She’s usually given only a footnote in Saskatchewan history. And even when she is mentioned, she’s identified as the sister of her older, more famous brother.
But Sara Riel was the first Métis Grey Nun in Saskatchewan.
Born at Red River in 1848, four years after her brother Louis, Sara was educated at the Sisters of Charity boarding school (popularly known as the Grey Nuns because of their habit). Her religious training was inspired by the intense Catholic faith of the Riel home — and her parents’ expectations for their children.
But whereas Louis chose not to become a priest, Sara took her vows in March 1868 and served the church for the next 15 years. The story of her life as a Grey Nun is found today in the letters she exchanged with her family, especially Louis.
In 1871, Sara volunteered to work at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse (known to the Cree as sākitawāhk) in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan. Her paternal grandparents had met and married in the predominantly Métis community and her father, Jean-Louis Riel, was born there.
But in relocating to Île-à-la-Crosse, Sara effectively left behind her family at Red River and embraced a life of service and sacrifice.
Île-à-la-Crosse was established in 1776 when Montreal pedlars pushed the fur trade up the Churchill (English) River. Seventy years later, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) built a mission there to proselytize to the local Cree, Dene, and Métis populations.
Île-à-la-Crosse quickly emerged as the administrative centre for pastoral activities throughout the vast region. In fact, four future bishops (Taché, Laflèche, Grandin, and Faraud) would serve the growing mission — leading to the nickname ‘nursery of the bishops.’
But it was the Grey Nuns, arriving at Île-à-la-Crosse in October 1860, who were vital to the mission’s day-to-day activities.
The sisters’ headquarters, named Hôpital Saint-Bruno, was an impressive two-storey building, featuring a classroom and the region’s first hospital. The day the Grey Nuns arrived, a sick young boy became their first patient.
The Grey Nuns quickly opened a residential school in the building (École Sainte Famille) and enroled their first pupils. They also ran an orphanage.
These church-run institutions were accepted by the local Métis for the support and benefits they provided to the region’s families. The spiritual bond between the mission and the community was further reinforced when Métis parents asked members of the religious orders to stand as godparents to their children.
Sister Sara Riel readily fit into this religious community and worked tirelessly to facilitate its work. She told her brother in one letter how she looked forward to the annual missions among the Indigenous population and took delight in their first communion.
Indeed, her devotion to the church and its teachings was irrevocably strengthened in the fall of 1872 when she fell gravely ill and lingered near death. Sara was given the Last Rites, but then made a complete — seemingly miraculous — recovery after praying to the Blessed Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque.
Thereafter, she took the name, Sister Marguerite-Marie. She also wanted to use her Manitoba scrip grant (made available to Métis living in the province in 1870) to fund the care of orphan children.
Because of Riel’s English proficiency (she was conversant in several languages), she often served as a liaison between the mission and the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post. She also offered the first class in English at the school in order to demonstrate to the federal government the value of the mission.
Life at the Île-à-la-Crosse mission, though, was not easy. Riel spoke of loneliness and isolation in her letters — compounded by the fact that mail arrived only twice a year. She once complained to Louis about his failure to write: “Allow me, beloved brother, to tell you how cruel your silence is.”
There were also times when the fishery failed and food was scarce. And even though she found time to do some sketching, she worked long hours, punctuated by the drudgery of chores. She particularly disliked laundry day, when the bed linen would be hung throughout the living quarters to dry.
Riel’s commitment and devotion, however, never wavered. That’s why, according to her mother superior, the community “loved and respected” her.
When she died from tuberculosis on Dec. 27, 1883, most of Île-à-la-Crosse turned out for her funeral mass. Sara Riel was 35.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.