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Voyage by Pehr Kalm to Canada, 8 August 1749. Description of a convent of sisters in the city of Québec.


This morning, I visited a convent of sisters located in the city. No man is permitted to enter there, under threat of grave sanctions; nor has the abbess the authority to allow a man to do so, other than in rooms divided in half with a grilled partition; persons, both men and women, who do not belong to the convent, must remain on the exterior side of the partition and the sisters on the interior side, and they converse in this manner, through the partition. However, as yet another of the many marks of honour granted to me by the French, as a Swedish subject, the bishop gave me permission to enter within the convent in order to conduct a visit of it. The bishop alone has the power to grant such a permission to a person of the masculine sex, but it is a rare occurrence to benefit from this privilege; it is granted at times to people of distinction, such as the governor general. It should be noted, however, that the medicus regius has the permission to come and go as he pleases; monsieur Gauthier, a man rather well versed in medical affairs, and in botany as well, is the current medicus regius and it is he who accompanied me on this visit today.

We began by visiting the hospital, which I will describe shortly, and continued from there up to the convent, which is connected to the hospital. It is a large three-level stone structure, divided within by long corridors, with chambers, halls and other rooms on both sides; the sisters' chambers are on the upper level, on both sides; the chambers are rather small, unpainted, adorned with images of saints and other such objects on the walls; there is an image of Our Saviour on the cross, a bed with a curtain and good bed linen, a small narrow desk, two chairs, and nothing else; there is no source of heat in the chambers yet the sisters remain there in winter, even during the coldest days; in one of the corridors there is a cast iron stove that is lit in winter and the chamber doors left open, for the heat from the stove to enter, which must be very little.

On the middle level are the halls where the sisters gather during the day and one hall where they work; the latter is spacious, the walls are painted and it is adorned with a crucifix; there is a stove there. This is where all of the sisters work at sewing, embroidering, doing gilt work,


all sorts of silk roses that appear to be almost natural; in brief, the sisters in this convent do the type of delicate work that is expected of women. In another hall, the sisters gather for a sort of council meeting; in another are the sisters who are unwell; in another, those who are grievously ill; in yet another, instruction is given to new arrivals who wish to embrace religious life; in another large hall, the sisters take their meals together; the tables are placed along the walls; on one side there is a small lectern on which is laid a book in French, having to do with the lives of the saints referred to in the Bible. During the meal, there is complete silence, no one says a word; then one of the elder sisters rises and goes up to the lectern to read a passage from the book to the other sisters; when, over time, the book is entirely read, another spiritual work is found; to read from to the sisters while they are at the table, seated only on the interior side, against the wall, the other side having no seats and no one seated there.

In most of the rooms and halls there is a gold-coloured table adorned with candlesticks and candles that surround the image of a saint and a representation of Our Saviour. It is here that they conduct their religious exercises and their prayers; to one side of the convent is the church; close by to it is a large room, separated from the church by a grilled partition, so that the sisters can look into the church, without going to the other side of the partition. When the divine service is being conducted, the sisters stay within this large room while the priest stays in the church; when the priest dons the liturgical vestments, a sister passes them to him through an opening, so that she need not enter the sacristy, nor be in the same room as the priest.

There are also in the convent many rooms and halls of which I am incapable of recalling the usage or role. On the lower level are the kitchen, the bakery, various stores of provisions, etc. In the attic, at the very top, the sisters keep seeds and dry their clothing; on the middle level, a sort of narrow balcony surrounds the whole of the building, where the sisters can go to take in some air and glance at the surroundings. From the convent, the view is quite beautiful on most sides: the river, the plains and the fields that stretch away from the city; to one side of the convent, there is a large garden where the sisters have the freedom to go as well


and stroll around; the garden, which is surrounded by a high wall, is full of garden plants of all sorts, as well as numerous apple trees, cherry trees, black walnut and gooseberry trees, and other similar shrubs.

It is said that the sisters are currently fifty in number; most of them are elderly and few are below the age of forty; there are some young girls being instructed in the nature of religious life; these new arrivals are not readily admissible, but remain here for two to three years to assess if they are capable of committing further and if they have made a firm decision; in effect, during this period, they are totally free to leave the convent if they have no desire to stay there; however, once they are accepted within the fold of sisters, they can never again leave, but are bound there for the remainder of their lives. If it is noticed that they are seeking a life change, they are put into a chamber from which they can never come out. The sisters at this convent can only leave to go to the hospital, which is adjacent and is one of the convent buildings. In the hospital are the ill and the sisters who take care of them.

When the time came to say my farewells, the abbess asked me if I were pleased with their lodgings; I complimented her on them, and she added that she and her sisters wished to pray to God with all of their hearts on my behalf, so that I might become a faithful Roman Catholic; to which I responded that I would prefer to become a good Christian and in recognition for their prayers, I must ask of God to grant them the faculty to become good Christian women, as this is indeed the highest standard of religion attainable here on earth, as mortal beings.

Some in the city tell me, including even certain ladies, that it is rare for a sister to give herself to monastic life until all hope of marrying has been lost and the convent seems the only alternative. In the three convents that I have visited, the sisters appeared rather elderly, indicating that the latter statement is not totally unfounded. All people here say that in Canada, in the countryside as well as in the city, there are far fewer


men than women, as men have been lost in great numbers during expeditions, such as in the West Indies, where many die or settle: many more are killed in battle, in wars, etc. Which is why it is necessary for some women to enter the convent.

The hospital, as I stated above, is part of the convent; it consists of two large halls, as well as some adjoining chambers and a pharmacy; the large halls contain, on each side, two rows of beds, one in front of the other; the inside row, the one closest to the wall, is surrounded with a curtain, but not the outside row; each bed has proper linen, including a set of clean sheets, and as soon as a patient leaves the bed is made over, so that, in the hospital, all is clean, in place and in order. Between each curtained bed and, as a result between each bed with no curtain, as one is in front of the other and aligned, there is a distance of three to four ells where a small table is placed. There are good stoves and lovely windows; the ill are cared for by the sisters, who feed them, provide for their every need, and are always at their disposal; there are a number of men who also provide care, including the surgeon; the medicus regius is required to visit there once and possibly many times per day, to observe what is happening and to give his orders. Priority at this hospital is given to soldiers who are ill, which occurs mostly when the king’s vessels arrive in port, usually in July or August, or in times of war; but at other times, when the number of soldiers who are ill is low, the poor are brought in as long as there are rooms and beds available. There are special chambers for those who are very ill, so that the noise from the large hall will not disturb them.

Source: Kalm, Pehr, "Travels of Pehr Kalm in Canada in 1749" (Montréal: Pierre Tisseyre, 1977), p. 228-231. Notes: Annotated translation of the travel journal by Jacques Rousseau and Guy Béthune, in collaboration with Pierre Morisset

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