Few of us would choose to undergo suffering or loss in life. We often question why we have to face unpleasant circumstances, why God would allow bad things to happen. I’ve come to realize that the pain which I’ve gone through has allowed me to connect with someone else who has faced similar pain, someone who either inspires me with how they’ve deal with the pain or someone who needs my understanding as they go through it.
Blessed Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin was a woman who faced pain and loss many times over in her life. She could have become bitter and angry. Instead, she choose to serve God in her pain, and to turn her pain into good for those around her.
Blessed Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin’s Childhood
Emilie Tavernier was born in 1800 in Montreal, the last of fifteen children. Her parents died when she was only four and Emilie was raised by an aunt. When she was eighteen, she moved in with her newly widowed brother to help him. He allowed her to set a table by the door for hungry people who came by, which she called “the Table of the King.”
When she was twenty-three, Emilie married 50-year-old Jean-Baptiste Gamelin, despite criticism from her friends. He was a prominent, wealthy member of Montreal society who was, like Emilie, a friend to the poor. Emilie and Jean-Baptiste had three sons together. Two died in infancy, and then Jean-Baptiste died only four years after their marriage, followed by Emilie’s last son. She turned for comfort to Mary, Mother of Sorrows.
Emilie’s life seems nothing but a progression of sorrows, yet from her sorrow sprang the joy that comes from living a life in which her compassion for the poor was matched by her work on their behalf. ~ Sisters of Providence
The House of Providence
Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin then opened her home to whomever needed assistance, and it became known as the House of Providence. She felt particular compassion for elderly women who had nowhere else to go. Her first guest was 102 years old! Soon, her home had 15 guests and she had purchased other houses to create more space for other women in need.
Over the next fifteen years, Emilie continued serving the poor of her community. Many of her friends criticized her for her work; as a young, attractive woman, she could have likely remarried. Instead, Emilie spent her inheritance from her husband on those in need around her. When she ran out of money, she turned to God, praying for help.
From the wellsprings of personal desolation grew an intensified calling to serve others, especially the poor, and a responsiveness to the call of religious life.~ Providence Health Services
In 1833, a cholera epidemic ravaged Montreal. Emilie visited the sick and the dying in their homes. She brought six orphans back to live in her home with the seniors. The “grandmothers” welcomed the children, and Emilie’s work with orphans began. In 1847, during the Irish potato famine, many families immigrated to Canada but died of cholera on the way. Emilie took in over 650 children orphaned by the epidemic.
In 1837, a political insurrection lead to Emilie’s work in the prisons. Because of her reputation in Montreal, she was given access to the prisoners facing death or deportation. Daily, Emilie brought the prisoners food as well as messages and gifts from their family members. She also helped families say goodbye to condemned prisoners. Likely her own experience with loss gave her deep compassion for these family members.
In 1841, her bishop requested that the Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul send sisters to help her work. When they are unable to come, the bishop asked for volunteers in his diocese. In 1844, Emilie and the first Sisters of Providence took their vows. Mother Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin continued to encourage and support her community, despite facing continued conflicts.
“She had a heart open to every kind of trouble, and she was especially the servant of the poor and the little ones, whom she wished to treat like kings. She remembered that she had received everything from the Lord and she wanted to give without counting the cost. This was the secret of her deep joy, even in adversity.” ~ Pope Saint John Paul II
Blessed Emilie’s Death and Legacy
Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin died from cholera in 1851, urging her sisters to practice the virtues of “humility, simplicity and charity.” She was beatified in 2001. Today the Sisters of Providence are found in Canada, the United States, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt, the Philippines and Salvador. Her feast day is celebrated on September 23.
Blessed Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin can inspire us to reach out those in need around us. Like Emilie, we can open our homes to seniors within our community, inviting them to join us for meals or activities. We can also visit seniors in care homes. Today, many elderly people are as lonely and isolated as they were in Emilie’s day.
While we no longer face epidemics such as Emilie saw in her day, there are still orphans around us. Consider how you can support adoptive or foster families, or consider adopting or fostering yourself. Is there a single mom or dad in your parish or community who could use help? Invite them for a meal or offer to carpool their kids to activities with yours.
Blessed Emilie Tavernier-Gamelin is one of twelve Canadian Catholic Blesseds.
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