CHALOUX, MARIE-ESTHER, named de Saint-Joseph, hospital nun of the Hôpital Général in Quebec and superior; b. c. 1770, daughter of Jean-Baptiste Chaloux and Marie-Anne Bellefontaine; d. 1 Sept. 1839 at Quebec.
A native of Quebec, Marie-Esther Chaloux’s father served, whether willingly or not, as a pilot with the fleet that transported the British troops to Quebec in 1759. From 1775 he was sent to England annually, and his destitute family, reduced to living on some land at Cacouna, received only £25 in six years from the government. Their misfortune was crowned by his death in Portsmouth, England, on 7 March 1781. Mme Chaloux, who was left with five under-age children, succumbed for a time to depression, “neglecting her housekeeping, abandoning her children, giving away household articles for a pittance without rhyme or reason, often running day and night through the woods, along the roads or the beach, barefoot and barelegged in the snow, throwing herself into the water up to her waist, saying she wanted to die.” In this painful situation the five children were put in the care of her son-in-law Pierre Sirois, who lived near by. On 4 March 1782 Louis Saindon was officially appointed their trustee and guardian. Mme Chaloux went to live with one relative after another. Then she went on foot to Quebec and wandered through several of the parishes roundabout. Towards the end of 1782 she was admitted to the Hôpital Général, where little by little she recovered her health. In August of the following year she was made guardian of her children.
Marie-Esther Chaloux thus grew up under difficult circumstances. On 16 Jan. 1784 she was admitted to the Hôpital Général as a boarding pupil. In recognition of the services her father had rendered, the government granted her an annuity of a little more than 400 livres, until at least 1787. Her mother was readmitted to the Hôpital Général on 10 Feb. 1784, and died there on 21 Sept. 1785. On 1 April 1787 Marie-Esther became a choir nun, taking the name of Saint-Joseph. Since she had no resources of her own, two-thirds of the 3,000 livres for her dowry was provided by Bishop Jean-Olivier Briand* and the remainder by a donor. She took her perpetual vows on 25 Sept. 1788.
Marie-Esther de Saint-Joseph served first as pharmacist and then as depositary (bursar). She had no easy task, since in the late 18th century the Hôpital Général’s finances, which had been reduced to a precarious state by the conquest, were suffering from the effects of the French revolution. By 1791 the interest payments on the annuities that the nuns held in France, which had been bequeathed them by Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*], their founder, were no longer reaching the community. The hospital became impoverished, and the number of women taking vows dwindled from 11 in the period 1780–89 to only 3 in the following decade. The nuns were even obliged to do much of the work in the fields.
Through the generosity and advice of a benefactress and her own management, Marie-Esther de Saint-Joseph helped get the Hôpital Général out of its straits. On 6 May 1809, in recognition of what she had accomplished, she was elected superior. But the rules did not permit any nun to hold the office for more than two consecutive three-year terms. In 1819 and 1831 she again became superior, both times for six years. In between, she resumed her duties as depositary. From 1837 till her death she served as assistant superior.
Under Marie-Esther de Saint-Joseph’s direction there were soon more women taking their vows at the Hôpital Général, with 33 admissions between 1820 and 1839. Finances improved. Government aid increased, as did the work-load. In addition to running a boarding-school for girls, the nuns provided shelter to several invalid and aged persons. In 1818 the Legislative Council set up a special committee to investigate conditions in medical and welfare institutions in Lower Canada. The committee concluded in 1824 that the Hôpital Général was well run. Its report noted that there were two large rooms, one for men, the other for women, each capable of accommodating 18 or 20 patients, and it mentioned the presence of 16 “confined lunatics.” Late in Marie-Esther de Saint-Joseph’s life the nuns recovered some of the annuities placed in France and used them to repair their buildings.
Although her health had declined over the years, Marie-Esther de Saint-Joseph remained active until her death on 1 Sept. 1839, following a stroke. She was remembered as a gentle, charitable, and unassuming person. She had devoted herself to her community for more than half a century, and it was largely through her talents, perseverance, and prudence that the Hôpital Général was retrieved from its financial difficulties early in the 19th century.
ANQ-Q, CC 1, 14 août 1783, 12 oct. 1785; CN3-11, 15 mars 1782; T11-1/2490. Arch. de l’Hôpital Général de Québec, Actes capitulaires (1739–1823), 75, 151–53, 424, 427, 700; Annales du monastère (1793–1843), 291–97; Délibérations du chapitre, 148; Reg. des élèves admises au pensionnat, nos.271, 273; Reg. des entrées des religieuses; Reg. des pauvres invalides, no.52; Reg. des pensionnaires, 144; Vêtures des novices et élections (1812–61), 1–32. BL, Add. mss 21879 (mfm. at PAC). L.C., Legislative Council, Journals, 1824, app.1. [Helena O’Reilly, dite de Saint-Félix], Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier et l’Hôpital Général de Québec: histoire du monastère de Notre-Dame des Anges . . . (Québec, 1882).