The Plague in Montreal

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER VIII (11) start of chapter

The horrors of Grosse Isle had their counterpart in Montreal.

As in Quebec, the mortality was greater in 1847 than in the year following; but it was not till the close of 1848 that the plague might be said to be extinguished, not without fearful sacrifice of life. During the months of June, July, August, and September, the season when nature wears her most glorious garb of loveliness, as many as eleven hundred of 'the faithful Irish,' as the Canadian priest truly described them, were lying at one time in the fever-sheds at Point St. Charles, in which rough wooden beds were placed in rows, and so close as scarcely to admit of room to pass. In these miserable cribs the patients lay, sometimes two together, looking, as a Sister of Charity since wrote, 'as if they were in their coffins,' from the box-like appearance of their wretched beds. Throughout those glorious months, while the sun shone brightly, and the majestic river rolled along in golden waves, hundreds of the poor Irish were dying daily. The world outside was gay and glad, but death was rioting in the fever-sheds. It was a moment to try the devotion which religion inspires, to test the courage with which it animates the gentlest breast. First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs. There was no faltering, no holding back; no sooner were the ranks thinned by death than the gaps were quickly filled; and when the Grey Nuns were driven to the last extremity, the Sisters of Providence came to their assistance, and took their place by the side of the dying strangers. But when even their aid did not suffice to meet the emergency, the Sisters of St. Joseph, though cloistered nuns, received the permission of the Bishop to share with their sister religious the hardships and dangers of labour by day and night.

'I am the only one left,' were the thrilling words in which the surviving priest announced from the pulpit the ravages that the 'ocean plague ' had made in the ranks of the clergy. With a single exception, the local priests were either sick or dead. Eight of the number fell at their post, true to their duty. The good Bishop, Monsigneur Bourget, then went himself, to take his turn in the lazar-house; but the enemy was too mighty for his zeal, and having remained in the discharge of his self-imposed task for a day and a night, he contracted the fever, and was carried home to a sick-bed, where he lay for weeks, hovering between life and death, amid the tears and prayers of his people, to whom Providence restored him after a period of intense anxiety to them, and long and weary suffering to him.

When the city priests were found inadequate to the discharge of their pressing duties, the country priests cheerfully responded to the call of their Bishop, and came to the assistance of their brethren; and of the country priests not a few found the grave and the crown of the martyr.

Among the priests who fell a sacrifice to their duty in the fever-sheds of Montreal was Father Richards, a venerable man, long past the time of active service. A convert from Methodism in early life, he had specially devoted his services to the Irish, then but a very small proportion of the population; and now, when the cry of distress from the same race was heard, the good old man could not be restrained from ministering to their wants. Not only did he mainly provide for the safety of the hundreds of orphan children, whom the death of their parents had left to the mercy of the charitable, but, in spite of his great age, he laboured in the sheds with a zeal which could not be excelled.

'Father Richards wants fresh straw for the beds,' said the messenger to the mayor.

'Certainly, he shall have it: I wish it was gold, for his sake,' replied the mayor.

A few days after both Protestant mayor and Catholic priest ' had gone where straw and gold are of equal value,' wrote the Sister already mentioned. Both had died martyrs of charity.

Only a few days before Father Richards was seized with his fatal illness he preached on Sunday in St. Patrick's, and none who heard him on that occasion could forget the venerable appearance and impressive words of that noble servant of God. Addressing a hushed and sorrow-stricken audience, as the tears rolled down his aged cheeks, he thus spoke of the sufferings and the faith of the Irish:—

'Oh, my beloved brethren, grieve not, I beseech you, for the sufferings and death of so many of your race, perchance your kindred, who have fallen, and are still to fall, victims to this fearful pestilence. Their patience, their faith, have edified all whose privilege it was to witness it. Their faith, their resignation to the will of God under such unprecedented misery, is something so extraordinary that, to realise it, it requires to be seen. Oh, my brethren, grieve not for them; they did but pass from earth to the glory of heaven. True, they were cast in heaps into the earth, their place of sepulture marked by no name or epitaph; but I tell you, my clearly beloved brethren, that from their ashes the faith will spring up along the St. Lawrence, for they died martyrs, as they lived confessors, to the faith.'

The whole city, Protestant and Catholic, mourned the death of this fine old man, one of the most illustrious, victims of the scourge in Montreal.

The orphan children were gathered to the homes and hearts of the generous Canadians and the loving Irish; and most of them had grown up to manhood and womanhood before either monument or epitaph marked the spot in which the hones of their dead parents were mingling with the dust. But there is a monument and a record, the pious work of English workmen, inspired by the humane suggestion of English gentlemen. In the centre of a railed-in spot of land at Point St. Charles, within a hundred yards or so of the Victoria Bridge, that wondrous structure which spans the broad St. Lawrence, there is a huge boulder, taken from the bed of the river, and placed on a platform of roughly hewn stone; and on that boulder there is this inscription:—

Preserve from desecration
Who died of Ship-fever,
A.D. 1847-8, This stone is erected by the
Employed in the
Construction of the Victoria Bridge,
A.D. 1859.

In the church of the Bon Sécour one may see a memorial picture, representing with all the painter's art the horrors and the glories of the fever-shed—the dying Irish, strong in their faith—the ministering Sisters, shedding peace on the pillow of suffering—the holy Bishop, affording the last consolations of religion to those to whom the world was then as nothing: but, in its terrible significance, the rude monument by that mighty river's side is far more impressive.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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