History of the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence

In every age, the cultural, economic and political context in which the population lives requires that the Sisters of Providence adapt to meet the urgent and multiple needs of the poor. The history of the Congregation stretches nearly a hundred and seventy-five years. We have summarized a few of its major stages here. Do not hesitate to contact us, should you have any questions or need more information.

The work before the Congregation 1800-1841

The future foundress of the Congregation, Emilie Tavernier was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1800 and grew up in a city rapidly changing. Montreal saw its population grow five times in the early 19th century. Houses were built without running water or sewage. The streams and rivers on the island were polluted and many children and adults died from infectious diseases. An economic crisis struck the population and the United States declared war on this British colony. Work was very precarious; there was a large population of vagrants and beggars.

The poor, suffering from hunger, asked alms and Emilie Tavernier’s mother always gave something to those who came knocking at her door. Following her mother’s death, Emilie was raised by her aunt who taught her the same values. She always took care of the poor because of this education. As an adult, the importance of this drew her to a neighbour, Jean-Baptiste Gamelin, who shared her vision of charity; they married in 1823. The happy household had three children. Two of them died very young, then came the turn of Mr. Gamelin in 1827. Their third child died the following year.

After her widowhood and the loss of her children, Emilie Tavernier Gamelin found comfort in the contemplation of Mary, Mother of Sorrows, and chose to devote her efforts and her love to assisting the most in need. In addition to the activities she carried out with charitable organizations, such as visits to poor families, collection and distribution of alms and food, care for the sick, and visits to prisoners, she gathered and sheltered elderly infirm women without resources, always trusting that Providence would cater for the needs of those she protected.

Madame Gamelin, affectionately nicknamed the “Providence of the poor”, and her work were well known to the people of Montreal; she received their charitable assistance to accommodate and feed her charges. As her various shelters expanded, Emilie Gamelin partnered with family and friends to form a corporation to assist her. In 1832, she also welcomed orphans of cholera in her home.

In 1836, Madame Gamelin received a bigger house; Emilie and her 24 charges moved to the “Yellow House”. This new home was named Providence House.

In 1841, the Yellow House received its civil incorporation under the name of Corporation de l’Asyle des femmes âgées et infirmes de Montréal (Asile of Elderly and Infirm Women of Montreal Corporation) and Emilie Tavernier Gamelin was elected director.

Bishop Ignace Bourget and the founding of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor (Sisters of Providence) 1841-1851

Bishop Ignace Bourget, as Bishop of Montreal (1840-1876), became the collaborator and counsellor of Emilie in 1840. He was a man of action who had major projects in mind for the organization of the pastoral and social life of the metropolis. He was familiar with the work of Madame Gamelin and her ladies of charity and considered their work as something that would play an important role in the implementation of his vision.

Bishop Bourget tried to bring to Montreal the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul from Paris, France, to undertake the work of Madame Gamelin and ensure its sustainability. However, while the construction of the future Providence Asile was already underway, Bishop Bourget learned that the Daughters of Charity were not coming. Given the urgency of the needs, he quickly decided to found a community of Canadian women religious: the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor.

On March 25, 1843, seven young women took the novice habit. Madame Gamelin remained the secular director of the work. In May, residents, novices and Madame Gamelin left the “Yellow House” to settle in the brand new Providence Asile, located at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Hubert streets.

After long reflection and prayer with her confessor, Madame Gamelin felt more and more the call to religious life. Bishop Bourget asked her to go first to the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, United States, to borrow a copy of the Rules of Saint Vincent de Paul. Upon her return, Emilie took the habit of the novices of Providence on October 8, 1843.

On March 29, 1844, Bishop Bourget canonically erected the Congregation. Seven novices, including Madame Gamelin, pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and to serve the poor, in the chapel of the Providence Asile. Emilie Tavernier Gamelin, who was then called Sister Gamelin, was elected superior of the community, a position she occupied until her death on September 23, 1851.

