The happy havens of Sister Mechtilde

When a pregnant, unmarried girl of any color or creed turns to Montreal’s Misericordia Sisters she soon trades any shame for self respect under the compassionate and scientific guidance of the only nun who can cha-cha

KEN LEFOLII October 24 1959

The happy havens of Sister Mechtilde

When a pregnant, unmarried girl of any color or creed turns to Montreal’s Misericordia Sisters she soon trades any shame for self respect under the compassionate and scientific guidance of the only nun who can cha-cha

KEN LEFOLII October 24 1959

The happy havens of Sister Mechtilde


When a pregnant, unmarried girl of any color or creed turns to Montreal’s Misericordia Sisters she soon trades any shame for self respect under the compassionate and scientific guidance of the only nun who can cha-cha


THE NUN calls the girl ma belle, my lovely one. In truth, to anyone but the nun the girl must appear less than lovely. She has the uncertain complexion of most girls of thirteen. Her features are stained by shame and fear. Her body is distended by pregnancy.

The nun, Sister Sainte-Mechtilde, who wears the squared white cowl of the Misericordia order, asks the girl what name she has chosen to use for the term of her pregnancy. The girl hesitates and replies, “Mariette.”

There are several ways of regarding Mariette.

To the surprising nun Mariette is speaking to, the girl is at once an object of fervent compassion and the raw material of a psychotherapeutic experiment. Among other unexpected things, Sister Sainte-Mechtilde is a highly trained specialist in psychiatric social work. Her order, the Sisters of Misericordia, w'as formed in Montreal more than a century ago to soften the afflictions of unmarried but pregnant women. Seventeen hundred pregnant spinsters now seek out the Misericordia Sisters in Montreal every year — les filles-mères, as Sister Mechtilde refers to her charges, the maiden mothers. Many of them, like Mariette, are ridden by guilt and fear; Sister Mechtilde’s experiment is an attempt to restore their self-respect by augmenting compassion, the nuns’ traditional form of benevolence, with the mint-new methods of psychiatry and sociology.

Most of Sister Mechtilde’s filles - mères are French-speaking, Catholic, and native to Quebec. Although the Misericordia Sisters have amplified their works to include hospitals, hostels, orphanages, teaching centres and retreats in many other parts of Canada and the U. S., not to mention an adventurous mission in West Africa, Sister Mechtilde’s Montreal experiment is unique. She is Sister Superior of a four-villa system of rehabilitation hostels for filles-mères, a system that is largely her own creation.

The four villas are all in Montreal and its suburbs, but some of the filles-mères in residence are English-speaking. Protestant, and come from other parts of Canada and the U. S. A few, whose families can afford to send them, come from western Europe. “No one who comes to us is left outside on the pavement,” Sister Mechtilde says, slightly shocked at the notion, and only a handful who choose to do so ever pay the Sisters a cent for the help they receive.

Just as there is nothing elsew'here in the world quite like Sister Mechtilde’s group of villas, there can be few nuns quite like Sister Mechtilde. Before she undertook her reconstruction of the Misericordia hostel system in 1955, she studied the techniques of psychiatric social work for twelve years at three universities. More recently, in an attempt to bring herself even closer to an understanding of her filles-mères, she has been joining them in studying what she describes as “the rock and rolling and the cha cha cha.” These exercises would probably strike many nuns as borderline blasphemy, but Sister Mechtilde is inimitable. Lately she has overcome even the severe difficulties posed by her flowing floor-length robes, and is already a creditable rock and roller and a dextrous cha cha cha-er.

