Bon Secours Sisters

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Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours
Bon Secours Sisters
Formationc. AD 1831; 187 years ago (1831)
FounderHyacinthe-Louis de Quélen
TypeCatholic religious order

The Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing (gardes malades), whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups and who, in some territories, operate for-profit private hospitals. Reflecting their name ("bon secours" means "good help" in French), the congregation's motto is "Good Help to Those in Need."

In 2014, the news media ran a series of articles about the order, relating to a mid-20th century maternity home for unmarried mothers which it ran in Tuam, Ireland. The home had a high death rate from childhood diseases and malnutrition (including marasmus-related malnutrition),[1] and it was claimed that many of the dead children might have been buried in a mass grave on the site. Excavations in 2017 found an "underground structure divided into 20 chambers", containing the remains of children up to three years old. This area is labeled as a septic tank when overlaid with maps from the workhouse era, and had been decommissioned in the 1930s.[2][3][4] Examination of the bodies found that they dated from the 1920s through to the 1950s.[5] The judicial Commission of Investigation commissioned an Expert Technical Group that confirmed that the human remains had been interred in a sewage tank.[6] Carbon dating confirmed that the remains date from the timeframe relevant to the operation of the Mother and Baby Home by the Bon Secours order. The Commission stated that it was shocked by the discovery and that it is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.[7]


The congregation was begun by Archbishop de Quélen of Paris in 1822, and was formally approved by Pope Pius IX in 1875. Although its patients were expected to pay as much as they could afford, the congregation provided nursing free of charge to the poor. According to their founding constitution, "After the personal sanctification of its members, the principal aim of this pious society is the care of the sick in their own homes". Its nuns traditionally wear a black habit and a white cap with a frilled border and black veil.

By 1913, there were sixteen houses of the congregation in France, four in Ireland, one in England, two in the United States, and one in Belgium. Founded with governmental approval during the monarchic and Catholic Bourbon Restoration period, the congregation became a target of anti-clerical governments[8][9][10][unreliable source?] during the early 20th century.

The foundress[edit]

The congregation's foundress, Josephine Potel, was born on March 14, 1799 in the small rural village of Bécordel in Northern France. At the age of 22, she traveled to Paris and was moved to pity by the suffering she observed. At that time, France had been shaken by centuries of political, social, and religious upheaval — including, most recently, the French Revolution. The violence of the Revolution — particularly the Reign of Terror – had taken many lives and left psychological scars. With the rise of philosophers including Voltaire and Rousseau, who criticised organized religion and the clergy, faith in religion and the Catholic Church had decreased significantly among many of the French people.

With rampant poverty among France's lower class, healthcare for the poor was scarce and low-quality. When people fell ill or were injured, they avoided the hospitals, which were seen as death traps and often had filthy, prison-like conditions. Care, if available at all, was usually provided by a family member with little or no experience caring for the sick. With overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, diseases spread quickly through city streets, afflicting rich and poor alike.

Wanting to combine her strong Catholic faith with her desire to serve those in need, Potel joined a group of women involved in caring for the sick and poor. However, the group was a secular organization, and its members did not wish to take religious vows or incorporate spirituality into their work. In order to create a similar organization rooted in Catholicism, Potel and eleven other women formed the group that would become the Sisters of Bon Secours, choosing Potel (Sister Marie-Joseph) as their leader. Contemporary norms held that nuns were supposed to either remain in the convent or at least return by nightfall if they ventured out into the world. Consequently, when the Sisters applied for acceptance of their new congregation by the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Paris was skeptical. After persistent efforts by Sister Marie-Joseph, the Archbishop eventually granted the Sisters a one-year probationary period.

