Hôtel-Dieu Saint Joseph, Saint-Basile, N.B.
(T. Albert, Histoire du Madawaska [History of Madawaska], p. 273)
‘‘The founding of the Hotel-Dieu de Saint-Basile, ends the Iron Age in Madawaska and marks the dawn of an era of genuine progress.”
This remark by Father Albert on the “Iron Age” in Madawaska is difficult to accept by those who know that the region had experienced real economic prosperity between the years 1820 and 1870. However, it must be said at that time the population living on both banks of the upper Saint John River did not yet have health services and higher education. When they finished elementary school, boys had to go elsewhere to pursue their studies.
In 1857 the girls benefited from the opening of the Madawaska Academy run by the Saint John Sisters of Charity. However, the Common Schools Act of 1871 and the economic recession rampant in America in this first decade of Confederation caused the closure of the Academy. The Madawaska colony possibly lived its “Iron Age” at this time; it would need institutions whose vocation was to heal the sick and educate young people.
A nun from the religious order Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph, [the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph], Sister Virginia Davignon, then on a mission in Chatham, heard about the plight of the Madawaska colony and believed it was her congregation’s duty to take over the work of the Sisters of Charity and to build a hospital. Encouraged by Monsignor Rogers, Bishop of Chatham, the Mother Superior at the Hotel-Dieu de Montreal accepted the project; Sister Davignon and six companions arrived in Saint Basile in October 1873. Unfortunately, the audacious founder died at 50 years of age, just four months after her arrival. In this short period, she had succeeded in reopening the Academy and in planning the construction of a hospital. The young Alphonsine Ranger known as Sister Maillet (1846-1934) now became the backbone of the fledgling institution. Supported by an unshakable trust, the so-called “Little Doctor” prevented the closure of the mission and caused it to grow quite remarkably from the 1880s on. Solidly supported by the young priest , Louis-Napoleon Dugal (1857-1929), Sister Maillet spared nothing to meet the needs of the area. A brickyard was set up in order to expand or build the hospital, orphanage, boarding school and day school. The expropriation of the brickyard in 1907, to make way for the Transcontinental Railway line, placed the convent built on the slope called “Butte à Major” in a precarious financial situation. Nonetheless, the projects were maintained and continued to thrive despite everything that happened, and Bishop Dugal’s Petit Collège (Little College) developed a good reputation.
The first Hospitallers of Saint Joseph in Saint Basile left, but other sisters continued their work and were real leaders: a school of nursing in 1943; the construction of a modern hospital in Edmundston and a Sanatorium in Saint-Basile in 1946; and the opening of a college for young women in 1949.