At the opening of the novitiate in 1843, the works at the Asile consisted in accommodating indigent elderly women and orphans, visiting the homes of the poor and the sick, visiting prisoners, and training girls for domestic service. Soon after, an infirm priest came to lodge there and several more followed. During the same decade, the sisters began their interventions with the “lunatics”, i.e. mentally ill persons, while facing epidemics of typhus (disease spread by lice and fleas) and cholera (disease transmitted by contaminated water). They opened a shelter for Irish orphans of typhus and took charge of a school for girls. The work with deaf girls was officially initiated on February 19, 1851.


The Pioneers Spread Out 1852-1890

In Quebec, the native Canadian province of Emilie Tavernier Gamelin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence, hundreds of young women responded to the call to religious life, following in the foundress’ footsteps. They strove to offer to society and the Church, their talent and expertise in the ministries of education, health and social services. They have been important instruments in the evolution of the society, helping those left behind to emerge from poverty.

The Sisters of Providence were quickly called to expand their activities, so urgent and multiple were the needs. Deeply imbued with the charism of their foundress, they responded to the cry of those who were in need, whether in urban areas or in the most remote and primitive locales. They often agreed to go where no one else could or wanted to go. They rode horses, traveled in carts, trains, boats, and even by dogsled, helping the needy from south of Chile to Alaska in the north.



On October 18, 1852, Sister Bernard Morin (Venerance Morin Rouleau, 1832-1929) and four companions left for Oregon Territory at the request of the bishop of that region. Then, unable to settle there, they left by boat for Montreal, because at that time there was no train crossing North America. They stopped in Valparaíso, Chile, on June 17, 1853.

Without knowing the customs or the language of the land, the sisters decided to respond to the urgent needs of the poor at the request of the local bishop, who saw them as a sign of Providence. They took charge of an orphanage in Santiago; it was the first of many houses of Providence in Chile. On March 17, 1880, an Apostolic Decree of the Holy See erected the Sisters of Providence of Chile as a new congregation separated from the Congregation of Sisters of Providence in Montreal. On December 7, 1905 the Constitutions of the Sisters of Providence of Chile were approved by Pope Pius X. The sisters would be called for nearly a hundred years the Hermanas de la Providencia de Chile, but their charism and spirituality never deviated from the spirit of Mother Gamelin. Over the years, the Sisters of Providence of Chile opened boarding schools, schools of various levels, orphanages, and homes for elderly women through Chile.


Vermont (United States)

May 1, 1854, through an invitation of the first bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, United States, the Sisters of Providence from Montreal took charge of the care of orphans.  They did so in a building the bishop had purchased in 1853. This was named St. Joseph Orphanage and later renamed Providence St. Joseph. Children were served in this institution until 1974. Apart from this first work, the Sisters of Providence extended their action everywhere across the State of Vermont by multiplying their works in education, health and social service.

Northwestern United States

Following the first mission to the western United States which had proved fruitless, Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart (Esther Pariseau, 1823-1902), accompanied by four other Sisters of Providence, arrived in the Washington Territory, United States, in December 1856. Less than a year after their arrival, these sisters founded the first hospital and one of the first schools in Vancouver, Washington.

During the following 46 years, Mother Joseph and the sisters met the needs of the people of the region by establishing hospitals, schools, orphanages, and homes for the elderly and mentally disabled. The Sisters of Providence in the American Northwest extended their ministries to the east in Montana and Idaho, to the south in Oregon and California, to the north in Alaska and the Canadian northwest, offering their services to anyone who needed them.


Western Canada

On July 6, 1886, the Sisters of Providence in the Northwest of the United States crossed the northern border of the country, and founded a hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia. It was the first mission in Western Canada.