Early days[edit]

Despite the divisions between social classes in French society at the time, the Sisters cared for rich patients in large estates as well as the poor, avoiding distinctions based on socioeconomic status. In addition to providing care to the sick, among hungry families, the Sisters would also share their food with patients' hungry family members, striving to help bring health to everyone in their patients' homes, not just the actively ill. Furthermore, among the ill, the Sisters at that time took a holistic view, considering not just the body but also the mind and spirit of each patient, and aiming to bring healing to the whole person. Another radical view at the time, this approach, along with the group's extension of care to the patient's family, distinguished them from traditional religious congregations operating at the time. Also a unique element of their work was the Sisters' practice of remaining with the terminally ill throughout the dying process, reflecting parallels with modern-day 24/7 home care and hospice care.[citation needed]

Word of the Sisters' work spread quickly throughout Paris and the surrounding countryside, and the Sisters were sought out by other women who, inspired by their work, wanted to join the institute. By the end of its first year, eighteen new members had joined, bringing the number to thirty. Impressed by the institute's success, Archbishop de Quelen officially recognized the Congregation of Bon Secours on January 24, 1824. On May 6, 1826, Mother Josephine died. Three days later, on May 9, the congregation's first leader was buried and Angelique Geay was appointed Superior General, taking her predecessor's name, Mother Mary Joseph, as have all subsequent heads of the Congregation.

Growth of the congregation's mission in France[edit]

The Sisters reached a major milestone in 1827, when the French Bourbon government legally recognized them as the first association of nursing religious individuals in the country. Following this milestone, the demand for the organization's services continued to grow. In 1829, Mere Geay established a new group of twelve sisters in Lille, and the following year the Sisters began a ministry in Boulogne. Three years later, at the Archbishop's request, the congregation took over an orphanage in Paris.

As the Sisters’ numbers continued to grow, they moved in 1833 into a larger home in Paris, which still remains the Mother House headquarters. Meanwhile, France continued to be subject to epidemics, wars, and social upheaval. After the King of France was exiled during the Revolution of 1848, the former King's palace became a hospital where the Sisters cared for the wounded; they also tended to the injured on the streets of Paris. Similarly, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Sisters cared for the wounded and dying on the battlefield and brought them into their convents to convalesce.


In addition to extending their work around France, the Sisters of Bon Secours began to expand beyond the country's borders due to international demand for their services.[citation needed] In 1861, Ireland became the Sisters' first foreign foundation. The order would go on to open residential institutions for unwed mothers, one of which was much later found to have been unsanitary and prison-like. Nine years later, the congregation was invited to establish themselves in London. The Sisters would also be asked[by whom?] in 1948 to bring their home nursing services to the people of Scotland, and also to open a home for the elderly in Glasgow.

It owns Bon Secours Health System, one of largest private for-profit hospital groups in Ireland and has a substantial property portfolio.[11]

The United States[edit]

The Sisters of Bon Secours' arrival in America came about because of a honeymoon gone awry in the late 1800s. A newlywed couple, the Whedbys, were on their wedding trip in Paris when the bride fell ill. An English-speaking Bon Secours Sister nursed her back to health, and the couple was impressed with the care she provided. Upon returning to the States, the couple spoke to some prominent area physicians, who contacted Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore to request that the Sisters be asked to practice their ministry in the United States.

Approving of the request, while on his way to Rome to become a cardinal, Archbishop Gibbons stopped in Paris to ask the Sisters if they would be willing to provide their home care services in Baltimore. In 1881, three Sisters sailed to the United States, and in the following year they opened a convent in Baltimore on the site of the present Bon Secours Hospital.

As hospitals became the preferred place of treatment, the Sisters broadened where they cared for the sick and dying. Soon the Sisters were building their own health care facilities. By 1916 the Sisters were staffing a home for crippled children in Philadelphia. In 1919, they opened the Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, their first hospital in the U.S. They began formally training young women at the Bon Secours School of Nursing in 1921.

The United States Province[edit]

In 1958 the Congregation of Bon Secours in the United States became a separate Province. As the twentieth century progressed, the sisters responded to people's changing needs, opening convalescent homes, running clinics and mobile health care vans, caring for the sick in rural areas and those struggling with addictions in inner cities.

Throughout the 1980s, the Bon Secours Health System grew rapidly, opening a number of hospitals, community health clinics, nursing care facilities for the elderly, alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation centers, affordable housing units, and medical office facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Michigan in response to the needs of the communities they served. To ensure the system remained true to its essential mission of providing care for the whole person to all people in face of such growth, the sisters developed new processes and positions within the system focused on mission and core values.[citation needed]

South America and Africa[edit]

By the 1950s and 1960s, the Sisters had begun to expand into the Third World with work in South America and Africa. In 1957, the Sisters opened a home for sick children in Chad, working also to educate mothers and reduce the infant mortality rate. Nine years later, the Irish Sisters of Bon Secours began the institute's first work in South America after the Bishop of Cork and Ross took responsibility for a shantytown on the Peruvian coastline and invited the Sisters to minister to the populace there.

