Visiting the Home of a Canadian Author

Gabrielle Roy's childhood home in St. Boniface

Gabrielle Roy’s childhood home in St. Boniface

Gabrielle Roy is one of Canada’s literary giants and she was born right here in Winnipeg. I took a tour of her childhood home in St. Boniface.  Our first guide Adrienne was a college student from Quebec.  She told us Gabrielle had lived in this house at 375 Deschambault from her birth in 1909 till she left for Europe in 1937.

Our second guide shows us a photograph of Gabrielle’s family

Gabrielle’s parents both moved to Manitoba from Quebec. Seven of Gabrielle’s siblings survived childhood.  She was closest to her sister Bernadette who became a nun. 

Our guide explains how a stereoscope works

Gabrielle’s father worked for the Canadian government settling new immigrants in western Canada. He was nearly 60 when Gabrielle, his eleventh child was born.

Gabrielle Roy’s mother’s sewing machine

Gabrielle’s mother loved fashion and dressing up. She bought material at the Eatons story to make dresses for her daughters. After her husband became ill and could no longer work Gabrielle’s mother earned extra money for the family by doing sewing.

Gabrielle Roy with her grade one class at Provencher School

Gabrielle became a teacher and taught in Manitoba for a number of years before leaving to move to Europe and then to Montreal. Gabrielle set her first and most famous book The Tin Flute in Montreal but several of her books have Manitoba settings including the two I am currently reading Children of My Heart which is about a young school teacher and her students and Rue Deschambault about life in St. Boniface.

Toys in the attic of Gabrielle’s Roy’s home

Gabrielle Roy’s house would be a great place to bring children. I went up to the attic of the museum and saw activity centres where young visitors could put on little dramas with costumes, write poems, listen to stories and play with toys from the time of Gabrielle’s childhood. 

Gabrielle Roy

Gabrielle Roy won the 1947 Governor General’s Award for fiction. A quote from Gabrielle Roy  “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” was on the back of the Canadian $20 bill from 2004 to 2012. 

Other posts about Manitoba authors………

The Age of Hope

The Constructed Mennonite

A Children’s Writer Who Has Found the Magic Formula


Categories: Books, Literature, Museums, St. Boniface | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Ancient Objects- Seven Oaks Museum

This house is full of some “pretty cool old stuff”, said a child who happened to be visiting the Seven Oaks Museum at the same time as I was last weekend.  I agreed with her. I was taking a free guided tour of the site as part of Winnipeg’s Doors Open event. 

Bison hair was used for insulation and wooden nails for construction of the house in 1853. It was built by John and Mary Inkster who were prosperous farmers, traders and merchants. The house was called Seven Oaks because of the seven oak trees standing nearby which mark the site of the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 between the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company and their allies and the North West Trading Company and their allies. 

The Inksters had five daughters and they and their mother wore wire hoop skirts like this one under their dresses. It doesn’t look very comfortable. 

This artifact is just a little creepy. It is a memorial wreath made of human hair. No doubt the hair is from an Inkster family relative who had passed away.  The human hair of a deceased person has been twisted around a wire to create a floral  design.  Apparently some of these wreaths even had a photo or painting of the dead person in the middle. Apparently women’s magazines at the time often featured designs and patterns for making these hair wreaths. 

This is not a fancy tea-cup on a place mat. It is a chamber pot on a braided rug. Before the advent of indoor plumbing chamber pots were kept at the end of the bed for night-time toileting needs. The chamber pot’s more crass name was piss pot. 

Here is the tin tub the Inkster family of eleven used for their baths. The water was heated in the stove in the kitchen on the main floor and then hauled upstairs for bathing. 

John Inkster, a stone mason came to Canada from the Orkney Islands. So did Mary Sinclair’s father William.  However Mary’s mother, who was also called Mary, was Metis, the daughter of a Frenchman and a Cree woman. According to the The Encycolpedia of Saskatchewan, Metis girls were taught to sew and do beadwork already at a young age.  Mary Inkster made these beautiful gloves using the needlework skills she was taught by her Metis mother. 

The furniture in the house was all hand-made and some of it looked very comfortable, but this padded chair decorated with bison horns would not have been my first choice for seating. 

I would probably have also given this caribou footstool a pass. 

One of the bedrooms in the Seven Oaks house has a hammock instead of a bed. The room belonged to Colin Sinclair, Mary’s brother, who was a sea-captain. He retired to his sister’s house when his career was over. He was so used to sleeping in a hammock on the ship that he had one installed in his bedroom at Seven Oaks.

Next to the house is the store and post office run by Mary and John Inkster. John imported goods from England by way of Hudson Bay and brought them to the Red River Settlement by York boats. His American goods came from St. Paul by Red River carts. Mary worked in the store and her children said her ability to add up columns of figures and balance accounts was remarkable.

