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Review

Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann in Health Care in British Columbia

By Darlene Southwell

November 4, 2013

Review By Lisa Pasolli

Today, Mount St. Mary Hospital, an extended care facility in Victoria, is one of the last visible legacies of the Sisters of St. Ann’s contributions to health care in British Columbia. But for more than 150 years, the Sisters were a vital presence in nursing and health care provision in BC. In Caring and Compassion, Darlene Southwell makes use of the Sisters’ rich archives to recount in clear and engaging detail the Sisters’ role in St. Joseph’s Hospital and Nursing School in Victoria, Mount St. Mary Hospital, as well as smaller hospitals in Campbell River, Smithers, Oliver, and Nelson. Southwell’s study serves as a nice companion piece to Edith E. Down’s A Century of Service: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann and Their Contribution to Education in British Columbia (1999).

The history of the Sisters of St. Ann dates back to 1858, when four Sisters arrived in Victoria from Quebec. As their ranks grew over the next several decades, so too did the scope of their health care services. Southwell provides thorough financial and administrative histories of those services and peppers her narrative with the life stories of remarkable Sisters. The most compelling parts of the study come when Southwell uses those stories as a lens on BC’s broader social, political, and economic conditions. St. Joseph’s patient registers and the employment of Chinese men for kitchen and grounds work, for example, adds to our picture of the deeply-entrenched racial segregation and tension that characterized late-19th and early-20th century BC.

Caring and Compassion is primarily a popular (and celebratory) history of the Sisters of St. Ann, but in mining the Sisters’ archives Southwell brings out an important story about the history of social welfare in BC. In particular, we gain insight into the private, religiously- and community-based provision of caring services by women in the province’s early years. As Southwell notes, the Sisters were (and are) often an “invisible presence in health care” (61). In their home visits and community-based work, the sisters were “forerunners to the modern public health nurse and social worker” (55). But one of Southwell’s central themes is that the Sisters’ work should not automatically be relegated to the sphere of feminine, charity-oriented — and thus somehow less professional — welfare provision. They played an important role in the modernization and standardization of health care services in BC. Several of the sisters, for example, were among the founding members of the BC Hospital Association in 1918; they regularly pursued postgraduate education and accreditation; and St. Joseph’s was an important site for the training of medical technologists and the adoption of modern techniques like blood transfusions in 1945 (the first hospital in Canada to do so). Southwell reminds us that, rather than occupying a place on the periphery, the Sisters’ story should be among the central threads of the history of health care in Victoria and BC.

Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann in Health Care in British Columbia
By Darlene Southwell
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2011 296 pp, $29.95