The Florence Nightingales of the Columbia Basin
History of the St. Eugene School of Nursing
The St. Eugene School of Nursing traces back to 1800 and the birth of Emilie Tavernier Gamelin in Montreal. Widowed at 27 and having lost three children she submerged herself in works of mercy. Eventually she decided to establish the "Ladies of Charity" as a corporation and, in 1843, the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor was created as a Canadian Order and became known as "The Sisters of Providence." The Order spread into Western Canada and the United States.
The Sisters of Providence were predisposed to the care of the sick and needy. Mother Gamelin had set up a pharmacy in her own home under the direction of a physician even before the order was founded. The first Sisters of Providence were taught pharmacy by the Victoria School of Medicine in Montreal as well as nursing arts. When Sisters of Providence arrived in a new mission they began their ministry with home visiting, and with the supply of traditional pharmaceutical products. The Sisters of Providence were also instrumental in the production of the "Medical Treatise", a tome on medical care and nursing techniques that grew to 1600 pages.
The Sisters of Providence came west, first to Grouard, Alberta in 1872 and then to New Westminster, B.C., in 1886 and then to Kootenay to assist in the Providence of the Sacred Heart school. Quickly arrangements were made in the Sisters' quarters for the care of the sick. An approach was made to the Sisters by the citizens of Fort Steele to open a hospital there but there were not enough Sisters.
With the Canadian Pacific Railway building west with the Crows Nest Railway, the Columbia basin experienced a large influx of labourers new to the country and, in many cases, new to labour and railway work. Sickness and death followed the advance of the rails and pressure was brought to bear on the contractors to provide health care facilities and services. On November 8, 1897, manager of construction Mr. J. Haney requested that the Sisters take care of sick workers. The Company accompanied the request with an offer to build a hospital, furnish it and pay room and board for its patients as well as doctors' services. Mr. Haney also offered one hundred dollars to assist the Sister Superior to travel to Portland, Oregon to discuss the proposal with Provincial authorities of the Order. After travelling to the Mother House in Montreal, agreement was reached that the Sisters of Providence would staff and operate a hospital at St. Eugene Mission.
Initially two Sisters assisted by a Ktunaxa girl and an orderly staffed the hospital. Then on March 18, 1898 a small group of Sisters arrived from Montreal to assist. When the move was made to Cranbrook the hospital was staffed by six Sisters and two helpers. This level of staffing was maintained until 1905. Meanwhile Cranbrook became incorporated as a City and the area continued to grow and develop. A new addition to the St. Eugene Hospital in 1905 resulted in twelve women being hired to help the Sisters. It became clear that nurses were required to staff the expanding hospital and growing community. As well, there were other community hospitals in the Columbia Basin demanding trained personnel. The Sisters had the skills and training to teach, and they were supported by able and experienced doctors.
In 1911 Miss Elizabeth Sambels, newly arrived from England, joined the nursing staff of the St. Eugene Hospital. A few months later Sister John Gabriel visited on her way to Portland, Oregon where she was to start training at St. Vincent's Hospital School of Nursing. Working with Sister John Gabriel doctors J.H. King and F.W. Green moved to establish the Saint Eugene Training School for Nurses.
This school functioned from 1911 to 1950, graduating 209 trained and certified nurses. These women dispersed throughout the Columbia Basin, Canada and abroad - bringing with them the best in moral and ethical nursing practice and the most current improvements in health care delivery.