Sara Riel (October 11, 1848 – December 27, 1883) was the first Métis Grey Nun from Red River. She was a highly educated and active member of the Catholic Church. She is best known as the sister of Métis leader Louis Riel. Born in 1848 in the Red River settlement to parents Jean-Louis Riel and Julie (Lagimodière) Riel, as a young child she was surrounded by the word of God, being educated by Sisters of Charity of Montreal but also by her mother, who was dedicated to the Christian faith. She was inspired to become a nun after her brother Louis Riel entered the seminary to become a priest. Although Louis did not become a priest, Sara actively took her Solemn vows in 1868. She taught languages and arts at the Grey Nuns boarding schools between 1868 and 1871, after which she became a Catholic missionary. Her family were active members in the Red River community right up to the Métis resistance. Although separated from her family, her writings showed a sympathetic view on the eve of the resistance. Given that her brother was an active member in leading the revolution against the government, in 1869 the congregation feared for her safety and she was moved several times within a few years. Even though she took no active part in the cause, she provided support to her brother and a voice to the Métis of the local Catholic Churches. In 1871 she became the first Métis missionary from Red River and set off for Île-à-la-Crosse in northern Saskatchewan. In 1872 Sara Riel was taken ill and almost died, after a vision from God, Sara Riel changed her name to ‘Sister Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque’ and re-honored her vows and commitment to the Catholic Church. Sara actively wrote to her family telling them of her experiences, wishes, and hopes for them. She died of tuberculosis in 1884 at the age of 35.
Sara Riel was born on October 11, 1848 in Red River, a small community settled originally through the fur trade and later expanded by the colonization of Lord Selkirk. Red River was a secluded place in the 1850s. It could only be reached by water, leaving it almost impossible to reach in the winter. The North West Company's fur trade was the primary economic resource of the region. There were large alliances formed between the trader and the indigenous people. They taught each other important aspect of survival and adaptation with the buffalo hunt, agriculture, and medicine. Red River eventually became a place where retired fur traders could live with their families. The new culture created in the settlement produced a generation of half settlers, half indigenous children known as the Métis, who created their own unique culture.
Sara Riel's father was Jean-Louis Riel born in 1817, he was a voyageur for the North West Company. He was the 5th generation settler. His background was that of a French-Canadian. In Red River, Jean-Louis Riel became a very important person within the growing Métis community. Jean-Louis Riel taught his children to be proud of their Métis heritage and to embrace their culture. He himself led many Métis revolts, including the one surrounding the Sayer Trial in 1849.
Sara and Louis Riel's mother, Julie (Lagimodière) Riel was born in 1822 in French River. She was also from a French background that integrated with the Métis culture and passed on their traditions to their children. Prior to marriage, Julie Lagimodière was planning to join the Grey Nuns. Her parents chose the marriage to Jean-Louis Riel as a sense of financial and social security for their loving daughter.
Sara Riel was the fourth child born to Jean-Louis and Julie Riel. The first born was Louis, followed by two children who did not make it past birth. Sara was the next child born. This dynamic left a special bond between Louis and Sara as the two eldest children of the family. Altogether the Riel family consisted of 11 children but only 8 lived to adulthood. The Riel family were members of the Red River elite and the children lived a more privileged life, very close to the Catholic Church, receiving the best education Red River had to offer. From the mid1840's till the late 1880s, the family went through hard economic times and had to sacrifice their prior way of living.
Education was important to the Riel family and was taken very seriously by Julie Riel, whom herself wanted to join the sisterhood prior to marriage. She taught her children the ways of the Catholic Church and to love God in their actions.
Sara Riel was educated by the Sisters of Charity boarding school in St. Boniface. She excelled in many subjects including languages, art, and music. But she also learned household skills such as cooking and cleaning along with spin, knit, sewing, and embroidering. The Grey Nuns believed that orderliness and cleanliness of Métis were a representation of the schooling provided by the Church, therefore they encouraged the young girls to perfect their skills in household chores.
She attended school in St. Boniface from 1858 until 1866 when she was chosen to join the Grey Nuns. She entered the congregation in 1866. In 1868 she became the first Métis Grey Nun from Red River. She was skilled in many languages including French, English, Michif, and Cree. The church saw her as ideal to become a teacher but also a mediator between; the missionaries and the aboriginal people. Also between the aboriginal woman, the church, and the Hudson Bay Company.
After the death of her father in 1864, Louis became the head of the family and therefore responsible for his mother and younger siblings including Sara Riel. He and the rest of the children were forced to quit school to help with agriculture and sustaining the family home. Sara Riel was the only one who was allowed to stay in school and fulfill her mission as a nun.
The Riel family was very dedicated to the education of their children. Their mother was especially dedicated to the church and instilled the will of God into her children. The family found themselves very close to Alexandre-Antonin Taché who was the head of the Catholic church in St. Boniface. It was through him that Sara Riel learned of the missionaries and Louis Riel was chosen to study for the priesthood. Louis Riel left school in 1865, abandoning all wishes to join the church. He did not return home from Montreal until after his father's death.
Following in her loving brother's footsteps Sara Riel was accepted to the Grey Nuns as a novice in 1866. Two years later in 1868, Sara Riel took her vows and joined the Catholic community. At this time, Red River had just 26 sisters serving as missionaries. Many of which came from Quebec, who helped provide a better education for the country born children and Métis.
