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Who was Blessed Emilie Gamelin?
We first trace the roots of our community back to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and further back still to Emilie Gamelin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Montreal. Beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II on October 7, 2001, Emilie was the 14th child of Antoine and Josephite Tavernier. Her affinity and compassion for the poor was evident from the time she was three.

emilie gamelin
Blessed Emilie Gamelin

At first, Emilie’s life seems nothing but a progression of sorrows, yet from her sorrow sprang the joy that comes from living a life in which her compassion for the poor was matched by her work on their behalf.

Her mother died when she was only four, and an aunt raised her. In the years that followed she also lost her father and a sister. At 18 she took charge of her widowed brother’s household, using one of the rooms in the home as a dining room for the poor.

Under the disapproving eyes of her friends who frowned on the differences in their ages, Emilie married Jean Baptiste Gamelin when she was 23, he 50. A prominent, wealthy member of Montreal society, Jean Baptiste supported Emilie’s charitable works so she spent her spare time and resources reaching out to the poor. The couple had three sons, but only one survived infancy. In 1827, Emilie lost not only her beloved husband but her last child as well.

Overcoming grief by helping others
Overcome with grief, she immersed herself even more in her charitable endeavors, particularly the work of Montreal’s Ladies of Charity. Soon her heart was taken with the plight of abandoned women of advancing age. Selling some of her property, she used the proceeds to purchase a residence for some of the women. Her first guest was 102 years old. She went on to fill the house with 15 others.

Despite criticism of friends who questioned the value of such a young attractive woman devoting herself to this type of work, she purchased two more houses. These two additions gave her the ability to provide housing for 30 residents, all women. She alone carried the burden of the incurred expenses, and when her resources were depleted she trusted totally in help from our provident God. Time after time, her trust was rewarded. Whenever she prayed for Divine intervention, whatever she needed soon came her way.

In time she was able to purchase a large building known as the Yellow House. The house was so roomy its elderly guests had the room to work on projects that brought in revenue to help with the expenses.
In 1833, when an epidemic of cholera ravaged Montreal, Emilie began visiting the sick and dying in their homes. Her work with orphans began when she brought six children whose parents had succumbed to the sickness to live in the Yellow House with the elder guests.

Though they initially questioned the wisdom of her work, many of her wealthy friends were won over by her example and stepped forward to help ease the financial burdens. Her work made her a familiar and welcome figure in all of Montreal. Following the political insurrection of 1837, she gained easy access to the city’s prisoners facing death or deportation. Every day “The Angel of the Prisons,” as she was called, brought the prisoners food, messages, and gifts from their loved ones. One of her most difficult tasks was assisting at the farewells between the condemned and their families.

Beginning with her care of Dodais, a mentally afflicted child befriended by her husband, Emilie also put great energy into caring for the mentally ill. Her strong interest in their welfare spurred the establishment of institutions to care for them.

Forming a religious community
As Emilie’s works mushroomed, the Montreal Bishop saw the long-term need for a community of Sisters, rather than volunteer laywomen (Ladies of Charity), to carry on her work. When his efforts to interest an established community of Sisters failed, the bishop decided to establish a religious community of his own. Seven women already working with Emilie formed its nucleus, and on March 25, 1843 they became the first novices of the new community. When one of their number returned home, the bishop granted Emilie permission to take her place. A year later, these very first Sisters of Providence pronounced vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and Emilie became their first Superior.

Less than ten years later, on September 23, 1851, Emilie woke one of her Sisters with the news that she was facing death after contracting the most recent outbreak of cholera. Her last words were to urge her Sisters to practice the virtues of “humility…simplicity…char…” She lapsed into unconsciousness before completing her last word and died soon afterwards. She was only 51.

As you see on our history page, Emilie’s community of women went on to help found the Sisters of Providence of Saint Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. In 1873, the young Kingston community sent some of their Sisters to establish a mission here in Holyoke. From that community sprang ours, the Sisters of Providence of Holyoke.

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