They opened a mission in Riobamba, Ecuador.[when?] Like the previous decade, the 1990s were a period of tremendous growth within the Bon Secours health system, adding more than 15 new hospitals and nursing care facilities, many joint ventures with other religious congregations dedicated to health care.[citation needed]


Currently, the congregation works in France, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and operates private for-profit healthcare in Ireland. Within the U.S., the order operates in nine states: Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia.[citation needed]

Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home controversy[edit]

Between 1925 and 1961, the order operated Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home (also known as St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home), a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children in Tuam, Ireland. In 2014, news media reported that the bodies of 796 children and babies who died of malnutrition (including marasmus-related malnutrition)[1] and disease were suspected to have been buried in a former septic tank on the site of the home. The child mortality rate at the home during certain local epidemics had averaged up to two a week. Medical reports at the time listed the cause of death as disease or disease-induced effects.[12][13][14][15]

Catherine Corless, an amateur historian, had obtained death records for 796 children who had died of various diseases and malnutrition (including marasmus-related malnutrition)[1] at the home — an overall rate of 22.1 per year between 1925 and 1961, and finding no trace of their burial in any of the local graveyards, she inferred that they probably were buried on the property. However, she had not uncovered evidence of mistreatment, or at that point in time a mass grave. In 1975, two local boys had lifted a concrete slab and seen the skeletons of "maybe twenty" babies. While Corless speculates that the pit in which the skeletons lay may have been part of the sewage tank installed by the workhouse in 1840, eighty-five years before the Bon Secours sisters took it over, she told the Irish Times, "I never used that word, 'dumped'. I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were 'dumped' in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words. ... I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own."[16] Still, figures for 1947 from the National Archives showed that the death rate of children in Bon Secours, during the preceding twelve months, was almost twice that of other mother and baby homes.[17]

The death records obtained by Corless had established the identities of those who died in the home. She concluded that their bodies had been buried on the St. Mary's property, and she set up a fund to build a memorial for the site.[18] Bon Secours sisters are said to have donated money for this purpose.[19]

On 4 June 2014 the Irish government announced it was forming a panel of representatives from a number of government departments to investigate the deaths at the home and propose a course of action for the government to take in addressing the issues.[20]

Charles Flanagan, the then children's minister, said the inquiry would be charged with investigating burial practices, high mortality rates, forced adoptions and clinical trials of drugs on children in four suspect homes. In addition to the home in Tuam, so-called "little angel" plots will be investigated at Sean Ross Abbey, Co. Tipperary, Bessborough, Co Cork, and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.[21]

On 3 June 2015, the Irish Examiner published a special report which claimed that the Irish Health Services Executive had voiced concerns in 2012 that up to 1,000 children may have been trafficked from the Home, and recommending that the then health minister be informed so that "a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry" could be launched.[22][23] The issue had arisen within the HSE when a principal social worker responsible for adoption discovered "a large archive of photographs, documentation and correspondence relating to children sent for adoption to the USA" and "documentation in relation to discharges and admissions to psychiatric institutions in the Western area." The HSE noted that there were letters from the Home to parents asking for money for the upkeep of their children and notes that the duration of stay for children may have been prolonged by the order for financial reasons. It also uncovered letters to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children who had already been discharged or had died. The social worker had compiled a list of "up to 1,000 names." HSE reports mentioned the possibility that children had been trafficked for adoption with one speculating that it was possible that death certificates were falsified so children could be "brokered" for adoption.[22][23]

On 3 March 2017, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation announced that human remains had been found during a test excavation carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 at the site. Tests conducted on some of the remains indicated they had been aged between 35 foetal weeks and 2–3 years. The announcement confirmed that the deceased died during the period of time that the property was used by the Mother and Baby Home, not from an earlier period, with most of the bodies dated to the 1950s. The remains were found in an "underground structure divided into 20 chambers",[5][24][25][26] later determined to be a sewage tank.[6]

The Commission stated that it is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way, that it has also asked the relevant State authorities to take responsibility for the appropriate treatment of the remains, and that it has notified the coroner. Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone said that the coroner's results would determine the direction of the investigation and that the commission will determine if other sites need to be excavated, including another part of the Tuam site.[27]

