Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 24, 2017
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A haven in Old Quebec

Recharge at a wellness retreat in the wings of a monastery where simplicity is the ultimate luxury

This is not your average wellness retreat. For starters, it’s a former nunnery in a meticulously maintained heritage building dating back to 1639, with a chapel and the opportunity to sleep in the same cozy cells where the nuns slept, the same dormer window seats, the same antique furniture, the same weathered ceiling beams, and the same miniature doors leading to the rooms. There are no televisions or telephones. Oh, and nuns live here, too.

I’ve watched the box office success A Nun’s Story, starring Audrey Hepburn as a conflicted nun experiencing life in a convent. Now, I’m getting a tiny glimpse into what it was like to live behind the cloistered walls of a monastery.

Once you set foot inside the modern glass addition to the centuries-old Le Monastère des Augustines (monastere.ca/en; from $84 per person a night, double occupancy) in the heart of Old Quebec City, a splendid magic happens. First, I noticed a luminosity, then a lingering woodsy smell with a hint of je ne sais quoi. I’m later told it’s a blend of botanicals that is bottled as the signature essential oil, curated from the apothecary garden and available in the gift shop. The scent was inspired by a blend the Augustinian sisters made in the early 17th century to “soothe the atmosphere around the monastery and the Hotel Dieu.” It was called Parfum de Sanctuarie.

While making my way to the front desk, I noticed oversized lock keys artistically displayed on the wall. Amazingly, they’re the actual keys once used in the monastery to open cabinets, chests, cell doors and the like. When I’m handed my modern keycard, I’m intrigued that I’d soon be exploring a space that was for centuries closed off to the world, and is now not only a wellness retreat, but a living museum and window to the past. Rest assured, if you’re looking for peace, you’ll find it here. And some quiet, too.

A history of healthcare

There’s an enduring history of caring at Le Monastère des Augustines. The Augustinian Order is the pioneers of healthcare in Canada. In 1639, France’s King Louis XIII sent three Augustinian sisters from Europe on a mission to start the first of 12 convent hospitals in Canada and the first in North America, north of Mexico. Hôtel-Dieu de Québec is the first hospital they opened, located adjacent to the monastery, with a private entrance connecting the buildings.

Central to the ambiance of the monastery is the museum, showcasing the history of all 12 monasteries and hospitals in Quebec, and the evolution of medicine. In the 17th century, if a young girl dreamed of becoming a nurse, she had to become a nun. My renovated room on the fourth floor faced the stone hospital with the apothecary garden courtyard below. Herbs and plants were an important aspect of holistic medicine, a practice that prevails today. A public archive office is located inside the monastery, available by appointment for specific research needs. There you’ll find patient records and daily journals scribed by the nuns.

Take time to explore the corridors. History is everywhere. There’s the sloping staircase next to the once omnipresent bell that would ring for wake up and meals. What used to be the main doors to the convent are now cocooned by the new addition. Nuns were cloistered, meaning they could not go outside and leave the convent. Ever. They couldn’t show their face to the outside world either. The main doors have a mail slot and voice box, and a spinning shelf (tour), in which visitors could give and receive items. It was not uncommon to find babies on the tour left in the care of nuns.

On the third floor there’s an installation of a furnished cell. On my way to interpretive dance class in the basement vault, I noticed a display of canons that were found on the property from the British Conquest war in 1759.

Wellness workshops and more

This is a secular retreat, but its Catholic roots cannot be ignored. In its infancy, there were around 350 Augustinian sisters living here. Today, there are less than 12, with an average age of 84 —plus Sister Sarah MacDonald, a 35-year-old from Sudbury, ON. It’s not uncommon to spot a sister browsing in the gift shop, walking in the garden or making her way in or out of the private living quarters through a stained glass entrance next to the dining area. You can speak to the nuns if you wish, but do so en Français with a simple “Bonjour” and a smile. You may also attend morning mass or the Vespers, an evening choir service at 5pm daily in the chapel.

In the tradition of caring for mankind, the Augustinian sisters are sharing their once-private haven with the secular world. Now there’s a spa (I recommend reflexology), wellness seminars, nutrition experts, yoga, meditation, dance, Pilates and tai chi. If all this isn’t enough, you can enjoy the private walled gardens or explore the intimate winding streets of Old Quebec City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only North American city whose walls still exist. The Marché du Vieux-Port and Châteaux Frontenac are within easy walking distance, and restaurants and boutiques are a two-minute walk in what some refer to as the Latin Quarter. I began my mornings with a 7am group awakening exercise: gentle stretches and meditation. The classes are bilingual, so it was fun to practice my French. At breakfast, the monastic tradition of eating in silence is recognized. I looked forward to my peaceful breakfasts. I don’t like to talk much in the morning anyway, so it was energizing to sit with my own thoughts and gaze out the window towards the St. Lawrence River, while enjoying the buffet breakfast which included berries, nuts, homemade breads, and delicious homemade raspberry-and-chocolate cashew yogurt. (Don’t leave without trying the cashew yogurt!)

There’s so much to like about the monastery. The calming ambiance, exemplary cuisine and holistic philosophy are comforting. Also satisfying is that guests are ultimately stewards of this not-for-profit’s social and cultural mission to preserve the heritage of the Augustinian sisters, and to promote its services and foster wellbeing to as many people as possible.

Rooms are reserved for members of the medical community and family members visiting patients at the adjoining hospital (the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec is a teaching hospital that specializes in cancer treatments). There’s even a caregiver program that permits caregivers to stay at the monastery while a professional caregiver is placed in their home.

“If we look at the name of the hospital,” says Sister Sarah, “Hôtel-Dieu, literally God’s Hotel, we believe that we are welcoming God in the presence of each person that we care for.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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