Notre-Dame de Montfort Agricultural Orphanage

Notre-Dame de Montfort cemetery

In this cemetery lie members of the religious congregation of the Company of Mary: Montfortians and Daughters of Wisdom, as well as orphans who died between 1897 and 1942. 

It is the last vestige of the vast agricultural orphanage whose many buildings were spread out around the main dwelling nestled between Saint-François-Xavier and Chevreuils lakes. The domain included a sawmill, a chicken coop, a carpentry workshop, a barn and the chapel, which served as the parish church for the residents of the village until 1955.


General view of the orphanage, circa 1940.
Source: BAnQ, La Presse collection

The first orphanages in Quebec appeared around 1825 at the initiative of charitable societies and the clergy. Their objective was to remove abandoned, abused or orphaned children from the streets to save them from a life of misery and crime. The number of impoverished children grew rapidly during the 19th century as a result of urban densification. 

In April 1869, a law concerning industrial schools for children in need of protection was passed by the provincial government, creating a system o f private schools subsidized by the state and mainly managed by religious congregations.

Benjamin Rousselot

Benjamin-Victor Rousselot (1823-1889)
Source: City of Montreal Archives

In light of the worsening social situation and the advent of government intervention, French Sulpician priest Benjamin-Victor Rousselot (1823-1889), created an agricultural orphanage for boys. 

At the time, he was the pastor of Notre-Dame parish in Montreal and had already set up asylums and daycare centres for the mostin need, as well as the first school for blind children in Canada.

The project

Benefactors with the Montfort Fathers and Brothers, around 1890.
Source: BAnQ

In 1880, Rousselot called upon a group of Montreal investors with land in Wentworth Township to contribute to his agricultural orphanage: François Froidevaux, F. X. Montmarquet, Joseph Brunet, L. A. Grenier, Eusèbe Senécal and George Laurent, G. A. Raymond, God. Chapleau, V. Pausé, A.S. Hamelin, Ed. Lafleur, and J. G. Guimond. While the press of the time was very complimentary of these benefactors and the charitable cause with which they were associated, the choice of location for the establishment also disconcerted some. 

“These gentlemen, guided less no doubt by human prudence than by a secret impulse of Providence, had the idea of choosing, in a country where fertile land abounds, a place 12 miles from the village of Saint-Sauveur and five miles from any inhabited country, situated in the middle of a forest and in the middle of a mountain, absolutely unfit for cultivation, to lay the foundation of their agricultural orphanage.”

In addition to philanthropy, a number of political and economic factors influenced where the orphanage was built: the desire of the clergy to establish Catholic parishes in a region populated by English-speaking Protestants, the development of new territories to counter the exodus of French-speaking people to American factories, and finally, the availability of prime forest resources.

Les Montfortains

The orphanage in 1885.
Source: Collection Société d'histoire et de généalogie des Pays-d'en-Haut

In 1881, Father Rousselot invited the Montfortians of the Company of Mary from Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvres in France to run the agricultural orphanage. They, like many religious congregations, were under threat of expulsion and confiscation of their assets as French institutions became secular. 

“... it was on November 22 [1883]... that the missionaries of the Company of Mary took charge. [The orphanage] at the time consisted of two thousand acres of land, of which thirty to forty were cleared, a mill, a chapel and a small residence for the teachers and their students; the latter number only six...”

The Montfortians were essentially preachers. When they arrived in 1883, the Archbishop of Ottawa assigned them to parishes in the region: the Saint-Michel de Wentworth mission, Saint-Adolphe d'Howard, and Notre-Dame-de-la-
Sagesse at Lac des Seize-Îles.

The Daughters of Wisdom

The orphans in front of the Daughters of Wisdom house, east side. Notre-Dame de Montfort Orphanage, 1896.
Source: Daughters of Wisdom Canada Commitments

A year after their arrival, the Montfort Missionaries called upon the French congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom to take charge of the orphanage. Dedicated to teaching and caring for the sick, they were responsible for children aged 4 to 10 years, the pharmacy and household chores.

An excerpt from the diary of Sister Aimée du Calvaire tells of the journey between Saint-Jérôme and Montfort that she undertook for the first time with six sisters in September 1884.

'...we took the road to the forest. [...] We still had 10 leagues (48 km) to go through the forest and then nothing to change into when we arrived, our luggage having remained in Montreal. It was impossible to get an idea of the difficulty of the road we still had to travel. The mud was up to the horses' knees, then one wheel went over a tree while the other sank into a hole and then climbed over a small rock. All along the way it was mountains and valleys so we named this path the 'hold on tight'.'
Daughters of Wisdom Canada Newsletter, September-October 2009/Number 23

Over the course of 20 years, the Daughters of Wisdom built 27 institutions in five Canadian provinces. They were called upon to manage the Sainte-Justine Hospital and to set up several primary, secondary and nursing schools.