The then Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Enda Kenny, described the find as "truly appalling", saying "the babies of single mothers involved had been treated like some kind of sub-species." He commended the work of Catherine Corless in bringing the issue to light.[28] Speaking on the find in Dáil Éireann, in response to requests to widen the terms of reference of the Commission, he described the Mother and Baby Home as "a chamber of horrors."[29]

No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns’ care. We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the holier than thous were particularly fluent. We gave them up because of our perverse, in fact, morbid relationship with what is called respectability. Indeed, for a while it seemed as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self-impregnate. For their trouble, we took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts, our sight, our country and, in the case of Tuam and possibly other places, from life itself.

— Enda Kenny, [30][31][32]

In the same debate, AAA-PBP T.D. Bríd Smith called for the Bon Secours order of nuns to be disbanded. She said "its hospital empire, the biggest private hospital group in the State, was built on the bones of the dead Tuam babies." Smith said "everyone was not responsible for what happened in Tuam. It was paid for by the State, which knew exactly what was going on, and there were 'headage payments' of up to $3,000 for each child sent to the United States."[31]

The Taoiseach's speech was criticised by some. In the Dáil, Catherine Connolly directly addressed the speech, stating: "A shocking discovery, according to everyone, and particularly to yourself Taoiseach. But this is something that Galway has been aware of for a long time, highlighted by Catherine Corless back in 2014, in her painstaking and self-funded research. By the witnesses, the many, many women who went before the commission of inquiry into child abuse which culminated in the Ryan Report, as far back as 2009. They told their stories about their experience in Mother and Baby Homes. It was brought to the attention of Martin McAleese when he concluded his report on the Magdalene laundries. So none of this is shocking to the survivors. What is shocking to the survivors, and to me, is the carefully crafted words that you’ve come into the chamber with. And, in particular, that you say 'no nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children', 'we gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' care' and so on. I don’t doubt your bona fides, a thaoisigh, but I certainly doubt your judgement in reading that out, a carefully crafted speech with a sentence like that in these circumstances. My question: please answer. Where is the interim report that has sat with the minister since September last year? Please confirm that the site will be sealed off as any crime scene is sealed off."[33]

The Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, stated that "the discovery is an infinitely sad reminder of an Ireland that was a very harsh, harsh place for women and their babies" and that "it shows the tortured relationship the State and church had with pregnant women – it is a tragedy that we are now facing in its entirety."[28]

The Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, said that he is horrified by the confirmation that significant quantities of human remains were buried on the site. He said he had been "greatly shocked to learn of the scale of the practice during the time in which the Bon Secours ran the mother and baby home in Tuam."[34]

The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference apologised for the hurt caused by its part in the system, which they said also involved adoptions. They said that "the appalling story of life, death and adoptions related to the Mother and Baby Homes has shocked everyone in Ireland and beyond."[35][36]

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, said "there are dark shadows that hang over our meeting, shadows that require us all to summon up yet again a light that might dispel the darkness to which so many women and their children were condemned, and the questions left unanswered as we moved on." President Higgins described Catherine Corless' work as "another necessary step in blowing open the locked doors of a hidden Ireland."[35]

Grove Hospital[edit]

