Brownstein: 'Nurse was the magic word' in making women's dream come true

The four pay tribute to their colleagues and profession with a moving installation of three bronze sculptures.

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Others may have had their doubts, but these four women were absolutely determined to pay lasting tribute to their fellow nurses with a permanent work of art to be prominently placed in the city.

Skeptics be damned, their dream has finally come to fruition.

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A dazzling and moving installation of three bronze sculptures, whose cost the four women covered, was unveiled Tuesday at a site that couldn’t be more prominent — and appropriate: an enticing mini green space at the corner of des Pins Ave. and Jeanne-Mance St., across the road from the city’s first hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu. French nurse Jeanne Mance, one of the founders of Montreal in 1642, helped establish the Hôtel-Dieu.

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It was nearly seven years ago that Catherine McIninch Murphy, Brenda Noonan Brown, Maureen Fitzgerald and Judith Tisseur Norton, four friends and graduates of the 1968 class of the St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing, undertook this initiative. They set a goal to raise $115,000. They soon surpassed that sum, having raised just over $250,000, and then their work really began getting the support of the city and the province’s nursing orders.

The women worked in conjunction with Montreal’s Bureau d’Art Public to select the artist and find an appropriate spot for the approved piece. The bureau agreed to underwrite the cost of the selection process as well as the cost of the infrastructure and of maintaining the sculpture and its site.

Former practising nurses and graduates of Saint Mary's Hospital School of Nursing
Standing left to right: Catherine McIninch Murphy, Maureen Fitzgerald, Judith Tisseur Norton and Brenda Noonan Brown, all former practising nurses and graduates of St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing, are seen amid the sculpture Our Breath Beyond by artists Fiona Annis and Véronique La Perrière M., sitting left to right, at Placette Jeanne-Mance on des Pins Ave. at Jeanne-Mance St. in Montreal on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

In the end, the three-part installation, called Our Breath Beyond (Notre souffle au-déla), was created by two local sculptors, Fiona Annis and Véronique La Perrière M. The focus on hands and folds of nurses’ capes effectively conveys, respectively, caring and the social fabric of the profession.

No surprise that among the hands are bronzed casts of those of the four women who spearheaded this project.

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Artists Fiona Annie and Veronique La Pierre M used the hands of nurses for their sculpture Our Breath Beyond.
Artists Fiona Annis and Véronique La Perrière M. used the hands of nurses to create bronze casts for their sculpture Our Breath Beyond. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the result,” says McIninch Murphy at the site with the three other women. “The artists so perfectly captured the mood and spirit of nursing, as well as the transmission of knowledge to a patient and from one generation of nurses to the next. The pieces represent care and kindness, teamwork and upholding the whole social fabric of the community.

“And this is where it all first started in the city, at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.”

Noonan Brown concedes that the entire process, from finding the artists to the right site, was much more elaborate and all-encompassing than they had initially anticipated it might be.

“A jury of seven, picked by the Bureau d’Art Public, chose the artists from nearly two dozen candidates,” Noonan Brown notes. “(McIninch Murphy) was the rep from our team to serve on the jury. But one of the members of that jury we definitely wanted and got was (architect and philanthropist) Phyllis Lambert, who supported this project from Day One.”

It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t support such a project.

Nurses rock. They are underpaid and overworked, but few can deny that they get the job done and are among the most trusted and loved of all métiers. Nursing is the bedrock of health care.

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“Nurses and nursing have been part of the DNA of this city since Jeanne Mance,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s about time that nurses were recognized. The public really can’t do very much about working conditions. That’s the responsibility of the unions and the government. But what we can do is to promote the profession to the public and to make nurses feel proud of who they are and what they do. This site is now their place.”

“The beauty of this spot is that we are right in the middle of the city, bringing in the city’s inclusivity and uniting the two solitudes,” Tisseur Norton points out.

But issues abound. A referendum for a nurses’ strike vote could be imminent. Then there’s the question of whether a nurse should have to graduate from a university and not just from a CEGEP to be qualified.

Much has changed from the days when these four women were able to study and become qualified at a hospital nursing school. Such schools are now extinct, having given way to CEGEP nursing schools.

“I feel that today nurses need a bachelor of science in nursing because health care is so complex and the nurse plays a pivotal role in the system,” McIninch Murphy says. “But that is not to eliminate other levels of health-care education.”

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Tisseur Norton is a practising psychologist who still maintains a full nursing licence. The three others are now retired from the profession.

“We are so eternally grateful to all those who gave us money without ever knowing what the art was going to be, or who the artists were going to be,” Noonan Brown says.

“Nurse was the magic word,” McIninch Murphy adds.

Nurse was also the magic word for artists Annis and La Perrière M.

“We’ve all been touched so much by nurses in our lives, so this has been such a deeply meaningful and enchanting project for us,” La Perrière M says. “We worked on this for two years. But it came out as we hoped and expected.”

“Over the course of this project, we had the honour and opportunity to meet with a dozen nurses. It was such a privilege for us to do this for nurses,” Annis says.

Adds Noonan Brown: “Honestly, it’s really such a privilege to be a nurse.”

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