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Grey Nuns: A 150-year history in Ogdensburg

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OGDENSBURG — The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart’s numbers have dwindled in Ogdensburg over the last 60 years, but the organization’s deep ties to the city are still visible.

The Grey Nuns have served in diverse ministries in Ogdensburg for over 150 years, including education, health care, pastoral ministry, and social services.

In her book, Paths of Compassion, Grey Nun Sister Patricia Geary recounts the story of the Grey Nuns’ path from 18th century Canada to the 21st century America.

According to the book, the Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross, based in Ottawa, Ontario, first set up a mission in Ogdensburg in the 1860s.

From there they established St. Mary’s Academy, St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Holy Cross (later Notre Dame Elementary School) and St. Peter’s schools, and served as nurses and volunteers on the third floor of the Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, which at its start was the Ogdensburg City Hospital.

However, in 1921, after a sect of the Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross asked the Vatican for a separation from Ottawa to start their own congregation in the U.S., a new order called the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart took over the mission.

“They wanted an English-speaking novitiate,” said Sr. Geary. “When the girls over here went to Ottawa they had trouble adapting to the language in the culture since it was all in French. So they asked for a separation from Ottawa to form a new congregation over in the States.”

The nuns founded a mother house in Buffalo before moving it to Philadelphia, Pa., and eventually to the mother house’s present location in Yardley, Pa.

“Over 100 nuns came to join the group. Throughout the 40s and 50s, we had many, many missions, most of them involved education, and of course, health care,” Sr. Geary said. “Most of our sisters are now retired. And over 60 are living in the mother house in Yardley.”

According to history, the two branches of the Grey Nuns did not work together, Lisbon-born Sr. Mary Teresa LaBrake remembers.

“In fact there was animosity, and some were very disheartened and disillusioned and didn’t like some of their sisters braking away from their mother house in Ottawa, so there was a lot of division at that time,” said Sr. LaBrake, who began serving as a Grey Nuns in 1951.

After receiving their formal education and training in Buffalo, Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart began taking over positions once held by the Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross. The Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross decided to move back to their own mother house in Ottawa.

The Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross continued their service in the city as well, however, by continuing the administration of two elementary schools, Holy Cross (later Notre Dame Elementary School) and St. Peter’s schools.

In addition to working in the hospital and orphanage, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart were teachers at St. Mary’s Elementary School and St. Mary’s Academy until the schools eventually closed.

In 1945, St. Mary’s Elementary School gave way to a newer facility built nearby, named Bishop Conroy Memorial School.

The Ogdensburg Catholic Central School eventually became St. Marguerite D’Youville Academy, named after the Grey Nuns of the Holy Cross founder.

The nuns eventually moved out of the third floor of the hospital to the D’Youville house at 125 New York Ave.

The first social worker from the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, Rita Gleason, worked with Catholic Charities, Sr. LaBrake said. Sr. Kathryn Healy began the Hospice program in St. Lawrence County and worked with Hospice for 10 years.

Several other nuns served the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, St. Marguerite D’Youville Academy and in the library of the former Wadhams Hall Seminary.

At one time, Sr. LaBrake said, between 30 and 50 nuns were serving in Ogdensburg during the 1950s, when she first joined the novitiate.

“Everyone knew the Grey Nuns in Ogdensburg,” Sr. LaBrake said. “Besides being well known, they were respected – for their expertise for their judgment for professionalism – whether it was teaching or nursing or social work or whatever.”

Now, over 60 years later, only four sisters are serving the missions in the north country; two in Ogdensburg and two in Malone.

“I am proud of my time with the Grey Nuns,” Sr. LaBrake said. “Our congregation made sure we were all well educated. Education was very important to the congregation. They made sure we were qualified for whatever the field was that we were going to be moving into. That was stressed – that when people looked to us they would see women who were strong in their faith but also strong in their abilities as leaders in whatever field we were in.”

To purchase a copy of Sr. Geary’s book, send a note and $30 to her at the Grey Nuns Mother House, 1750 Quarry Road, Yardley, Pa., 19067. Checks must be made payable to the Grey Nuns.

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