With the arrival of several sisters from Montreal, the works of the Sisters of Providence in Western Canada multiplied quickly, extending east into the Prairies (central provinces of the country: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and north into the Yukon Territory. Everywhere they went, they were especially in charge of providing care and comfort to the elderly, the homeless and orphans, mainly by providing them health care and by making home visits. They also taught in Indian Residential Schools. In addition to working in large cities like Vancouver and New Westminster in British Columbia, Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta, they worked in rural and remote areas where the lack of resources forced them to develop great aptitudes for resourcefulness and ingenuity.


Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario (Canada)

In the middle of the 19th century, the Bishop of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, communicated with the Sisters of Providence in Montreal in order to see if they could come and help establish works to aid the elderly and orphans of his city. Four Sisters of Providence arrived in Kingston in December of 1861 to contribute to the foundation of a religious community, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. After having trained the Sisters of the new congregation in the customs and the Rules of St. Vincent de Paul being followed by the Sisters of Providence in Montreal and having started some works, the founding sisters returned to Montreal on September 14, 1866.


Sisters of Our Lady of Seven Dolors (1887)

As early as 1849, Sister Albine Gadbois (1830-1874) was dedicated to the work with the deaf, teaching deaf girls, and answering a need in this second half of the 19th century. The Institute for the Deaf (Institut des Sourdes-Muettes) opened in 1851; three other sisters of the Gadbois family, also Sisters of Providence, contributed to the development of the institution.

Some of the young girls who lived there manifested the desire to enter the Community. On April 1, 1887, the Sisters of Providence erected a novitiate inside the Institute for the Deaf; they founded the community now known as the Sisters of Our Lady of Seven Dolors (SNDD).

The ministry of this community is for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. They are involved in pastoral care for the deaf, accompaniment of the deaf elderly, and several charities related to the deaf community.


Coming to the 20th Century 1890-1961

At the turn of the 20th century, the industrialization of the cities attracted immigrants, but also migrants from the countryside. The greater Montreal area had more than 325, 000 inhabitants, which is more than three hundred times the population at the beginning of the previous century.

The Sisters of Providence were serving in approximately one hundred institutions that they had established. There were homes for the elderly, schools, residential schools and orphanages, as well as dozens of hospitals. They also cared for people with mental illness, offering specialized care, rather than a life of misery or incarceration. The sisters also devoted themselves to social service with the poor and to home visits.

Following the example of Emilie Gamelin, the Sisters of Providence looked to improve hospital care, in order to better treat those who suffer. They traveled to study the most modern care techniques and they promoted research in their hospitals. All twenty-five major hospitals had a nursing school and there were also several schools for other hospital professions. The sisters were also innovative regarding teaching; they also created schools for children with disabilities.

Like the civil society, the Congregation evolved through the major shake-ups of the first half of the 20th century: economic crisis and world wars, but also the beginnings of the emancipation of women, the arrival of modern art and the explosion of technological and scientific discoveries. The Community grew and, at the end of the fifties, there were more than three thousand Sisters of Providence at the service of persons in need.


The Impacts of the Second Vatican Council 1962-2000

In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council and it was closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. In a widespread desire for renewal of the Roman Catholic Church, the Council established deep reforms in religious life. Alongside these major movements of society and the Church, the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence also began to make various changes to adapt to contemporary realities. In 1962, the Motherhouse, the General Administration, the novitiate, and the infirmary of the sisters were transferred from Fullum Street to Cartierville, to the current address of the Motherhouse. In 1963, after transferring the works to another building, Providence Asile was demolished to make room for the Montreal metro. Large formation centres for women religious also emerged in Edmonton, Alberta and Issaquah, Washington, in order to meet the needs of the new sisters of the Congregation. After the Council, the regular religious costume of the Sisters of Providence was changed in the summer of 1966. Then it was gradually replaced for those sisters wishing to wear simple lay clothing to facilitate their activities in the different milieus where they ministered.

