Children of sin: Quebec and Irish orphans share stories of abuse under care of Catholic Church

A Canadian composer connects two groups of survivors separated by an ocean and by language but linked by their so-called "illegitimate" births — Quebec's Duplessis Orphans and Irish survivors of Mother and Baby Homes.

On both sides of ocean, babies born to unwed women in 1940s and 50s abandoned to Church-run institutions

Louis-Joseph Hébert, or Nestor, as he prefers to be called, can't cry about what he went through as a child. He says the nuns beat him whenever he showed emotion, and now he can't, even if he wants to. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

In a tucked-away office at Montreal's Concordia University, a video conference connects two groups of survivors separated by an ocean but linked by their so-called "illegitimate" births — Quebec's Duplessis Orphans and the survivors of Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes.

One by one, they introduce themselves, starting with their names and where they were born: Mount Providence orphanage in Montreal, Saint Patrick's Home in Dublin, Baie-Saint-Paul orphanage in Quebec.

Communication is slow and halting; the Quebecers speak French, the Irish, English. Some never learned to read or write.

But when survivors hear the familiar story — even in a foreign language — they nod along.

When you [are] a bastard ... you will be the dirt of society.- Nestor

On both sides of the ocean, children born to women out of wedlock were abandoned to institutions run by the Catholic Church, in many cases falsely labelled as mentally deficient and abused sexually and physically for years.

"When you [are] a bastard … [it's like] being born into a garbage can,"  says Quebecer Louis-Joseph Hébert, or Nestor, as he prefers to be called.

"You never have a happy life. Nobody will know you. You will be the dirt of the society."

He says the nuns gave him the surname Hébert, just like every other baby born in the same month as he was.

Nestor wishes he could cry about the abuse that he suffered and witnessed during his childhood, but he can't. 

"I have trouble to cry when I have a big emotion. [I would be] so happy if I could cry."

When he cried as a child, he says, the nuns beat him.

Even as an adult, it's something he can't shake.

A group of Duplessis Orphans exchanged stories by video conference with the survivors of Irish Mother and Baby Homes Thursday. It was the first time the two groups have met. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Nestor and his fellow Quebec survivors were born in or turned over to Catholic-run institutions in the 1940s and 50s. They lived out their childhood — and in many cases, their early adult years as well — in orphanages-turned-psychiatric institutions.

They were labelled as psychiatric patients as part of a plan by then-premier Maurice Duplessis to obtain federal subsidies.

 'We never did nothing wrong to God.'- Nestor

As the Duplessis Orphans shared those stories during Thursday's video conference, the Dublin survivors chimed in with similar anecdotes.

They pointed to birth records and medical documents that declared them mentally deficient. 

The parallels are striking — both groups have stories of physical and sexual abuse, being forced to take medication and to perform hard labour as children — all because, as they put it, the Church regarded them as "children of sin."

They paid the price, says Nestor.

"We never did nothing wrong to God," he protests. "I didn't even know Him. My eyes weren't even open, I was in the stomach of my mother."

Hervé Bertrand, one of the surviving Duplessis Orphans, holds the microphone during a conversation with Ireland's Mother and Baby Home survivors. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

The Catholic Church has never offered a specific apology to the Duplessis Orphans.

In 2001, then-Quebec premier Bernard Landry offered compensation and apologized for the "sombre episode in our history." 

In 2006, the Quebec government announced it would pay a further $26 million in compensation

Survivors were required to sign a waiver declaring that, in exchange, they would not take legal action against the Catholic Church.

Canadian composer connects the dots

It was Canadian composer Alyssa Ryvers who helped connect the Duplessis Orphans to some of the Irish survivors.

She'd worked with the Quebec survivors for years, using music to share their stories.

Canadian composer Alyssa Ryvers points to a photo of herself with some of the Irish survivors of Mother and Baby Homes. She reached out to them after she discovered the parallels between their stories and those of the Duplessis Orphans. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

While working in Ireland in March on an unrelated project, she happened to glance at a newspaper headline about the discovery of a mass grave of babies and children in Tuam, County Galway Ireland. 

The burial site was found at a former Catholic care home.

I don't think it's the end of it.- Alyssa Ryvers, Canadian composer

"I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, this sounds a lot like what happened here,'" Ryvers said. 

She managed to meet a group of adults who'd lived through the Irish care-homes experience, and she was struck by how their stories echoed those of the Duplessis Orphans.

"Sitting around those survivors, it was the weirdest thing.... There was just this sort of sameness," she says. 

Ryvers hopes the first conversation between the two groups leads to something bigger. 

"It seems clear that there were some parallels, and we could try to get to the bottom of why those parallels may or may not exist."

"It's going to be interesting to see how things unfold in the next while. I don't think it's the end of it," she says. 

The surviving Duplessis Orphans have adopted this flag as their symbol. In the 1940s and 50s, when Maurice Duplessis was premier, thousands of children being raised in institutions were falsely labelled mentally incompetent in order that the institutions would qualify for federal money. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien

Jaela Bernstien is a national reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.