The mission

Sewing workshop at the Notre-Dame de Montfort orphanage, 1928. Source: The Commitments of the Daughters of Wisdom of Canada

Learning about religion and practical agriculture was central to the mission of the orphanage, however, many trades such as carpentry, sewing, bookbinding, printing, shoemaking and baking were also taught.

In the early years, the farm took in mainly teenagers so as to train and prepare them quickly for agricultural work. However, market gardening and cereal farming yielded poor results on the thin soil of the hills. In 1887, the orphanage acquired William Stanford’s farm in Arundel Township – the “Garden of the North” as coined by Father Labelle – thanks to a donation of $10,000 from Father Gédéon Huberdeau (1823-1887) of Montreal. Local parishioners banded together to build a grist mill, a sawmill and a butter factory. In French, this community volunteer effort was called “faire un bi”.

The Huberdeau branch

Orphans working in the fields at the Huberdeau farm. Early 20 th century.
Source: BAnQ

From 1894 on, children aged nine and under were housed at Notre-Dame de Montfort and the older ones went to the Huberdeau farm, named after its benefactor. At the age of 14, children were no longer supported by the government; provincial government and Montreal municipal funding ceased, leaving children to fend for themselves. They were placed with farmers looking for help. The farmers would pay the children a small salary and look after their needs.

'Of the 224 children gathered here, 61 are maintained at the expense of the government of Quebec; 92 by the city of Montreal... In the past eleven years, 207 children have left the orphanage: fifteen for the resting place from which they do not return; 54 have been placed with farmers; some as apprentices in Montreal and the others withdrawn by their families.” La Presse, October 29, 1894.


Carpentry and mechanical axe. Around 1930.
Source: BAnQ, La Presse collection

In 1901, a five-story building was built to accommodate the growing population of the orphanage and replace the smaller buildings that had become too cramped. At the beginning of the 20th century, the orphanage housed more than three hundred children, about twenty Montfortians and forty Sisters of Wisdom. In an article in 'L'Avenir du Nord' of 1916, the journalist inquired about the 'disciplinary correction system' used in the institution and discovered a method of positive and negative reinforcement based on the attribution of points according to the children’s behaviour.

'Reprimands and corporal punishment have no place here,' Father Winnen tells me. Nor do we try to humiliate children by making them kneel or kiss the ground.'

'If the good points win, the student's name is written on the honour roll. If, on the other hand, there are more bad points, the name is written on the blackboard. These two boards [are] on either side of the entrance door of the institution. As a reward for the good points obtained, students are allowed to buy a quantity of small articles in the institution's store, toys, etc. Those with bad points lose their break privileges and make themselves useful in work of the house or farm while their friends have fun outside on the orphanage grounds. 


Chapel of the orphanage. Early 19th century.
Source: BAnQ, La Presse collection

The Montfortians' undertaking was exceptional, both in scope and cost. Although public assistance legislation ensured government support, these subsidies remained insufficient to manage the orphanage. In 1923, the Huberdeau property was sold to the Brothers of Notre Dame de la Miséricorde. As for the orphanage of Notre-Dame de Montfort, it closed in 1935 and was transformed into a novitiate for the Montfort Missionaries and a retirement home for the Sisters of Wisdom.


The orphans at the bath, between 1940 and 50.
Source: BAnQ, La Presse collection

At the request of the Archbishop of Ottawa, the Holy Cross Fathers took over the former Montfort establishment in 1943. The orphanage became the Notre-Dame-des-Monts School in Lisbourg (for Le bourg des Industries Scolaires). Young boys aged 10 to 18 years received vocational training supervised by the Conseil de l'instruction publique. Teaching methods were inspired by the approach of Saint John Bosco (1815-1888), which was characterized by learning a trade, practicing sports and providing entertainment in a caring and constructive environment.

'In the corridors of this five-story building, you will look in vain for a supervisor at night, and, during the day, you will meet lively kids, neither embarrassed nor affronted, who make no attempt to conceal the cigarette they are smoking.' The Modern Review, September 1948.

The dilapidated building was partially renovated to ensure its openness, but funds were lacking to proceed with the upgrading that would entail a complete reconstruction. The school closed its doors in 1955, and its demolition in the early 1960s closed an important chapter in the history of Montfort.

Extract of
Historical Tour of Wentworth North

Historical Tour of Wentworth North image circuit

Presented by : Municipalité de Wentworth-Nord

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