When the first three Augustine nuns sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1639, Québec City was no more than a fur-trading post. There were a handful of rustic commercial buildings by the river and, up on the hill, a small fort, a chapel, and a scattering of isolated dwellings. Part of a religious community from Dieppe that traces its origins back to the 9th century, they were hospital sisters who came here under the patronage of the Duchess of Aiguillon to care for the people of the region.
Originally, the Augustines’ efforts focused on the First Nations peoples and they established their hospital several kilometers to the west of town, near the Jesuits’ mission. Eventually though, they moved to the Upper Town of Québec City to a site overlooking the St. Charles River. In that hospital, known as the Hôtel-Dieu, the Augustine nuns treated the people of the budding colony, helping them through epidemics and everyday ailments alike. Cutting-edge medicine was practiced there as well. In 1700, when Marie Barbier came to the Augustines with a tumor in her breast, a doctor from the Hôtel-Dieu performed surgery to remove it. Sister Barbier survived the operation and went on to live another 19 years.
The Augustines’ hospital is still functioning today, providing world-class medical services to the people of Québec. Renowned especially for cancer care, it is now part of the Laval University hospital network. Its continued presence in the Old City reminds us that Old Québec is not a Disneyesque downtown; it is a living, breathing neighborhood that is vital to the lives of the people of Québec. The Augustines’ monastery and museum adjacent to the Hôtel-Dieu are part of the tourist circuit and well worth the visit. You will learn, among other things, about the evolution in the medical care that the Augustines have offered over the years.