The Argentinian adventure
The Argentinian adventure started in 1961, during the Second Vatican Council. The Argentinian Bishop Perez met, in Rome, the Canadian Bishop of Hull, Quebec, Monsignor Lemieux, and asked him if religious women could serve in a hospital in southern Argentina.
Being the human face of Providence means reaching out to others and leaving the comfort of our bubble. In the case of the missionary sisters, it also meant leaving their country, their language and their customs. We invited Sister Marcelle Deschênes (Antonine) to come talk to us about her missionary years in Argentina. She comes from Quebec, Canada, and now lives at the Salaberry Residence in Montreal. She is 88 and still active: she still accompanies sisters to their medical appointments. She is very attentive to people she meets, speaking to women of all backgrounds and asking about their well-being, since she has always been interested in the women’s conditions of life.
The Argentinian adventure started in 1961, during the Second Vatican Council. The Argentinian Bishop Perez met, in Rome, the Canadian Bishop of Hull, Quebec, Monsignor Lemieux, and asked him if religious women could serve in a hospital in southern Argentina. When she became aware of this request, Sister Laura de Jésus, Superior of Hull Hospital, asked the General Council of the Sisters of Providence to respond favorably to this appeal, for the Argentinian people’s good. This project was accepted and materialized the following year.
Sister Marcelle was ready. She had entered the Sisters of Providence a few years after the end of the Second World War. Before departing for Argentina, she had already accumulated 12 years of service in the orphanages of Joliette and Trois-Rivières, Province of Quebec. Sister Marcelle Deschênes and 5 other Sisters of Providence arrived in Patagonia in Southern Argentina in July 1963, in order to organize health care in the city of Comodoro Rivadavia. The other 5 sisters were, in alphabetical order, Sisters Germaine Bourgoin (Germaine-Thérèse), Bernadette Deschênes (Laura de Jésus), Margaret Kelly (Patrice-Marie), Eliane Lanteigne (Simon-Marie) and Virginia Paul (Monica Mary). 15 other Sisters of Providence followed them in Argentina over 3 decades.
They arrived at the early stage of city’s organizing its health system. During the sixties, the Vecinal Hospital was in a disastrous state of dilapidation, of immense poverty. The sisters were housed in another hospital, the Regional, which was not open yet: “The Ladies of Charity had bought us six beds the day before we arrived, because the place was empty” said Sister Marcelle. The sisters worked hard to improve the care offered at the Vecinal hospital, but the building was in such a state of deterioration that the roof of some rooms might collapse. The sisters worked to move services and patients to the Regional hospital by pressuring the authorities. Even before being allowed to move patients in, the first victory was to do laundry in a modern laundry, with soap. They had to negotiate the gas supply and wait for the construction of a local factory to have enough power to run all the equipment. Eventually, they received medical equipment and they could even open an operating room. However, due to political instability and frequent changes in hospital management, the move took 5 years to be completed. The new hospital profited greatly from the expertise of the Canadian sisters, reaching an unequalled level of care in the city.
The sisters worked intensely. “Sister Laura de Jésus worked day and night to ensure that nurses lacked nothing: at night, she tuned up units measuring blood pressure until 11 PM,” recounts an article for the local newspaper, Crónica, which was published in January 20081 about the presence of the Sisters of Providence, during the reunion of sister Marcelle with former employees of the hospital.
The newspaper quoted a nurse who started working at the opening of the Regional hospital, in 1968, who stated: “It was the golden age of the hospital…” The article also mentions: “The strict formation of the Canadian sisters is underlined by those who got to know them. In their own way and according to their education, everything had to be straight, in order, clean, with respect. Fundamentally, the service provision had to include understanding of and love for the patients.” They also trained nurses, who gained national certification, allowing them to work in any region of the country. They also built a blood bank.
More than 20 Sisters of Providence ministered in Argentina. Their work in those areas inspired some young women to join the Sisters of Providence. In the early 1980s, a group of Providence Associates was also established.
After her 18-year stay in Argentina, Sister Marcelle continued her ministry in Chile for 18 years, before moving to Cameroon. She worked 4 years in Africa before returning to Quebec. Her links with the Argentinians are not over; in addition to her visit in 2008, she still maintains a correspondence with 5 people she met during her ministry in Comodoro Rivadavia, over 35 years ago. This confirms the affirmation of a former employee of the hospital: “The nurses were trained to take care of the sick tenderly, staying as long as necessary.” Sister Marcelle didn’t hesitate to stay the needed time in Argentina, nor does she hesitate now to reach out to others.
Providence of God, I believe in you
- «La última Hermana de la Providencia y enfermera del Regional regresó a Comodoro» Crónica, jueves 3 de enero del 2008. (In Spanish) http://diariocronica.com.ar/index.php?r=Noticias/verNoticia&q=3004
For more details, this book is available in the Souvenirs page:
ROBILLARD, Denise. Adventurers in the Shadow, From Obedience to Discernment, The Mission of the Sisters of Providence, 1962-1997, Outremont: Carte Blanche, 2001.
Sister Marcelle participated in a video, in which she talks about Argentina about how the sisters in the missions experienced Christmas. The link is provided here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owAGcy_0bv8&index=19&list=UUgwryhZJL5r0owWh32XJr1w