Canada July 19, 2017

History of Canadian health care steeped in Catholicism

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Greg Humbert has scanned more than 300 historical documents about Catholic hospitals in Canada in the last 12 years. (Photo courtesy Greg Humbert)

VANCOUVER—Religious sisters have injected a remarkable legacy into Canadian history when it comes to providing health care.

That’s what Greg Humbert discovered when he started creating a digital archive of resources documenting Catholic health care across the nation.

“When I started this, I didn’t realize the scope of the ministry of the sisters,” Humbert said in a phone interview from Crystal Falls, Ont.

“They did it in the background. They didn’t advertise it. What I’m recognizing is the amazing scope: from working with orphans to communities with disease.”

In the last 12 years, Humbert has digitized over 300 books, booklets, and other documents about the work of Catholic sisters (and a few brothers) in health care.

“My underlying concern is: people forget,” said Humbert, who started the project after retiring from the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada.

“It’s easy to forget that they did this great work of mercy and often went to communities in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. When our land was pioneering, they would go to small communities and open health clinics and hospitals. I didn’t want that to be forgotten.”

In all, 68 congregations of sisters and two congregations of male religious have founded hospitals or nursing homes in Canada since 1639.

Humbert has amassed most of his collection thanks to the meticulous archives of religious sisters. He has also found some titles by surfing the Internet, flipping through donated nurses yearbooks, and checking out used book stores in every city he visits.

Early in his research, he discovered a bibliography of all Canadian hospitals, public and private, compiled by retired McGill University librarian David Crawford. He managed to reach Crawford and they compared notes and expanded their knowledge.

“I have been surprised and impressed by the number of these histories that have been written by nurses,” most of them Catholic, said Crawford, who lives in Toronto.

He has been digging through hospital archives for about 15 years, and has discovered and listed approximately 1,800 books and booklets on Canadian hospitals and nursing schools.

Over the years, he’s sent the titles to Osler Library at McGill University, which has bought many of them. “I think the Osler has by far the largest collection of Canadian hospital histories.”

Humbert’s work is “absolutely wonderful.” Crawford believes documenting the legacies of Canadian hospitals, including those founded by Catholics, is very important.

“There are bibliographies of medical Canadiana and there are bibliographies of books published in Toronto or Vancouver, but they don’t find these little hospital histories,” he said.

Some of Humbert’s findings are five-page booklets published by nurses, with only a few copies in existence. “I think that’s why it’s important we know about them and, if possible, find a copy.”

Humbert does it for love; in the last 12 years, he’s been working solo as a volunteer, scanning an average of 50 pages a night in the winter. “I have digitized tens of thousands of pages, one page at a time. My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he laughed.

“I think it’s important. I have this sense in me that if I don’t do it, nobody else will.”

The digital archive is hosted on the website of the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada and is available for anyone to access.

“My hope is when people involved in Catholic health care now want to hear those legacy stories of the hospital, or in the province, they’re working in, they can go to this website and see the work that went before them and it can inspire the work they do now.”

Humbert invites anyone with historical information about Catholic hospitals to email him at [email protected].