With the same unabashed energy, Sister Mechtilde has cajoled, bullied and charmed politicians, executives, unionized tradesmen and medical and sociological technicians into helping build her villas, staff them and support them. Moreover, in radio talks, television interviews, press conferences and service-club speeches, continued on page 66

Girls—protected by pseudonyms—are given courses the nun hope will help them. Sister Constance gives sewing lessons

continued on page 66

The happy havens of Sister Mechtiide continued from page 20

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“Some say we encourage these girís to do the same thing again”

she has disturbed the eyebrow - cocked hush that usually muffles the subject of illegitimacy. The spectacle of a nun airing bold ideas (•‘These girls lack one thing: love”) about a "delicate” subject has enlightened some people, according to the

heavy mail she has been receiving in the year or so since the first of lier public appearances, and dismayed others.

’’If you write about my work, you must be prepared to hear from many people who will complain that we are pampering

these girls and encouraging them to do the same thing again,” Sister Mechtiide told a reporter recently.

To the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Mariette, one of these allegedly pampered girls, is a cipher in a troublesome index.

The child Mariette will bear, like the children of about eighteen thousand other unmarried Canadian women and girls, will eventually be reported in the Bureau’s 1959 census of illegitimate births. 1 his census, as the Bureau’s own experts are careful to explain, is incomplete. The statisticians can only guess at the number of unreported illegitimate births.

To the putative father of her child, a married businessman of forty-eight with two legitimate children older than Mariette herself, the thirteen-year-old expectant mother is an acute embarrassment and a potential threat. The father’s situation is less obvious but more perilous than Mariette’s; contributing to the delinquency of a minor is a crime.

To her own father and to her mother, as both have made clear, Mariette is a fallen-woman-child who has injured herself and disgraced her family.

To her society, Mariette is a manysided anomaly: outcast, pitiable unfortunate, moral lawbreaker, social problem. By and large, society judges Mariette, finds her guilty, and adds a recommendation for leniency. Then it makes good the recommendation by supporting certain agencies that will provide her and her sisters with food, shelter and medical services — the Salvation Army hospitals and hostels, a few privately endowed maternity homes, some maternity hospitals.

This child, Mariette, is not typical of the many thousands of unmarried Canadian women w'ho become pregnant in the course of a year, nor is she typical of the seventeen hundred who seek out the Misericordia Sisters in Montreal for help. Nothing much is known of the larger number but of these last, in a not-unusual year, twenty-five percent are under nineteen; about thirty percent are between nineteen and twenty-one; fewer than fifteen percent are over twentyseven. Almost thirty percent are returning to the Misericordia Sisters for their second, third or even fourth pregnancy. Six out of ten are factory or laundry workers, waitresses or domestic workers of one kind and another. The rest, except for unoccupied girls and students living at home — more than one out of ten — represent in small groups most of the usual feminine professions, including secretaries and cashiers, nurses and professors. Most of such things as these disparate women have in common, Mariette shares; from the moment when she came, alone, to 7390 Boulevard St. Michel, the sombre brick building that houses the Misericordia social service bureau in the north end of Montreal, Mariette’s story is in many respects the story of all the women who come to the same door.

Mariette was passed on to the social service bureau by the doctor who confirmed her pregnancy. Other girls are sent by their priests, their parents, family friends; some find the bureau themselves, or know the way from previous visits. When they arrive, each of them, like Mariette, is interviewed by one of thirteen university-trained social workers. None of the case workers is a nun; only a few of the nurses, mental and physical therapists, group-dynamics specialists and other technicians who work full or part time in Sister Mechtilde’s four villas are nuns. The black habit of the Misericordia order is present but unobtrusive, as are the habits of worship and religion.

In Mariette’s case, the social worker who interviewed her decided that the girl should join the thirty-five or forty other pregnant youngsters at the first of the four Montreal villas. This hostel, the Rosalie Jetté Center on the northern shoreline of Montreal Island, is in some

ways the centrepiece of Sister Mechtilde’s experiment. It is open only to girls between twelve and eighteen w'hose intelligence and attitude both give some hope that they can be helped to rebuild their self-respect and their initiative. If Mariette had been mentally retarded, or if her nature had appeared so incorrigibly cynical that she would interfere with the rehabilitation of the other youngsters, the social worker would have sent her to one of two hostels for adult women.

