140 Years of Unique Stories
Since 1877, the Accueil Bonneau is still playing an essential role in the lives of Montreal’s homeless population. The Accueil extends its welcome to and wishes to establish a special bond of trust with each person who crosses its threshold.
Everything began for the Accueil Bonneau in May 1877, when a shipowner, Joseph Vincent, noticed that the area of Montreal we now call the Old Port had a large number of itinerant people, isolated old men, and hoboes. He dreamed of creating a refuge for these people. He met with the priest of the parish of Notre Dame, Fr. René Rousseau, and a Sulpician chaplain of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Fr. Rousseau appealed to the Grey Nuns, who transformed a former army barracks rented by Joseph Vincent into a refuge for men and women. The Nuns have been able to welcome their first beneficiaries despite a very thin budget of $75.00 per month allocated by the Chaplain. From the time of its opening, this organization subscribed to the mission of charity of Saint Marguerite d’Youville, the foundress of the Grey Nuns, and to that of Saint Vincent de Paul. Inspired by the Gospel, the values promoted by these charitable works are the basic human values of welcoming generosity, compassion, kindness, respect, devotion, and self-sacrifice shown to the most destitute people.
After several forced relocations, the Hospice Saint-Charles became the Hospice Saint-Antoine, and it expanded as a result of the growing needs for serving meals and lodging, educating and clothing the poor. In 1904, they moved on the present site of the Rue de la Commune, then called Rue Des Commissaires.
In 1904, the organization moved into the place it still occupies on the Rue de la Commune, called at that time the Rue Des Commissaires. Sister Rose de Lima Bonneau began her service to the homeless in 1909. Her projects and resourcefulness made her a legendary figure. It was said of her that she could create miracles from what chance brought her. At the height of the Great Depression in the summer of 1931, she served more than 60 000 meals. Although she died in 1934, her name remains very much alive. Homeless people still say, “I’m going to Sister Bonneau’s.” Hence the name Accueil Bonneau.
While in Sister Bonneau’s time, farmers would donate part of their harvest, it was Sister Bernier who, working with a team, would drive to certain locations to pick-up foods and goods. Indeed, after 21 years of service at Sister Bernier’s funeral it was said, “Sisters Bernier was the one putting bread on the table.” In a statement given by Sister Nicole Fournier, (General Director of Accueil Bonneau from 1984 – 2009) she said, “To gather the goods, Sister Bernier would drive a car with a trail behind. One Wednesday morning, during rush hour, the trailer, full of bread, became detached and for a short time started rolling down Jacques-Cartier Bridge. Sister Bernier, not only stopped her car to reattach the trail but also tried to gather all the bread that fall along the road on the Bridge! Seeing her desperate situation, many drivers stopped their vehicles to help Sister Bernier, showing her sympathy instead of being impatient.”
In 1972 a “Human and Social Promotion Committee” was created to support the personal and social development of the homeless men, or “the guys” and provide a more adequate orientation and rehabilitation service.
Pioneering in a fight against homelessness, Sister Monique Picard, contributed to the development of “La Résidence du Vieux Port”. As well, she participated in the creation of “Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinerants de Montréal (RAPSIM) and was a board member and founder of “Le Refuge des jeunes”. With Sister Marie Doucet, she developed the financial advising along with the human and social promotion service of Accueil Bonneau, a daring project that did not have the majority`s support.
The Accueil Bonneau was incorporated in 1978, and the members of the corporation are still the Priests of Saint-Sulpice, the Grey Nuns of Montreal, and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Until quite recently, the Grey Nuns served voluntarily as the directors; but since 2009, the directorship has been in the hands of a layman. Still, it is important to situate our history in such a way that it defines the Accueil Bonneau so that we can ensure the continuity of this humanitarian work in today’s world of professionalization and secularization and can guarantee that its original Christian and human values are maintained and promoted.