GENDRON, PHILOMÈNE (baptized Hermine-Philomène), Religious Hospitaller of St Joseph, bursar of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal, and founder and director of the Hôtel-Dieu in Campbellton, N.B.; b. 17 July 1840 in Sainte-Rosalie, Lower Canada, daughter of Pierre Gendron, a farmer, and Hermine Hébert; d. 20 Oct. 1921 at the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal.
Prevented by family obligations from pursuing her studies at the secondary level, Philomène Gendron was taught privately by her uncle Pierre-Samuel Gendron*, a teacher and notary. On 9 Feb. 1863 she entered the noviciate of the Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph at the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal, where she took her vows on 18 July 1865. She then became assistant to the bursar of the Hôtel-Dieu, and in 1871 bursar of that hospital, a position she held until 1881 (except for an interruption in 1877-78). From 1881 to 1887 she carried out the same duties for the community. In this capacity she was responsible for finances, housekeeping, and the management of property.
Sister Gendron had seen a number of her colleagues leave to found institutions in New Brunswick: at Tracadie in 1868 [see Amanda Viger*], Chatham in 1869, and Saint-Basile in 1873. In 1884 another group set out for Arthabaskaville (Victoriaville), in the province of Quebec. In 1888 the congregation received two new requests to found institutions, one in Windsor, Ont., and one in Campbellton.
Although Sister Gendron sincerely believed she was not cut out to be a founder, she was the one appointed superior of the New Brunswick mission. Abbé John Lawson McDonald, the curé of the parish that had invited the Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph, had asked for some sisters, first to teach, and then, eventually, to run a hospital. The sisters accepted on the understanding that they would be replaced when a teaching congregation could take over from them (the transfer would come in 1922).Two teaching nuns from the Hôtel-Dieu in Chatham would provide this service at first.
On 13 Aug. 1888 Sister Gendron and three fellow nuns boarded the Intercolonial Railway for Campbellton. There, a somewhat dilapidated house served as their residence, school, and hospital. One nun gave music lessons to nine pupils for two dollars each a month. This sum was the sisters’ sole income, and during the early years they suffered from cold, cramped quarters, and hunger. It took a great deal of ingenuity and courage on the part of Sister Gendron to get by with such limited means. Fortunately, generous benefactors came to their rescue. By 24 Oct. 1888 a shelter had been erected that could accommodate about 50 pupils, mostly English-speaking. That day, the first patient also arrived, suffering from frostbitten toes. At night he slept on the kitchen table. It was not until the Christmas holidays that a physician performed an amputation on him in the classroom, which doubled as the operating room.
Such harsh conditions could not continue, and the construction of a more suitable building became a priority. But construction required the approval of Bishop James Rogers*, who also had to decide on the location and plan of the building. As it happened, his views did not always coincide with those of Sister Gendron. Although the bishop resigned himself to having the building go up at the spot chosen by the superior, he got his way on other issues: postponement of the installation of running water, no more than 11 beds in the hospital area, and stairways without turns. Construction went on from July to December 1890. This three-storey building, 140 by 200 feet, enabled the nuns to accommodate 11 patients, 90 pupils (including boarders), and postulants.
After serving two consecutive three-year terms as superior (the maximum allowed), Sister Gendron acted as mistress of novices until 1897, when she was recalled to the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal. As chief hospitaller of that hospital, she oversaw the smooth running of the establishment, took care of the admission of patients, and supervised the physician’s visits. She returned to Campbellton in 1900 as superior and administrator. During her absence, the number of patients, pupils, and boarders had increased appreciably, and the building opened in December 1890 was no longer adequate. In 1905 Sister Gendron sent two nuns to Montreal to learn about the new methods being used in hospitals and she began making plans for the construction of a real hospital, with a capacity of 50 beds, which would open in 1909. In 1906 she asked to be recalled to Montreal. The mission at Campbellton now had 14 nuns (including novices), 12 of them from the surrounding region. Hard work and extreme poverty had certainly worn the superior down, but the community’s records reveal that the local curé’s interference had also forced her to carry on an exhausting struggle to maintain a bit of independence. At the age of 66, she resumed the position of bursar at the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal. In 1910 she began assisting the bursar’s office, an activity she continued until 1918 (she was also the community’s bursar from 1908 to 1911). While in Montreal, she retained an interest in the Campbellton mission and had to face the sad news that the building constructed in 1890 and the hospital opened in 1909 had both been destroyed by a fire in the town in 1910. Eight years later, the rebuilt hospital was also destroyed by fire. Before her death, however, she learned, to her great joy, that a new Hôtel-Dieu had admitted its first patients on 18 July 1920.
Established under the energetic and patient direction of Sister Philomène Gendron, a woman of intelligence gifted with business acumen, the Campbellton mission was the last of the New Brunswick institutions founded by the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal. Sister Gendron was aptly described by Bishop Rogers in 1890: “big in body, large in mind, and great in heart.”
ANQ-M, CE602-S25, 18 juill. 1840. Arch. des Religieuses Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph (Montréal), Vie religieuse de la communauté, annales, vols.4-5; nécrologie de sœur Philomène Gendron; procès-verbaux des vêtures et professions, 1858-99; reg. des entrées, 1851-68. Arch. des Religieuses Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph de la Prov. Notre-Dame de l’Assomption (Bathurst, N.-B.), “Petite histoire du premier curé résidant à Campbellton, John Lawson MacDonald, 1888-1903” (1953); Sœur Thérèse Plourde, “Fondation à Campbellton en 1888” (texte dactylographié, 1976); “Soixante-dix ans d’évolution, 1888-1958” (texte dactylographié); vie religieuse de la communauté, chroniques des RHSJ de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Campbellton, vols.1-4; offices de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Campbellton, 1869-1921. P.-S. Gendron, La famille Nicolas Gendron; dictionnaire généalogique (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué., 1929).