At the largest of these, the main section of the Boulevard St. Michel building that also accommodates the social service bureau, there are usually four groups of about fifteen women each and a fifth group of about twenty. At the second hostel for adults, a wing of the Misericordia general hospital on downtown Dorchester Street, there are between twenty and forty women depending on how' crowded the other hostels are.

The fourth Misericordia villa in Montreal, a well-preserved manor house surrounded by a w'alled garden in the riverbank suburb of Ste. Dorothée, is the only one w'ith a paying-guest list. Between eight and ten girls pay four dollars a day to share a double room or ten dollars a day for a private room. The guests fall, broadly, into two groups: girls with comparatively rich fathers who would otherwise send their daughters to Mexico or Europe to avoid scandal, or bachelor professional and businesswomen, most often in their late twenties or early thirties and well able to pay their own way.

At Ste. Dorothée this small group of select guests lives in carefully preserved privacy and well-appointed com fort. The only nun they ever see is an occasional visitor. Their physical and mental hygiene are in the care of tw'o psychopédagogie graduates from the University of Paris, one a native of Nice and the other of Nance. Both were imported to the Ste. Dorothée villa to avoid the off - chance of confronting a guest with a specialist trained in Montreal, who might recognize either the expectant mother or her family. Sister Sainte-Mechtilde could, but doesn’t, describe the manor house as a country club for unmarried mothers.

Mariette was too young for the manor house even if her parents or the father of her child had been willing to pay her way. And. as it happens, Mariette’s pregnancy was too far advanced for the social worker’s remaining choice. Girls who approach the social service bureau early in pregnancy, if they are well balanced and adjustable, are sometimes sent to live, until late in their terms, with one of the private families that are in touch with the bureau. Some of these girls pay

for their room and board, others do domestic work to earn it. and a few are accepted out of sheer kindness.

Almost all of them come to live in one of the four villas during the final weeks of pregnancy. As for Mariette, she was already in the seventh month of her terni w'hen she first came to the social service bureau. For the first few months she had been bewildered and frightened by her symptoms without knowing what they meant; later, when the signs became unmistakable. she camouflaged them from her parents in terror. When the deceit be-

came insupportable she fled to the Misericordia social service bureau, and from the bureau she went to Sister SainteMechtilde at the Rosalie Jetté Center.

Sister Mechtilde and Mariette met in the nun’s study a few minutes after the girl arrived. Almost the first words they exchanged were the ones recorded earlier, in which Mariette, like every new' arrival to each of the four villas, chose a pseudonym to avoid exposing her real name even to her sister filles-mères. During the next quarter-hour the nun told the girl something of how her life would be or-

dered at the villa, and as they talked they walked around the buildings and the flowered grove in which they stand.

The Rosalie Jetté Center is two dissimilar buildings connected by a low arcade. The main building, a century-old greystone mansion skirted on its four square sides by an austere white gallery, is Sister Mechtilde’s base for supervising the three villas in other parts of the city. It is also a hostel for about twenty fillesmères between twelve and sixteen. There are usually the same number of girls in the connecting building, a more recent

red-brick addition, but here the youngest is sixteen and the oldest eighteen. A stand of shade and fruit trees curtains the face of the centre; the rear looks out across the Rivière des Prairies, the north arm of the St. Lawrence where the river forks to form the island of Montreal.

To Mariette, the prospect from outside may have seemed severe. Inside, the austerity of the fine old building has been leavened by Sister Mechtilde's avocational enthusiasm for interior decoration in the suburban-modern vein. Mariette looked into the high - ceilinged dormitory where she would keep house with half a dozen other girls; the teaching kitchen where, once or twice a week, she would spend a couple of hours learning something about food and cooking from a home economist; the salon where, on other days, she would be introduced to the witchery of skin care and make-up by a beauty specialist, and dry the set in her hair under one of the bowl-shaped machines along the wall. She looked curiously at the glazing oven in the studio w'here she would be taught how to make ceramics, and she reached to touch one of the sewing machines in the workroom w'here she would learn to make smocks for herself and swaddling gowns for her child. She stood in the doorway of the small chapel where she would come, when and if she chose, to worship with the Jesuit priest who visits three times a week.