Some Tuam residents have now called for an investigation into the town's Grove Hospital, which had also been run by the Bon Secours order. A number of people have claimed their children or siblings were buried on the site from the 1950s right up until the late 1970s, although the order denies that there was a graveyard on the site. Galway County Council has stipulated that an archaeologist must monitor excavation work on the site in order to preserve any remains which may be buried there.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Duncan, Pamela (17 July 2014). "File contains details of babies born in institutions". The Irish Times. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  2. ^ Bohan, Christine (3 March 2017). "She was right: How Catherine Corless uncovered what happened in Tuam". Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  3. ^ "Mass grave of 796 babies found in septic tank at Catholic orphanage in Tuam, Galway". Belfast Telegraph. 4 June 2014. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
  4. ^ Barbash, Fred (13 March 2017). "The 'mother and baby home' at Tuam, Ireland, where friends just 'disappeared, one after the other'". Retrieved 3 April 2017.
  5. ^ a b "Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland". The Guardian. 3 March 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  6. ^ a b c "Technical Report on the Tuam Site Stage 2: Options and Appropriate Courses of Action available to Government at the site of the former Mother and Baby Home, Tuam, Co. Galway" (PDF). Department of Children and Youth Affairs. 12 December 2017. Retrieved 7 January 2018.
  7. ^ "Notice- 3rd March 2017". Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. 3 March 2017. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  8. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Institutes of Bon Secours". Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  9. ^ Herbermann, C.G.; Knights of Columbus. Catholic Truth Committee (1913). The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. Encyclopedia Press. p. 678. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  10. ^ "The Sacred Heart Review 11 February 1893 — Boston College". Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  11. ^ Keena, Colm (7 March 2017). "Order of nuns behind Tuam home runs private hospital group". The Irish Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  12. ^ McCoy, Terrence. "Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  13. ^ Domonoske, Camila (3 June 2014). "In Ireland, A Macabre Discovery At Old Home For Unwed Mothers". National Public Radio. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  14. ^ "Nearly 800 Children Found In Mass Grave Near Former Home For Unwed Mothers In Ireland". Huffington Post. 3 June 2014. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  15. ^ Kuruvilla, Carol (3 June 2014). "800 skeletons of babies found inside septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers: report". New York Daily News. Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  16. ^ Boland, Rosita (7 June 2014). "Tuam mother and baby home: the trouble with the septic tank story". Retrieved 7 June 2014.
  17. ^ Finn, Christina (14 July 2014). "Death rate of babies at Tuam mother and baby home was double the rate of other homes". Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  18. ^ Boland (2014).
  19. ^ "Almost 800 infants buried in unmarked graves in Tuam, County Galway". BBC News. 3 June 2014. Retrieved 6 June 2014.
  20. ^ "40 years after becoming common knowledge, Irish government to investigate mass graves". Irish Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  21. ^ "Irish care home scandal inquiry into deaths of 'inferior sub-species' infants". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  22. ^ a b Ó Fátharta, Conall (3 June 2015). "SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Fears over 'trafficking' of children to the US". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  23. ^ a b Ó Fátharta, Conall (3 June 2015). "SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Government already knew of baby deaths". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  24. ^ "MOTHER AND BABY HOMES COMMISSION OF INVESTIGATION". Mother and Baby Home Commission. 3 March 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  25. ^ Edwards, Elaine (3 March 2017). "Tuam babies: 'Significant' quantities of human remains found at former home". Irish Times. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  26. ^ O’SHEA, SINEAD (3 March 2017). "Infant and Fetus Remains Are Found at Ex-Home for Unwed Mothers in Ireland". NY Times. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  27. ^ Barry, Aoife (3 March 2017). "Tuam babies: Next steps in finding the truth behind their deaths". Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  28. ^ a b "Kenny says find of human remains at Tuam site 'truly appalling'". RTÉ. 6 March 2017. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  29. ^ Downing, John (7 March 2017). "Tuam Mother and Baby home was 'chamber of horrors' – Taoiseach tells the Dáil". Irish Independent. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
  30. ^ "Enda Kenny describes Tuam burial site as a 'Chamber of Horrors'". 7 March 2017. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  31. ^ a b O'Halloran, Marie (7 March 2017). "Tuam mother and baby home a 'chamber of horrors', says Taoiseach". The Irish Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  32. ^ McEnroe, Juno (8 March 2017). "'We did not just hide away the dead bodies of tiny human beings, we dug deep and deeper still to bury our compassion, our mercy'". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  33. ^ "What's In It That's So Frightening?". 8 March 2017. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
  34. ^ "Archbishop of Tuam 'horrified' by discovery at mother and baby home". RTÉ. 5 March 2017. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
  35. ^ a b "Tuam blows open locked doors of hidden Ireland – President Higgins". RTÉ. 8 March 2017.
  36. ^ O'Regan, Eilish (9 March 2017). "Mother and Baby homes probe under pressure to test for further remains". Irish Independent. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  37. ^ "Tests sought on site of Bon Secours-run hospital in Tuam". RTÉ. 9 March 2017. Retrieved 9 March 2017.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Institute of Bon Secours (de Paris)". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.

  • Barry, Dan. (Oct. 28, 2017). Ireland Wanted to Forget. But the Dead Don’t Always Stay Buried. The New York Times. [1]