The decade of the 1960s also saw the providential reconciliation between the sisters of the Congregation of Chile and the Congregation of Montreal. The General Superior of the Sisters of Providence of Chile was invited for the transference of the remains of Mother Gamelin in 1962 and, after discussions, sisters of the two communities tested life and work in common among the members of the other community. They discovered the similarity of the values and the charism they shared. July 1st, 1970, marked the final union of the Chilean Congregation with the Montreal Congregation by a decree of the Holy See. The region where the Chilean sisters ministered was named Bernarda Morin Province, after its foundress.

In a context of secularization in Quebec, several works of the Community handed over for public administration, particularly in education and health services. Nevertheless, the sisters still wanted to respond to the urgent and multiple needs of the poor, following in the steps of Emilie Gamelin. They were looking for ways that would allow individuals and peoples to develop by themselves. The idea to establish a foundation to meet the needs of the poorest in the developing world was born during the 1974 General Chapter. Since 1980, the Roncalli International Foundation has been incorporated distinctly from the Sisters of Providence; more than nine thousand programs directed to victims of disaster and persons living in extreme poverty, for examples, have been financially supported.

Moreover, the Second Vatican Council, in the decree Ad Gentes, also called men and women religious to extend their missionary zeal to every creature. Led by an outpouring of compassion for the poor, the sisters responded generously and the number of ministries increased in new lands: Argentina (1963-2016), Syria (1963-1967), Cameroon (1970-2015), Tunisia (1971-1972 and 1982-1984), Algeria (1972-1979), Nigeria (1973-1981), Haiti (1976 to date), Egypt (1977 to date), Philippines (1989 to date), and El Salvador (1995 to date). Formation houses were opened in the Quezon City, Philippines (1989-present), Febe, Cameroon (1990-2015) and Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1999-present).

In the context following the Second Vatican Council, more and more lay people have become involved in the ministries of the Church. Providence is always manifested through promising ways of hope and discovery! A confirmation of this was manifested in the birth of the Providence Associate lay movement. During the 1960s and 1970s, women and men, inspired by the example of the life of Mother Gamelin, showed their desire to be part of the Providence family. During their 1982 General Chapter, the Sisters of Providence welcomed persons to be Providence Associates in all regions where they were involved.


An International, Intercultural and Intergenerational Congregation 1985-...

In 1987, in an effort to revitalize the community life and to restore the balance of the distribution of the works in Eastern Canada, a major reconfiguration of the Congregation’s provinces was made (a reconfiguration was made in Northwestern United States in 2000). This reorganization of work and life of the religious allowed them to live a profound abandonment, a personal and community transformation, and a new start with confidence in Divine Providence.

Starting in the 1990s, there were more and more opportunities of international meetings on the renewal of religious and community life, on the deepening of the spiritual life, and on Providence spirituality, especially in relation to Creation spirituality. This increase in sharing was proportional to the multiplication of innovative ways to meet the urgent needs of the poor.

Urged by the love of Christ and inspired by the passion of Emilie Tavernier Gamelin, the sisters of the Congregation are rooted in the reality of contemporary society.  Therefore, they recognize the Congregation as being international, intercultural, intergenerational and interdependent.  Priority is given to fully live these dimensions in their life as Sisters of Providence.

The advancement of the Community is promoted by the development of a circular leadership based on the following four values: discernment in decision making; the attitude of co-responsibility in the participation of congregational life; a feminine approach; and interculturality.

In order to give the Congregation a true Providence International Centre that would suit the new needs of gatherings, major renovations were initiated in 2003 at 12055 Grenet Street in Montreal (address of the General Administration), an adjacent wing to the Motherhouse. The inauguration and blessing of the Providence International Centre were held in March 2005. Since then, it has been a gathering place for the continual striving for renewal of all aspects of consecrated apostolic life.

Continuous adaptation and opening to the changing world are persistent elements of the General Chapter Orientations. More than ever, the Sisters of Providence trust in Providence, passionately reaffirming their promise to continue their Mission. They resolutely engage in the world to relieve human suffering, in all the countries where they minister.