A moment later Mariette stood in the reception lounge, furnished with kidneyshaped chairs, where she would meet her parents, again w hen and if they overcame their distaste enough to visit her. Sister Mechtiide didn’t tell Mariette what she cheerfully tells other visitors—that now and then a girl carries on her courtship with the father of her child in this same room, and sometimes a baby's birth is preceded by the proposal of his father to his mother on one of the magenta settees. But Sister Mechtiide did show Mariette the studio room where the filles-mères throw' their parties: masquerades for Halloween; dances for birthdays; pantomimes for Christmas; and amateur talent hunts whenever the mood strikes.

As the nun and the girl walked, Mariette heard of several other matters: During the weeks or months at the villa and often for a month or even two after the delivery of the child, the girls continue their association with the case worker who first interviewed them at the social service bureau. Further, each group of girls is in the general charge of a therapist in group dynamics, a fairly recent sociological specialty that deals with the relationships among a number of people living together. Once a week a registered nurse instructs them in prenatal relaxation exercises, and elucidates the mechanics of pregnancy with the help of an illustrated manual called the Birth Atlas.

“At the beginning it’s hard to tell some of them why they can’t master deepbreathing exercises and chew bubble-gum at the same time.” the nurse, Rita Doyon, a superintendent in the Montreal public health department, has remarked. "I’m certain there are girls in my classes who don’t know what caused their pregnancy in the first place. By the time they’ve been shown through the Birth Atlas twice, though, they’re fascinated by their own condition and want to learn all there is to know'."

An obstetrician from the Misericordia Hospital checks the girls periodically, unless they have their own doctor and prefer to remain in his hands. They can choose their own hospital, too, and for unpredictable cases there is an emergency

delivery room in the villa. But their infants are almost always delivered by staff doctors at the Misericordia Hospital, and they are usually cared for afterward in the hospital’s crèche until they are adopted or taken away by their mothers.

The filles-mères keep their children only in comparatively rare cases, but Sister Mechtiide and her specialists all believe strongly that in every case the choice should be the mother’s. "We try to show them what the decision means to both of them, mother and child." Sister Mechtiide says. “Then we let them

decide. As often as not they don’t make up their minds until a month or even two after the birth. Usually they choose adoption, finally, for the child’s sake.”

What might be called the filles-mères’ full cycle, from entering one of the villas in early pregnancy to signing the adoption papers, often covers six months or more. During this time the only charge the mother is expected to pay—with the exception of the handful of paying guests at the Ste. Dorothée manor house—is a few dollars for auxiliary services in the delivery room; the anesthetist’s fee, and

so on. Even this is sometimes overlooked. “We don’t employ a collection agency," Sister Mechtiide shrugs.

Sister Mechtiide herself is by no means responsible for the development of all the Misericordia services in the fillesmères’ cycle. The Sisters of Misericordia w'ere established as a religious community in 1848 at the instigation of Monsignor Ignace Bourget, the second Bishop of Montreal. By 1948 the order had two hospitals in Montreal and others in Toronto, Haileybury, Ont., Winnipeg and Edmonton as well as a number of Ameri-

can cities, and had already organized its social service bureau in Montreal. The Montreal hostel for sheltering the fillesmères was, at that time, little more than a dormitory in the Dorchester Street hospital. Sister Mechtilde. so to speak, was hand-picked and groomed to organize the elaborate system of villas that has grown up since.

