Text: Céline Gauvin, m.i.c. & Jeanne Gauvin, m.i.c.
English translation: Alexandre Payer
Layout & design: Alexandre Payer
Photos: M.I.C. Archives
A few words to get
to know her better…
Délia Tétreault was born in Marieville in 1865, but lived and
worked in Outremont from 1902 to 1933 where she founded
the first missionary community for women in the Americas,
a very unique project at the time. Her community, now
present in fourteen countries, brings together seventeen
different cultures. How was Délia Tétreault able to initiate
such a dynamic international community? To fully grasp
the extent of her inner fire and strength we must look to
4-year-old Délia. She has been an orphan for 2 years now. Already a lovable and determined child!
THE STRENGTH OF A DREAM
Délia’s youth was marked by God’s infinite goodness. As a
child, the stories she heard about the lives of missionaries
both fascinated and enthralled her. A great desire grew
within her heart: she too would travel the world. The little girl
from Marieville thus began to dream about going away, far,
far away… all the way to China. But how could she become
a missionary if no such community existed in Canada, and
the province of Quebec had yet to open up to the rest
of the world? If priests and nuns came here from France,
she reasoned, what was to stop Canada from becoming a
missionary force abroad? For years, inhabited by this bold
and novel project, Délia reflected, prayed, searched, and
consulted with people around her.
It is also at that time that she began to get involved in her
community. For ten years, she worked in a disadvantaged
neighbourhood of Montreal, taking care of the poor and
the sick – mostly Italian immigrants – that society had left
behind. To better help them, she learned their language,
even catechizing the newspaper boys. But still she did not
find her work truly fulfilling. An idea still haunted her: she
wanted to create a centre where young women who were
interested in the missionary life could receive training.
Délia and her adoptive parents, her uncle Jean Alix 5
and aunt Julie Ponton. Marieville, 1879.
A WIND-BORNE DREAM…
That dream brought with it the inspiration
that made its achievement possible.
Délia met friends who shared
her profound desire. Josephine
Montmarquet, eleven years her
senior, came from an affluent
Montreal family. She studied
voice, piano and harp, which, in
those days, was a rare privilege.
Very shy in nature, Josephine had
great admiration for Délia and
was willing to collaborate with her
on her project. Gradually, her idea
moved forward: Ida Lafricain, who
worked alongside Délia helping the
Joséphine at 18
sick and the poor, was also enthusiastic
at the idea of starting a training centre and
felt the time to act had come.
Though they were still a small team, Délia Délia at 18
was nevertheless emboldened by her
friend’s support. The road ahead
was still uncharted, the paths
she had yet to take, unknown.
Her dream of becoming a
missionary appeared daring
and fraught with obstacles;
still, she pressed on. Guided
by her inspiration, she bravely
went on to meet priests and
bishops to convince them of
the responsibility of the French
Canadian Church to bring to
other countries this invaluable
gift of Faith received from the
French missionaries. A bold move for a
woman in those days… but boldness
never failed Délia! And such
patience through the exhaustion
and the back and forth those
negotiations surely entailed!
Thanks to her determination,
her project at last began to get
the attention of His Excellency
Paul Bruchési, the Archbishop
of Montreal, who recognized its
importance. With his help, Délia
could finally lay the groundwork
for the centre, which at the time His Excellency
was called the “Apostolic School”. In
December of 1901, Archbishop Bruchési
granted her authorisation to start, at her own
risk, the project she had cherished for so long.
DEALING WITH OUTREMONT’S
In February 1902, Délia was able to rent a modest six-room
house in Côte-des-Neiges. Finally, the long awaited moment
came. Délia, Josephine and Ida moved to 900, Maplewood
Avenue, thus laying the foundation of the training centre
that would later become the Missionary Institute.
Looking back at how much Outremont has changed over the
years, one quickly realizes the hardships that Délia Tétreault
and her team had to endure, and the challenges they had to
cope with in their daily lives.
“During these first few years, in Outremont as in
Côte-des-Neiges, just going to the Parish Church, which
was then five times the distance, was extremely difficult.
When the weather was especially bad, the roads were
totally impracticable. It truly felt like we were living in
the countryside; except for the gardener’s house and a
Protestant church, nothing shielded us from the wind along
the way. When there was not too much snow, we could take
a narrow path across Outremont Park, but at the height of
winter, that shortcut was totally snowed in.”
“And the church was not the only place that was far
away: the post office was all the way where Outremont City
Hall now stands. The only grocery store available was on the
corner of Laurier and Parc Avenue. The nearest butcher’s
shop was on St. Denis Street, near the Carmelites. There
was no mail or food delivery, and needless to say there was
no telephone service in the homes either. If we were to go
out to buy groceries it was easier to walk to the store than
to take the tramway, which was not at all convenient.”
All these errands added to the
responsibilities and concerns the
foundation brought about. Soon,
Délia Tétreault had some tough
decisions to make in order to find
another residence that better suited
the needs of her newly-founded
community. The house on Côte-
des-Neiges had become too small
and, judging from certain passages
from the community’s chronicles,
even lacked some of the basic
900, Maplewood Avenue,
first home of the Institute.
“In December, the cold would seep in through every
crack. During snowstorms, even if we sealed the doors and
windows as best we could with quilts, we were still shaking
from the cold. There was no way we could forget that we
lived in ‘Côte-des-Neiges’.”
Clearly, it was Délia’s remarkable administrative skills that
would guarantee the prosperity of her new undertaking.
