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English-speaking Catholics in Quebec.

English speakers who arrived in Lower Canada (Quebec) after the Conquest, or as United Empire Loyalists following the American Revolution, were primarily Anglican. Most were merchants or professional people; some took up farming in the Eastern Townships and a few could be found amongst the French in the areas of seigniorial tenure; others were in the military or held administrative posts. Their prosperity was ensured, as the colonial government favoured them over the French in the distribution of positions, pensions and contracts. For all their influence and power, however, English speakers remained a small minority, and Catholics among them were an insignificant number. Competition for jobs intensified the French-Canadian dislike of all English speakers, regardless of whether they were Protestant or Catholic.

The U.S. invasion

After the Conquest, Montreal became a British garrison and the seat of the colonial governor. It also became an important target in the eyes of American revolutionists who hoped to make Canada a fourteenth state. In fact, Montreal fell to the Americans for a brief period late in 1775, and Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to Canada during the spring of 1776 to persuade French Canadians to support the Revolution. Included amongst Franklin's commissioners was a Father John Carroll, a Jesuit fluent in French, appointed by the Congress to influence Montreal's Roman Catholic clergy to side with the revolutionary cause. The French clergy argued, however, that, by the Quebec Act of 1774, the British government guaranteed them rights and privileges denied Roman Catholics in the American colonies.

Franklin's mission, like the armed intervention, failed. The unpaid, unruly, occupying American troops robbed the Montrealers. Brigadier-General David Wooster, taking charge of Montreal in the name of Congress, persecuted Catholics, intimidated the clergy, and exiled prominent Tories, providing a negative example of the so-called benefits of "liberty." Nonetheless, because of Franklin's association with Father Carroll in the Montreal Mission, he recommended the latter to the Pope and, in 1789, Father Carroll became the first Catholic Bishop in the United States--the Bishop of Baltimore.

The Scots

One English-speaking group that had a strong impact on the development of Montreal was the Scots, a commercially-minded people, mostly Protestant. The initial introduction of the Scots into Quebec began as captive soldiers in the war between New France and the British colonies; many of them stayed after the Conquest. They were joined by soldiers and officers of the Fraser Highlanders and the Black Watch who settled in the lower province. Immigrants from the Catholic Highland clans, particularly the Macdonnells, settled in Glengarry, in Upper Canada, where they became influential in the military and the government. They were especially instrumental in the fur trade, organizing the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company. Consequently their time was divided between Montreal and York. The Glengarry Scots sent their sons to be educated in Montreal but, unlike the Protestant Scots, they avoided the Quebec political scene.

The Irish

The Irish presence in Quebec preceded the British Conquest. According to Irish folk history, Saint Brendan came to Canada in 545 and sailed up the St. Lawrence River. There is another story that the Irish penetrated the St. Lawrence Valley between 875 and 900 AD. Several thousand Irish, English-or Gaelic-speakers, served in the French Army during the 18th Century, and many of them were garrisoned at Quebec. In 1755, an entire Irish brigade landed at Quebec and was subsequently stationed at Montreal. Some obtained seigniorial grants, others engaged in the fur trade, lumber industry and agriculture. Thus a settlement of Irish Catholics was established in advance of General Wolfe's arrival.

Intermarriage with French Catholics hastened the absorption of the Irish, as did the practice of Irish priests gallicizing their names. Of the 2500 families in Quebec in 1700, 100 came from Ireland and, in 30 other cases, either the husband or wife had been born in Ireland. Montreal's population in 1825 was 25,000, of whom 3,000 were Irish, and the population of Quebec City in 1830 was 32,000, with 7,000 being Irish. Both cities had a Saint Patrick's Church served by Irish priests sent out from Ireland.

Although the Irish were scattered throughout both cities, the immigrant sheds in Montreal were occupied completely by Irish, and Irish predominated in the environs of the Lachine Canal and for several blocks north. The area had the poorest housing and the lowest per capita income in the city. On the waterfront strip in Quebec, below the Plains of Abraham and west of Lower Town, Irish made up fifty per cent of the population. Many were employed in the lumber trade, having arrived from Ireland in the holds of ships as ballast which then returned to Europe with lumber.

Education was a privilege, limited to one or two years for most French and Irish children. In 1846, the Irish Catholics in Montreal were able to establish their own elementary school within the newly formed Montreal Catholic School Commission. The De La Salle Brothers held classes in 1848 for English Catholics in their Upper Town School in Quebec City, and, in 1849, an English school was opened in Diamond Harbour, Lower Town, where many Irish Catholics lived.

The "Famine Irish" and disease

Between 1832 and 1860, Quebec City was the country's main port of entry, receiving an average of 30,000 immigrants a year, 52% of whom were Irish. Contagious diseases were widespread in the British Isles and brought to North America by contaminated immigrants in this period. Cholera, for example, carried to Great Britain by British soldiers returning from India, was transported to Quebec with a deadly impact in 1832, killing 1900 in Montreal and twice that in Quebec City. Grosse Isle, an island east of Quebec City, was set up with haste as the Quebec City quarantine station to deal with more than 100,000 immigrants in the 1832-43 cholera epidemic.

