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Helena (1835-1893), Bridget (1838-1880) and Mary Anne (1840-1925)

Born, Cork city, Ireland. Died, Sherbrooke and Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

Author: Jillian van Turnhout

A neglected story from the Great Famine spotlights three children who arrived in Canada from Ireland and were orphaned in 1847. About 1,700 orphaned Irish children arrived in British North America during the Famine, many faced great hardships whilst others were fortunate to benefit from the kindness of people in their new homeland.

In the early 1830s in Cork city, Ireland, Thomas O’Reilly married Margaret Barry, and we know they had at least four children. In 1847 they packed up their lodging house at 37 Georges Street (now Oliver Plunkett Street) to emigrate. The O’Reilly family departed Cork on 19 May 1847 on a ship called Avon bound for Quebec City, then the main port in Canada. A Cork Examiner article from 13 August 1847 reported that: “The Avon, of Cork was still worse – a real plague ship. The day before she reached quarantine the last five or six of her crew, who had borne up against contagion and feebly worked her along, were brought down and scarcely one of the passengers was able to help himself to the necessity of life.”

Upon arrival on 18 July 1847, the Avon reached the quarantine station at Grosse Ile, an island northeast of Quebec City that had been designated as a quarantine station since 1832. One of the O’Reilly children was amongst the 136 who had died during the voyage. Their mother Margaret was quarantined and later died from what we now know as typhus on Grosse Île between 18 and 24 July 1847.

On 25 July the Avon was released, arriving a day later in Quebec City carrying Thomas and his surviving three daughters. However, Grosse Île was overwhelmed. Travellers were released too early and spread their diseases among the local population. Sadly, on 24 September Thomas O’Reilly died at age 48 in the Hôpital de la Marine. In the space of two months in 1847, the three sisters lost both parents and a sibling.

It is estimated that in 1847-1848 alone at least 700 children arrived as orphans in Quebec City. From the Catholic Orphanage’s register of 19 August 1847, we know that when Thomas became ill, ‘The Charitable Society of Catholic Ladies’ looked after the two younger girls, Bridget and Mary Anne. Four days after their father’s death on 28 September, the girls were joined in the orphanage by their sister Helena.

Two days later, on 30 September 1847, their case was brought before Judge Phillipe Panet. A group of local businessmen (no women) appoint Patrick McGauran as guardian to “Helena, aged twelve, Bridget, aged approximately nine and Mary Anne, aged approximately seven”. From records, his role was administrative, he would look after some money Thomas had left. Patrick’s brother was Father Bernard McGauran who in 1847 led a group of priests on Grosse Île to care for the sick. Bernard would later co-found a home to care for Irish orphans, widows and immigrants.

With thanks to their father’s money, the three girls were enrolled in the ‘Sisters of the Augustinian Monastery’ boarding school, which offered bilingual education. The girls seemed to do well in the school, as newspapers show they regularly win prizes for excelling in various subjects. The Augustinian Sisters subsequently took the girls into their community.  Father Charles-Felix Cazeau, who was appointed by Archbishop Joseph Signay to oversee orphan placements likely played a role in securing the welfare of the sisters. Helena and Bridget would later pay homage to him: Helena adopted his name, and Bridget would name one of her children after him.

Helena, the eldest sister, at age 19 in March 1855 became a novice in the order that had taken her into their care. She took the veil in September of that year and entered the order as a nun in September 1856. Sister Hélène of Saint-Félix worked as an auxiliary teacher in the boarding school of the order, until it closed in 1868, after which she worked in the order’s administration. In 1882 she was the author of a book on the history of her order: “Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier and the General Hospital of Quebec”. She died on 24 February 1893, only 56 years old, after several years of illness.

Bridget Georginawas baptised on 22 November 1838 in Cork, Ireland. On 20 August 1860, she married Michael Thomas Stenson, in Quebec City. He later went on to become a one-term MP. In the 1860s they lived in Montreal. By 1871 they are in Wotton and by the time of her death they are in Sherbrooke. They had ten children together. Bridget died on 5 December 1880 and is buried in ‘Cimetière Saint-Michel’ in Sherbrooke. Her death notice, in Le Courrier du Canada, reads “Death, which reaps incessantly and silently, has suddenly struck a very precious existence in the person of Mrs. Bridget Georgiana O'Reilly [...] She succumbed on the 5th of the current, at the age of 37, to attacks of a heart disease which had already put her several times on the edge of the grave.”

In 1871, Mary Anne O’Reilly, the youngest of the sisters, was a teacher, living with two families and servants in Bonaventure. In 1886 she passed the Civil Service exam and on 25 February 1892 became a 3rd class clerk in the Quebec post office. By 1921, she has retired and was living in Saint-Sauveur, another religious institute in Québec City. She died on 27 March 1925 in Quebec City and was interred in Sherbrooke, where her sister Bridget was buried.

It is unimaginable the distress faced by Helena, Bridget and Mary Anne in 1847, and yet they were among the fortunate as their parents left a small amount of money to secure their education. The death notices for both Helena and Bridget indicate a life plagued by health issues, and perhaps all of this led Mary Anne, 1906, to endow a small foundation with $1000 to ensure a bed for a poor sick person was always made available at the hospital run by the Augustinian Sisters. After serving many elderly patrons, the foundation was officially closed in 1948.


Further reading:

Marie-Claude Belley, “Compassion et nécessité : la prise en charge des orphelins

des émigrations de 1847 et 1848,” Cap-aux-Diamants 88 (2007): 13–15.

Marianna O'Gallagher, Gateway to Canada, 1832-1937, 3rd edn Ste-Foy, QC: Carrig Books, 1984.

André Charbonneau and Doris Drolet-Dubé with the collaboration of Robert Grave and Sylvie Tremblay, A Register of Deceased Persons at sea and on Grosse Île in 1847. Ottawa: Parks Canada.

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