To make her project known to the world, she needed a
good deal of creative thinking; but, most importantly, an
unshakable faith. To provide for itself, the small team taught
classes to the neighbourhood children, and thus the project
A DREAM TAKING SHAPE
As years went by, Délia’s vision kept expanding, pushing
her dream a little further along. She insistently asked His
Excellency, the Archbishop Bruchési, to relay her idea
to Pope Pius X. Eventually, during a visit to Rome, the
Archbishop presented the Pope with the documents
pertaining to the new foundation. Without asking a single
question, Pius X answered: ”All blessings will go to this new
institute when it is founded. You will name it the Missionary
Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.” For Délia, this was
confirmation of Mary’s protection, and, with a tenacity and
boldness that impress us still, she gave herself heart and
soul to the achievement of her dream.
Time passed, and soon the need was felt
once more to find a larger house. It
was time to move again as the team
now consisted of twenty young
women who were preparing for
In 1909, the Institute went
through its first major turning
point: six of its young
missionaries were leaving
for China. This attracted a
lot of attention in Montreal,
and rightly so: it was the
very first time that Canada
had sent missionaries abroad
from a National Institute! For
Délia and her community, the
adventure was just starting.
Pope Pius X
In 1912 and 1913, departures followed one another. Within
ten years, twenty-six sisters had left for Asia. As the First
World War and Stock Market Crash of 1929 rattled the first
quarter of the century, things were shaking up for Délia as
well, but in a good way. Of the thirty-six new houses she
opened, nineteen were in Asia and one was in Europe in
However strong her desire to go see for herself the work of
her missionaries abroad, Délia simply could not get away.
Her fragile health prevented her from traveling. She was
exhausted and who wouldn’t be? Her constant writing was
her way of keeping in touch with the Sisters she had sent out
on mission. During the course of her life, she wrote over two
Délia was a problem-solver. Even though she could not
go on mission herself, she had the brilliant idea of inviting
secular people to collaborate with the project as “home
missionaries” and created a vast movement of solidarity and
cooperation in conjunction with the Sisters sent overseas.
Hundreds and hundreds of boxes were filled with goods
prepared by volunteers and sent to foreign missions. At
that time Délia even considered opening retreat houses
for women in Joliette, Nominingue, Rimouski, Chicoutimi,
Saint-Jean and Quebec City.
At the departure of the Empress of Russia, 1932.
In the community’s early days, missionaries would leave never to return.
Délia also put tremendous energy into reviving a project that
aimed at helping foreign underprivileged children. Always a
keen educator, she encouraged Quebec’s youth to concern
themselves with the faith of their brothers and sisters all across
the world. She thus revitalised the Association of the Holy
Childhood (now Mond’Ami). She worked with no less ardour for
the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, even traveling to
meet with bishops in person to ensure their collaboration.
A woman of her time, Délia was well aware of the power of the
press. She remembered the tales of the missionaries that had
so fascinated her as a child. In 1920, she decided to launch the
periodical Le Précurseur and three years later its English edition
The Precursor. She spared no expense to spread word about the
great work her colleagues had been doing. In 1921, Délia also
actively collaborated with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society.
At the time it seemed nothing could stop her…
Singing practice with Sister Alexandrine Surprenant, m.i.c. and her choir of young orphans. Canton.
A DREAM’S BRIGHT FUTURE
December 1938. Délia had now been paralysed for four years.
His Excellency the Archbishop Paul Bruchési wrote her:
“You have come such a long way since your foundation!
Your houses have multiplied as though by miracle. Generous
hearts have eagerly come to you. Every one of your missions
is thriving. Our people have been noble and generous
to you. The Church loves and blesses you. Among our
holy missionaries, you are of the first rank. May Heaven
keep looking upon you with love and pour its choicest
blessings on you and your great work. It is amid suffering so
generously accepted that you may look upon the admirable
achievements of your religious family. May the Lord continue
to sustain and protect you, and may He restore your strength
if such is His Will.”
Having worked hard all these years, Délia was struck down by
illness. She would live another eight years, incapable of walking
– and talking only with great difficulty – but nevertheless filled
with happiness and consolation when she thought about the
lives of her missionaries. Those who cared for her lovingly
referred to her as their “Venerable Mother,” a customary title
at the time. Délia died on October 1st, 1941, at the age of 76,
leaving behind a great legacy.
Délia is gone, but she lives on in the heart of her missionaries,
and the Good News she sowed all over the world is still
spreading its message of joy. The dream of Délia Tétreault –
also known as Sister Marie-du-Saint-Esprit – has flourished.
In 1998, the Church gratefully and proudly proclaimed her
VENERABLE DÉLIA TÉTREAULT.
14 Venerable Délia Tétreault
Today more than ever, the qualities embodied by Délia
appear to us as both essential and precious: her faith
in the infinite goodness of God, her spiritual ideals of
justice, of freedom, of truth and love, the inherent dignity
of every person, and the sanctity of all creation.
Indeed, with her grateful spirit, Délia invites us to direct
our attention towards the things in life that are joyful, and
turn it away from things we lack. Her motto: “Look at the
bright side of things.” Always!
The words of Délia, her heartfelt welcome to people
from all walks of life and the community she founded
that fervently carries on her vast missionary project are
all the things that make us want to spread the seeds of
happiness with both hands!
Immersed in eternity, Délia Tétreault is and always will
be a source of inspiration for those who believe in her
Sister Jeanne Gauvin, m.i.c.
314, Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal (QC) H2V 2B4