A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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THE FORCE OF HOPE: The Legacy of Father McGauran
Immigration History
The Fever Ships:

The most ferocious obstacle facing the Irish immigrant was the Atlantic Ocean. Making the crossing by sail and steam ship was perilous and claimed thousands of lives. Canada had a long and profitable trade route across the Atlantic, shipping wood and furs to Europe. These timber ships, some already out of service, were quickly converted to make-shift passenger ships. They were filled with human cargo, a paying ballast for the trip back to Canada that was usually made with an empty hull. The living conditions were appalling, and gave rise to the term, "coffin ships." The lower decks were cramped and fetid, food was scarce and "ship fever" - typhus and cholera - ran rampant. Those who died en route were cast into the ocean(9).

After arriving in Canada, the coffin ships set anchor and waited in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to deliver their passengers to the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, near Québec City. Immigrants had to get a health certificate to be allowed to proceed to their final destinations of Québec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and the United States. At a time when the United States was closing its doors to the Famine Irish, Canada allowed them refuge(10).

Father Bernard McGauran, the chaplain at Grosse Isle during the summer of 1847, describes the horrid conditions on board the ships in a letter he wrote at the time to Québec's Archbishop Signay:

Grosse Isle, Monday, May 24, 1847

My Lord,

I hasten to give you a few notes on the very sad state of Grosse Isle. Tonight we can count seven hundred sick in the hospitals, all in desperate condition. Doctor Douglas does not want to receive any more on the island; since we truly have no place for them, he forces the captains to keep them on board, and we have at present thirty-two of these vessels which are like floating hospitals, where death makes the most frightful inroads, and the sick are crowded in among the more healthy, with the result that all are victims to this terrible sickness...

...If we do not land the sick, which we cannot do under the present circumstances, all the ships off the Island being already full of sick, we will need as many priests as there are ships. There are usually four or five hundred on board. Today I spent five hours in the hold of one of these where I administered the sacraments to a hundred people, while my very welcome colleague was on board another. ...While we are on the ships, there are people dying in the hospital without the sacraments. I have not taken off my surplice today...I have not gone to bed for five nights. The spectacle, My Lord, is heart-rending...

I recommend myself to your prayers,
My Lord, and remain your Grace's very devoted servant,
Bernard McGauran Priest(11)

11 - Eyewitness, Grosse Isle, 1847
by Marianna O'Gallagher(Carraig Books, Sainte Foy, Québec, 1995).

9 - The Irish Famine, an Illustrated History
by Helen Litton (Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 1996)

10 - Grosse Ile, Gateway to Canada, 1832-1937
by Marianna O'Gallagher (Carraig Books, Sainte Foy, 1984).

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