Catholic Church of Montreal > Publications > Info Archives > MAY 2015 - The Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum

MAY 2015 - The Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum

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On May 6, 1890, 125 years ago, the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum was completely ravaged by a terrible fire. Despite the rapid intervention of firefighters, only a few fragments of walls remained standing. The psychiatric hospital run by the Sisters of Providence hosted nearly 1,200 patients.

The history of the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum is intimately connected to the Sisters of Providence. Early after their foundation, the nuns became concerned about the fate of those suffering from mental illness. As early as 1845, their foundress, Blessed Émilie Gamelin, had welcomed in a small house three patients with psychiatric disorders. The mission of the nuns to those called aliénés grew rapidly and, in 1873, an agreement was signed between the religious community and the provincial government. The sisters committed to house, clothe, feed and care for patients in return for a financial contribution from the government of $ 100 per patient per year. As a result, the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu hospital was inaugurated at Longue-Pointe in 1875.

The Archival Fonds of the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in the archives of the Archdiocese of Montreal teaches us much about the management of the psychiatric hospital in the years that preceded the fire of 1890. There is an abundant correspondence between the Archbishop, the chaplain of the institution, the Sisters of Providence and the government. Other documents such as the Règlements des bureaux médicaux en vigueur dans les asiles d'aliénés allow us to better understand how care was provided in a psychiatric hospital by the end of the 19th century. You can discover this document at the bottom of this page.

At the time of the outbreak of fire, La Minerve reports that it is the chaplain, Father Béland, who sounded the alarm. The evacuation of patients in panic occurred with much difficulty. La Semaine Religieuse de Montreal, in an article published on May 10 recounts the terrible scene:

«Le spectacle durant l'incendie, était ce que l'on peut imaginer de plus navrant. Des prodiges de courage et de dévouement ont été opéré; les sœurs, les médecins, les gardiens, les tertiaires, les citoyens venus de partout, ont fait des efforts inouïs, plusieurs même ont risqué leur vie, pour arracher à la mort les malheureux qui s'obstinaient à rester dans la maison en flamme.»

In total, nearly eighty people lost their lives in this disaster making it one of the deadliest fires in the history of Montreal. The survivors were scattered in various institutions and in surrounding houses until temporary pavilions could be built to host them. The city omnibuses were requisitioned to enable the transfer of patients. A few days later, in the May 31 edition of the diocesan newspaper, Archbishop Édouard-Charles Fabre requested that a special collection be organized in all churches and chapels of the diocese to help the survivors of the disaster. The day after the tragedy, he had personally visited the site where the hospital had stood.

On March 8, 1891, Archbishop Fabre blessed the new temporary buildings built to accommodate the patients of the institution. It would take 10 years before the inauguration of the new hospital would take place. In 1975, the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum took the name of Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine hospital. Since 2013, the hospital is known as the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal.


Comment by Gary Rich | 2017-01-22

Does anyone know the names of the patients who died in the fire? Was a male with last name of Richer one of the patients? Octave Richer was a patient in the hospital who died in 1890. We want to know if he died in the fire.
Please calculate 9 plus 4.*

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