On June 22, 1871, Sister Riel left for the mission of Ile-a-La-Crosse now in northern Saskatchewan. Le Métis (a local Red River newspaper) reported: “Sister Riel, Sister of Mr. Louis Riel, however, had been designated to accompany her (Sister Charlebois), she is believed the first missionary from the Métis nation of Red River, given to this Great Apostolic work, and one could not find a more dignified person. a kind heart, keen intelligence, and inexhaustible charity distinguished this new missionary, her departure is a sacrifice for her family and the entire population, but at the same time it is an honor and a blessing for us”.
The Métis Resistance 1869-1870Edit
The first Métis resistance happened between 1869-1870. This happened following the establishment of the Canadian government and first signs of surveyors on the Métis land. The Hudson Bay Company sold Rupert's Land to the Canadian Government without thinking about the people who occupied it or had claims over it. Louis Riel and the other Métis believed that the creation of the Canadian state was not only a political issue but also a religious and cultural one. With determination to preserve their way of life the Métis people took arms. After stopping surveyors, the Métis of Red River formed a provisional government. At the head of the provisional government was Louis Riel.
During the conflict, the Métis took Fort Gary and executed Thomas Scott. This forced the Canadian government to acknowledge the people who lived on the land. This uprising created the province known as Manitoba. With Sara and Louis Riel's close relationship and tensions rising between the Métis and the government, the congregation had to take special precaution with Sara Riel.
By 1869 the congregation feared for Sister Riel's safety. With the rebellion unfolding, she was moved back to St. Boniface. Sara Riel was not impressed by the choice to move her. When Sara learned that she would have to perform manual and domestic duties, she saw that as a demotion to all the hard work she had done. Sister Riel wrote in one of her letters: “The annual autumn changes took place today on the 20th. my mission to St. Norber is over. The order placed me in the day school. I must also mend and was the community linen-- a job that occupies me continuously without fatigues”
With all the stress and chaos that the rebellion brought at home, Sister Riel still wrote actively to her brother. In the many letters sent, Sara Riel repeatedly told her brother to stay strong and fight for what they both believed in. In September 1868, she wrote: “Louis, chase away the sad and troubling thoughts to which our last meeting gave birth. Which time and the grace of God, the darkness of the present will disappear. Be confident! until then, we must do out duties. You as a fervent Christian and me as a sister of charity”
When Louis Riel was in exile to Saint-Joseph, Detroit after the first uprising, Sara Riel wrote several letters to Louis showing confidence, love and vital information that may have played a role in the future of the cause. She wrote; “truthfully I believe it would be an insult to God if I doubted for only a second the complete success of our cause ... remember last winter when everything seemed over. It was God’s will that you should be overthrown, it overthrew in order to better your success” In another letter she sent she described the heartache felt by the Métis following his departure. She wrote: '' Louis let us bury our sorrows in the wounds of his (God) sacred heart...to love and pray, these are the arms with which we must fight to vanquish the conqueror''.
Throughout the exile, Sister Riel and Mgr Taché knew of Louis Riel's whereabouts and even helped him with news and information of Canadian politics. This is about the same time that Sara Riel chose to exile herself. But like the letters to Louis Riel, they both had to wait until the time was right. This was a hard time for Sara Riel, she prayed for her brother's health and safety.
Following the resistance, the people of Red River elected Louis Riel to a seat in Parliament in 1873 but he was a wanted man in Canada. The Canadian Government wanted him for the murder of Scott, which prevented him from taking his seat and delayed his return to Red River. The last Métis resistance occurred in 1885, one year after the death of Sara Riel.
Life after the ResistanceEdit
Sara Riel was often mentioned in the writings and correspondence of the Grey Nuns. She was a very active, important and hardworking member of the clergy, who was often recognized for her actions.
In 1872 Sister Riel was taken ill and almost died one day after choir practice. After a miraculous recovery, she claimed to have been saved by God and her faith was solidified. She changed her name to that of a great saint: “Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque” after a vision from God.
In the 1880s her health began to decline. Sara Riel suffered from tuberculosis for many years. When her health became very serious she was given permission to return to Red River, to be with her family in her final days. Sister Riel refused the offer. She was determined that her mission was to Île-à-la-Cross and would stay until the end.
Sara Riel died December 27, 1883 at the age of 35. She served the Catholic Church as a Nun for just over 17 years, either as a teacher, a translator or a missionary. The chronicles from Île-à-la-Cross described her last moments as ones of suffering and difficulties. One of her final letters was addressed to her brother, Louis Riel. She claimed her love for him, she reminded him to be strong and to remain dedicated to God in all his actions.
On April 27, 1885, the day after the Green Lake Post was looted during the North-West Rebellion, the Grey Nuns of Île-à-la-Crosse were terrified that Louis Riel, who had accused them of letting his younger sister die in misery would seek revenge. They fled the village along with most of the personnel and dependents of the Hudson's Bay Company Post and the Roman Catholic Mission. The large group camped on a small wooded island north of Patuanak until the crisis was over and returned to Île-à-la-Crosse on May 29, 1885.
Today, Sara Riel is not talked about as much as her brother. The Riel family home still stands in Red River and has become a historical site in the province of Manitoba. It is referred to as the birthplace of the Métis resistance.
Sara Riel is seen as an important figure in the history of the Métis woman, of Red River and in the Catholic Missionary. She was an active writer which left a larger paper trail allowing historians and scholars an insight into her life, family and the people at the time of the resistance. Although in the 1970s Sara was looked at in a more negative way, she was declared a pale representation of her brother her letters left important information in Canadian history, allowing an alternate view into many aspects of life of the 1800s.
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