie Cadron-Jetté heroically lived the Christian virtues.” Rosalie lavished “the tireless mercy of God,” he added, on all who knocked at her door.

RURAL ROOTS

Born Jan. 27, 1794, on a farm north of Montreal, Rosalie was the eldest of Rosalie Roy and Antoine Cadron’s two surviving children. Like most girls of her time, Rosalie acquired life skills from her mother, who was a midwife. At age 17, she married 33-year-old Jean-Marie Jetté, and the couple was blessed with six children.

Then began a period marked by “great darkness,” according to Father Sylvestre. In 1823-4, the family moved to a farm in St. Hyacinthe to expand their property for their children. However, due to a number of administrative irregularities regarding the property title, the Jettés ended up losing both their new farm and their money. During this time, they also lost their seventh child, who was stillborn.

In dire straits, the family moved to Montreal to find refuge with Jean-Marie’s brother, Paul. It was there that they began attending the newly constructed St. Jacques Church, where Father Ignace Bourget was both the rector and the bishop’s secretary. The 27-year-old priest would become Rosalie’s spiritual director.

While Jean-Marie and Rosalie worked diligently to make ends meet, tragedy awaited them at every turn. Between 1825 and 1832, Rosalie gave birth to four more children, all of whom died in childhood by 1836. In 1832, a cholera epidemic claimed her husband, and her mother died in 1838.

By this time, Rosalie’s surviving children were adults, so the 44-year-old widow dedicated her time to serving both God and neighbor. That wasn’t out of the ordinary for Rosalie. Up to this point in her life, biographies list numerous anecdotes of good works extended to those in need by Rosalie and her family, not only during their comfortable rural life, but also during their difficult urban existence. Even the bungled farm deal elicited a compassionate response from Rosalie: “It is better to forgive this man rather than have him punished by the law and bring dishonor upon his family.”

Her charitable disposition, enduring faith and remarkable courage in the face of hardship certainly made an impression on her spiritual director, who, by 1840, had became Montreal’s second bishop.

THE PLIGHT OF UNWED MOTHERS

The 1840s were not hospitable to unmarried women who were “in the family way.” Mother and child were typically treated as outcasts. Most unwed mothers or their families sought to avoid what was perceived as a disgrace by concealing the pregnancy, and many babies were dropped off under cover of night at orphanages. Others were abandoned or even killed.

Some single mothers, however, confessed to Bishop Bourget and pleaded for his help. He turned to the widow Jetté, confident that she would treat them with compassion and find a safe, welcoming place for them.

Rosalie, a midwife’s daughter and the mother of 11 children, was well equipped for this delicate mission. From 1840-45, she assisted 25 women, after which the bishop asked Rosalie if she would establish a religious community dedicated uniquely to this ministry.

“With no other resource but her faith,” Father Sylvestre said, Rosalie responded with a “yes” filled with “hope, obedience and abandonment to God’s will.”

In 1845, Rosalie convinced her son, Pierre, to let her use the unfinished attic of the house he had just rented. With sparse resources and the help of a companion, Rosalie welcomed 33 women that first year. The refuge was both inadequate and impractical, and a series of moves took place over the next five years before land could be purchased to build a proper maternity home and convent.

After the first year of religious formation (1846-47), eight sisters took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, together with a fourth vow to serve poor, single mothers. With a view to forming “a corps of midwives,” they soon began formal medical training in obstetrics and gynecology.

As a fledging community, the Misericordia Sisters endeavored to carry out their ministry discreetly, for the public was neither supportive of their cause nor charitable. The sisters were often mocked publicly and accused of “encouraging vice” as they brought newborns to be baptized at Notre-Dame Church and then to the Grey Nuns orphanage. Still, material aid and moral support came from some who were steered toward the congregation by Bishop Bourget.

Rosalie, who took the name Sister Marie of the Nativity, did not serve as superior of the congregation after the initial year. However, in 1858 Bishop Bourget recognized her as the foundress of the community and honored her with the title of Mother.

THE MISERICORDIA MISSION TODAY

Although the Misericordia Sisters ceased training to become midwives in 1861, their charism had taken root and would soon spread. At the time of Mother Rosalie’s death in 1864, the congregation numbered 47 members in various stages of formation. A century later, the Misericordia Sisters numbered about 400 religious. By the 1950s, they had founded 14 hospitals with accommodations for single mothers (six in the United States, eight in Canada) and would later open two clinics in Africa and a center for women with day care services in Ecuador. In the process, the International Misericordia Family was also formed, comprising 14 branches that included an international prayer network and groups for collaborators and parents.

“It’s a spiritual community that is much bigger than our current congregation of 80 sisters,” said Sister Monique Lallier, superior general. “It’s quite extraordinary.”

One of these branches, the Heritage Group, comprises seven institutions, representing some of the hospitals and maternity homes formerly operated by the sisters. These members continue to serve their communities by drawing upon the spirit of mercy advocated by Mother Rosalie and her congregation.

Rosalie Hall, an agency in Toronto, is one such member. Now in its centennial year, it serves more than 2,400 clients annually, and still operates a residence for single mothers-to-be. When its maternity department was slated for closure, the public came to Rosalie Hall’s support and helped convince the adjacent hospital — Scarborough General, originally founded by the Misericordia Sisters — to maintain it.

“The staff made an impassioned and convincing presentation to the hospital,” recalled Stephen Ward, who has served on the agency’s board for 16 years. “Rosalie Hall strives to live up to the audacity that Mother Rosalie brought to her mission. Her spirit steers our ship.”

The facility also receives faithful support from the local Knights of Columbus, according to Ward, who is a member of St. Joseph Highland Creek Council 11525.

“The Knights’ commitment to life resonates with Rosalie Hall’s spiritual mission,” he said.

Ten local councils give annual donations to the agency, and both Knights and their wives are among the agency’s numerous volunteers.

Although the congregation is aging, the sisters are optimistic that their particular ministry will continue, especially as Venerable Rosalie’s inspiring life and mission become more widely known.

“Our world today has a very poor sense of life,” Sister Lallier said, “but for Rosalie, it’s all about life. She provides us with a model of the love of life.”

According to Father Sylvestre, Mother Rosalie was a woman of few words, but “her actions were in perfect accord with her words.”

She was truly a mother to those she served, Father Sylvestre added. “When food was scarce,” he said, “Rosalie would fast so that the moms could eat. She was fond of saying that ‘Single mothers are the treasure of the house.’”

ERIC DUROCHER is editor emeritus of the Catholic Times, Montreal.