In 1943, two years after she entered the order. Sister Mechtilde and another nun were singled out by the MotherGeneral of the order to become the first nuns enrolled in the University of Mont-

real’s new faculty of social science. In a community of nuns, Sister Mechtilde was probably easy to single out. At that time she was in her early twenties, a freshcheeked girl who had grown up, “the youngest and unruliest of twelve kids,” in the forest outside Sherbrooke, Que., where her father was a game and fisheries warden. Sister Mechtilde had both the taste and the ability to compete with her older brothers in swimming, diving, hunting and fishing; “I loved hunting, and I didn't always obey the game laws my father was trying to enforce,” she ad-

mits impishly. As a schoolgirl she was prone to dusk-till-dawn dancing, which may have foreshadowed her later prowess in “the rock and rolling.” When she decided to become a nun everyone who knew her was astonished. “I was the last one they expected to become a religieuse, and 1 couldn’t explain it to them. I still can’t. There are no words to describe a call from God. When it comes it's a species of joy, and it can’t be mistaken for anything else.”

The call launched Sister Mechtilde on tw’elve years of study at the U of M,

Sacred Heart University in New Brunswick, and Fordham University in New York City, interspersed with field-study trips around the U. S. and Europe. In 1955 she was made Sister Superior of the Misericordia hostel in Montreal.

Within months Sister Mechtilde had recruited what she calls her Circle of Friends, about a dozen Montreal businessmen, many of them service-club executives, who advise her in worldly matters like plumbing and mortgages and help her find the money to pay for them. Then Sister Mechtilde descended on Quebec City “like an angry angel.” in the words of Jacques Dupuis, an admiring member of her circle and president of the Richelieu men’s service club in Montreal. She lobbied for government support for her charges. “I told them I wouldn’t leave until they agreed to help," Sister Mechtilde recalls; she now receives a threedollar-a-day allotment for every girl under her four roofs.

By the beginning of 1956 Sister Mechtilde was installed in the first of her new villas, the Rosalie Jette Center for teenagers. The other villas followed in quick succession; as soon as the doors opened at one, she began work on the next. Some time this fall the fifth, and in a way the most unusual, of Sister Mechtilde’s Montreal hostels w'ill begin receiving as many as a dozen girls who w'ill live there for a few months after the delivery of their children. They’ll live as normal a home life as possible, going out to work and coming home in the evenings. “The only ‘stau” w'ill be a young couple and their child,” Sister Mechtilde says hopefully. “My girls w'ill learn how a family lives together, in love, by living in the middle of one.”

In the rare intervals between refurbishing this house, sitting in on an international summer seminar in group dynamics at the U of M, and supervising the routine at her existing villas. Sister Mechtilde has been polishing a paper on what she has come to believe is the main psychological cause of much adolescent illegitimate pregnancy. When she delivers the paper sometime this winter it will arch more eyebrows than anything she has already said publicly about illegitimacy. The pattern Sister Mechtilde has seen most repeatedly among her fillesmères is starvation for the love of a father who can also be respected. A girl who is wasting emotionally from this form of malnutrition understandably looks elsewhere for a substitute, and may find him in a married man close to her father’s age. “Strikingly often," she says, “this childish search ends in pregnancy: unexpected, unwanted, and shockingly disruptive to the girl’s groping personality. This, in brief, is the history of Mariette, among many others.”

In her educated attempt to heal this shock for at least some of her charges. Sister Mechtilde has married science to mercy. Although religion is present at the wedding, it is not the principal guest. When Sister Mechtilde took over the house that is now the Rosalie Jette Center, it had been for many years a Jesuit foundling home for illegitimate boys. The entrance was dominated by a forbidding cast-metal statue of Saint Joseph; the nun had the saint removed. “We are not trying to build institutions.” she has said since. “We are trying to build foyers.” Foyer is a French word that has no precise equivalent in English. Originally it meant hearth or fireplace; now' it is used in the same sense as the w'ord home, but foyer brings with it the warmth of a hearth and the kindled affection sometimes felt by a family gathered around its own fireside, ig