Pope Francis declared Mother Elizabeth Bruyère venerable April 14, putting the foundress of Ottawa’s first hospital and bi-lingual school on the first of three steps to sainthood.
“Today is not only a great day filled with emotion and pride for the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, it is also a day filled with joy for the whole Church which has just recognized our foundress, Élisabeth Bruyère, Venerable, a first step toward her canonization,” said Sister Rachelle Watier, general superior of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, in a statement.
“The sanctity of her virtues has been officially recognized.”
“We are very happy to share our immense joy with the public. This is also a great day for the city of Ottawa, for Canada, for the 185 locations where the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa have been active in our country,” she said.
“Filled with the love of God and a burning desire to do God’s work and help the vulnerable and those without a voice, Élisabeth Bruyère, in 1845, at age 27, changed the face of the village of Bytown.”
“Within five months, she established a whole network of social services that were greatly needed,” Sr. Watier said.
“Élisabeth Bruyère was a woman ahead of her time. She initiated social changes that benefitted not only Ottawa but the whole world,” she said noting members of the Congregation serve in the United States, Brazil, Japan, Lesotho, South Africa, Malawi, and Zambia.
Born on March 19, 1818 in L’Assomption, Quebec, a village not far from Montreal, Bruyère joined the Grey Nuns of Montreal in 1839, and made her vows in 1841.
In 1845, the Grey Nuns sent Bruyère and five other sisters to Bytown, then a bustling logging community experiencing an influx of Irish refugees fleeing starvation, to found a school for French Canadians in the town that would eventually become Canada’s capital city Ottawa.
Bruyère, however, saw the need for schooling for the Irish as well, so she created Canada’s first bilingual school, in an era where inter-cultural mixing was not the “in thing,” said Sr. Watier.
Typhoid and other communicable diseases were rife among the Irish immigrants, and “no one wanted to go” to help them, Watier said, but Mother Bruyère sent some sisters to help.
Bruyère was a visionary and showed great will-power, administrative skills and the ability to handle money, Watier said.
“You could not say was promoting feminism, but she was a feminist by just being,” said Watier, noting “she felt good about who she was,” and knew “she was equal to everyone.”
“If there was something that touched the sisters or touched the poor, she would just come out and say, ‘I don’t think that’s right,’” Watier said.
“She does not except the paternalist opinions or ways of her time,” she said. “She was polite but was not afraid to assert her equality with men, who were at the time, very powerful and influential.”
“When you see within five months here in Ottawa, the social safety net was all put into place and after three years, she built the beginning of the General Hospital,” Watier said.
With money raised from the boarding school Bruyère founded, she was able to take care of the poor and the sick.
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast noted the great contribution Bruyère made not only to Ottawa but also to the diocese, which was founded in 1847.
“Mother Bruyère and the Sisters of Charity initiated and founded several of the charitable institutions that continue to be very present and active in our community, especially in health and education,” he said.
“Mother Bruyère’s ministry, her life of prayer and heartfelt devotion towards helping the neediest, reflect God’s love for us all. May Mother Bruyère continue to guide her fellow Sisters and sustain them in their efforts as they continue to cater to the needs of the people of Ottawa, the members of our Christian communities and our Archdiocese.”
The Congregation now hopes Mother Bruyère’s cause for sainthood will advance through a recognized miracle credited to her intercession. The Centre for the Cause of Elizabeth Bruyère puts out a bilingual booklet called Echoes that features excerpts from her writings, and stories from her life and the early years of the mission, with samples of prayers asking for Mother Bruyère’s intercession.
At the Congregation’s Motherhouse, a board on the wall of the oratory where Mother Bruyere’s remains are kept posts prayer requests received by phone so the sisters can lift them up in prayer.
Sr. Watier estimates there are about 475 Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, with about 235 in Canada. While the missions in Africa are still receiving vocations, the Canadian sisters are growing older, with many now over 80 years old.
“Because we are growing older, we are passing on this charism to our employees, families, and associates in different places,” she said.
In Ottawa, the Congregation passed on the ownership of the three buildings of the original General Hospital to Bruyère Continuing Care, a palliative care and rehabilitation hospital on the site “so that they will continue this charism.”
The Congregation also funded the new Elisabeth Bruyère School of Social Innovation at Saint Paul University to “reframe and propose social change,” Watier said.
It is in the developing world, in Africa, where Sisters of Charity of Ottawa most closely live out the charism of Mother Bruyère, such as Zambia where the sisters are “almost starting from scratch” in the evangelization of hard to reach areas, similar to what the foundress experienced in the early days in Bytown, Watier pointed out.
Challenges remain in Canada, but they’re more hidden, Watier said.
“There’s a lot of hidden poverties we can’t see anymore.” Just listening to the news one sees the division, the hurt, the injustice, she said.
If Mother Bruyère were alive today, she would say “go out to those hidden poverties,” Watier said.
Though many of the Canadian sisters have grown elderly, they, like “like all elderly everywhere,” still “have a mission.”
“They’re praying for the world,” she said. They watch the news and they pray for people affected. They are praying for the people of Syria as war continues. Watier said these sisters are saints in how they pray and offer up their ailments.
“How we can we really be like sad, when we see what a little group of sisters have done in 1845, this tree that has become a big tree and we’re sitting in the shade of this tree,” she said.