Grosse Ile 1845-52




THERE IS A TRADITION THAT FRENCH CANADIAN FAMILIES ADOPTED hundreds of Irish orphans at the time of the Famine.  That tradition is readily validated in the many records that were kept of those fatal years from 1845 to 1851 when disease struck the potato crops of Europe, and famine stalked the hills and glens of Ireland.

Paper records are kept with care in the diocesan archives of Quebec, but the tradition has been handed down through the episcopate over the years:


It was the beginning of summer in 1847.  Sunday morning. The cathedral was comfortably lighted with streaks of sunlight, bravely matched by the usual candles for ‘la Grande Messe du dimanche.’  Incense wafted around the altar.   The choir produced its solemn tones accompanied by the great organ.  But all was not usual. All was not well.  The city was full of rumours about the huge number of immigrants.  Newspapers like Le Canadien held disquieting columns of troubles overseas in Ireland and Scotland.  The Shipping Intelligence column in the Quebec Mercury recorded an unusually large number of ships coming in to this world class seaport, coming in to load with the customary timber, but this year disgorging a sad lot of sorry looking immigrants. The citizens of this place were accustomed to immigrants. After all, Quebec almost matched the four greatest seaports around the world – London and New York,  San Francisco and Singapore – almost met their record, for the number of ships that came in – and Quebec had a short navigation season – from May to November.  Here it was only the end of June, and already a hot one. Rumours went about that there was an epidemic, and fears were roused among the people who remembered the terrors of the cholera in 1832.  But today was different.  The pew holders at the front of the church had been displaced by a pack of little children. 


Archbishop Joseph Signay, presiding as chief celebrant as he usually did every Sunday at la Grande Messe, today, instead of climbing into the high pulpit, he stood at the altar railing,  crowned by his mitre,  the shepherd’s crook in  his hand, a strong image of the Good Shepherd that he wanted to portray.


“My people,” he said,  with a gesture encompassing the somber little children, “these little ones have come to us today in need.  These little children come from Ireland where a great number of families have succumbed to the horror of hunger, and it is to be feared that a greater number still will suffer the same fate.  I turn to you, my faithful parishioners.  These little children have lost their parents.  They are now alone on our doorstep.  We cannot ignore them.  Today I call upon you to take care of them.  Today, I will wait for you. I will wait for you to respond.”


The Bishop  paused here, then spoke with deliberation: “At the end of this Mass, the doors of this cathedral of ours will remain closed until all these little children have found a place in a family, in this parish, in this city.”  Another pause: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”


There was a stirring among the people, craning of necks to look a little more closely at the tangle of little blond and red-headed boys and girls, sitting so meekly  in the grand golden glow at the front of the church.  Husbands and wives looked at each other, their own children curious to see what would happen next, if they had been listening at all!


The ceremony went on, with whispered exchanges for a few moments before the most solemn and sacred parts of the Mass.  After Communion and the Last Blessing, the Bishop faced his people, kind intent in his own round face and dark eyes.  A quiet shuffle of feet, an unaccustomed talking in church, as men and women shyly approached the children.  Within a very short time, the ushers were able to swing open the Cathedral doors, and families emerged larger in number by the addition of one or  two puzzled  and wondering new siblings.  That Sunday morning breakfast routine was an introduction to Quebec life in the houses of the neighbourhood that would be repeated in many parishes of the Diocese and beyond, over the next months as more and more children streamed into the cities, freed from the narrow confines of weeks at sea below decks on a timber ship, and the equally dull numbing trauma of the quarantine tents and sheds in Grosse Ile.