Typhus accompanied the Irish to Quebec City during the 1820s, when they emigrated from Ireland because of overpopulation and the re-allocation of land by the landlords. The period of greatest catastrophe, however, was 1846-1848, when many thousands were dying because of the Potato Famine in Ireland, while Britain allowed 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs and poultry to be shipped out of Ireland to England. The starving people were shipped to the New World, and the conditions under which they travelled were conducive to typhus. Of the 90,000 Irish immigrants arriving in 1847 in the port of Quebec City, typhus killed 10,000 in Canada, while another 5,000 perished in the crossing. Typhus was called variously "ship fever," "hospital fever" or "jail fever," and defined as "essentially a fever of the poor, ill-fed and badly housed."

The number of infected Irish immigrants arriving in 1847 far surpassed the isolation and quarantine facilities of Grosse Isle. Nearby Quebec, exposed to the typhus epidemic, escaped relatively unscathed compared to Montreal. Twenty-two fever sheds were constructed in 1847 on the wharves at Montreal to isolate the affected, with coffins of different sizes stacked between the sheds, in a summer of intense heat. As the disease penetrated the city, panic arose, precipitating a strong anti-Irish sentiment.

Fever in Montreal

Scenes in the Montreal fever sheds were like hell on earth. The stench was overwhelming; the sick were heaped together, with corpses among them. Children could be counted in the hundreds; infants were taken from the breast of dead mothers and youngsters shrieked for parents who had perished. Religious, clergy and lay people of all denominations worked with the medical men to look after the sick, many of them paying with their lives later. The Grey Nuns began their care in the sheds on June 18, 1847 and, by the 24th, two of their sisters were stricken. More fell ill on a daily basis, until 30 of their 40 professed nuns were close to death. The place was taken over by the Sisters of Providence and those from Hotel Dieu who had received permission to leave their cloister to work, until the Grey Nuns once again resumed responsibility in September.

At great risk were priests who heard the confessions of the dying. At least nine English-speaking priests died in Montreal that summer and replacements came from the Jesuits at Fordham in New York. The first Rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Reverend Mark Willoughby, succumbed, along with some of his congregation, who worked among the Catholic Irish in the sheds. John Easton Mills, an American from Massachusetts who had made a fortune in the fur trade, was the mayor of Montreal. In his capacity of president of the Immigration Commission, he ordered the building of the sheds at Pointe St. Charles. Angry Montrealers threatened to toss the fever sheds into the river as more sick Irish arrived, particularly a ship containing the tenants from the Irish estates of Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary. The bilingual Mayor Mills restrained the citizens and voluntarily entered the sheds to nurse the sick, dying as a result of the contact.

Many of the orphans were cared for by the Grey Nuns in St. Patrick's Orphan Asylum of Montreal, opened in 1846. Bishop Ignace Bourget appealed to the country people to provide homes for the orphans, and the French families from surrounding parishes each adopted one or two of the unfortunate children.

Three monuments

Workmen digging the approaches to the Victoria Bridge in 1859 unearthed the bones of typhus victims. They erected a simple but impressive monument, a large boulder taken from the river bed. Known as the "Irish Stone," it was enscribed as a tribute by the workmen: "To Preserve From Desecration The Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who Died of Ship Fever, AD 1847-48."

In acknowledgement of the 1847 epidemic, a four-sided monument, on the site of what had been the immigrant cemetery, commemorates the dead:

"In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,294 persons, who, flying from pestilence and famine in the year 1847, found in America but a grave."

It was erected by Dr. Douglas, the medical officer in charge of the quarantine station, and eighteen medical assistants on duty on Grosse Ile that year. A second monument at Grosse Isle, a Celtic cross of granite, was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America in 1909. Its inscription in English, Irish and French also pays tribute to the Irish immigrants who perished there in 1847.

The plight of the survivors

Survival for the Irish was difficult. Already feeble, emaciated and poor, they had to face the bitter Canadian winter reliant upon the charity of the urban centres and the Church. Untrained, uneducated, they worked at whatever job they could find. Crowded into multiple dwellings, they kept pigs and chickens in the kitchen, saving the manure to plant patches of potatoes and cabbage in the spring. What sustained them were their culture and social habits of drinking, fighting, wild weddings and wakes. They survived to become part of the English-speaking Catholic population of Quebec. Those in the townships who initially retained their ethnic identity were soon absorbed, or left as the French took over their churches and the area.

At the time of the conquest, Great Britain was considerate of the terms that protected the religious rights of French Canadians. On the other hand, it treated the Catholic Highland Scots and the Irish in a despicable manner, denying them religious rights and creating unbearable social conditions. As English-speaking Catholics, the Irish particularly were ostracized in the United Canadas because of their religion by those who spoke the common language, and by their French co-religionists because of their different language. Hugh MacLennan, a Canadian novelist, coined the phrase "two solitudes" to describe the co-existence of French and English-speaking comunities on the same territory while leading parallel, but isolated, lives. The Irish, in the words of the historian John Moir, were "a third solitude in the Canadian milieu."
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Author:Murray Nicolson
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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