John Inkster was an active member of Winnipeg’s civic, church and business community. Inkster School and Inkster Boulevard in Winnipeg are named after him. 

Mary Inkster ran a household for her family of nine children and helped her husband with his business. 

It was interesting to get to know Mary and John better by visiting their home and seeing  the artifacts it contained.  It does hold some pretty “cool old stuff.”

If you enjoyed this post you might want to read…………

Could I Have Been A Grey Nun

Selkirk Settlers- The Exiles


Categories: Museums, North End | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Could I Have Been A Grey Nun?

The Grey Nuns are a Canadian order of  Catholic sisters founded in 1738 in Montreal. Four women from this order came to Manitoba in 1844 to provide educational and medical services to the fledgling Red River Settlement, which would later become the city of Winnipeg. Could I have been one of them? I don’t think so. They were brave and courageous women, compassionate and daring, overcoming extreme hardship to carry out their divine mission of caring for those in need.
On Sunday I was out for a walk and went by the St. Boniface Museum. I noticed it was open and decided to go in and pay a visit. St. Boniface is a French suburb of Winnipeg.

The museum which tells the story of the Grey Nuns is located in their former convent, built in 1847. It is the oldest building in the city of Winnipeg. 

You might wonder why they were called Grey Nuns when their habits are clearly brown and black. Apparently originally the sisters did wear grey habits but their name comes from another association. The order was founded by this woman Marguerite d’Youville. She was a young widow. Her deceased husband, an abusive liar, who left his wife and two young children in debt when he died, had sold bootleg liquor for a living. Because of this, Marguerite and the three other women who helped start the order were called “les grises” – a phrase meaning both “the grey women” and “the drunken women”. The first description came from the color of their cloth habits, but the second, because Marguerite d’ Youville, the order’s founder, had been married to a man who sold illegal alcohol. 

 Sisters Valade, Lagrave, Coutlee and Lafrance were the four nuns who volunteered to come to Manitoba  from Montreal.  They left on April 24 in a canoe and their trip was no picnic. In their journals they talk about walking through endless bush as they portaged from one body of water to another. They describe the snakes in their camps, which scared them so much they could hardly sleep. They had to climb steep hills and it rained almost everyday. Sister Emily Lafrance twisted her foot and the voyageurs who were paddling the canoes wanted to leave her behind. She soldiered on and walked with a limp the rest of her life. 

Sister Emily was very artistic. I took a photo of this paper mache’ Virgin Mary she made for the Grey Nuns’ first chapel. She also painted frescoes on the chapel ceiling and spun and wove beautiful altar cloths. 

The nuns traveled around to Indian and Metis settlements providing medical care and teaching the children. Metis are a cultural group in Manitoba. They are the children of First Nations women and French voyageur men. 

This statue of Louis Riel, Manitoba’s most famous Metis stands outside the Grey Nun’s convent. Many people say he was the founder of our province. Louis was one of the Grey Nuns’ students. When Sister Valade made a trip back to the order’s convent in Montreal she took Louis along and enrolled him in a college where he studied for seven years.

Sister Teresa McDonnell was a Grey Nun who came to Manitoba in 1855 and won the hearts of the Metis, because her herbal remedies cured many of their illnesses. She traveled anywhere, in any kind of weather if someone needed her help. She was affectionately called ‘Sister Doctor’. In 1859 she was to go back east to the central convent but the Metis actually kidnapped her and kept her in Manitoba.  An article on the Manitoba Historical Society website says Sister Teresa was the founder of Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital, and St. Mary’s Academy, a well-known girls’ school. 

I have several personal connections with the St. Boniface Hospital. I lived on the hospital campus for a year when I was six years old, because my father was a medical resident there. There was a special apartment building near the hospital for residents and their families. My sister Kaaren was the chief nursing officer at the St. Boniface Hospital from 1997-2007.  Now I visit the hospital regularly because it is where my mother has received dialysis three mornings a week for the last four years. 

I asked the attendant at the museum if the Grey Nuns’ order was still active. She said there are a few Grey Nuns left but the youngest is 65.  The government has taken over most of the hospitals and care homes that were founded by the Grey Nuns. There is a plan underway to bring in young nuns from an African order to carry on the Grey Nuns’ legacy. Apparently there just aren’t enough North American women willing to dedicate themselves to a nun’s life anymore. 

Could I have been a Grey Nun? I’m not sure I could have lived the isolated, selfless life they did, ignoring physical discomfort to bring hope, literacy and healing to so many people. 

I am glad however that I visited the St. Boniface Museum and learned all about the Grey Nuns and the important contribution they made to Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba. 

Categories: Churches, Famous Citizens, Museums, St. Boniface | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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