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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Health Literacy Inspiration from a Nun with Radical Feminist Ideas

Today, in honor of our American nuns under pressure from the Vatican, I am posting the story of a nun who was often scolded by her bishop for her radical feminist ideas about women’s health and literacy. This is the preface to my 2009 PhD dissertation titled Promoting Health Literacy: Concept, Measurement and Intervention.

In the spring of 1830 in Quebec, my Great* Aunt Esther turned 21 and packed a meager bag. There was no celebration. Esther was leaving home because abject poverty left her too weak to bear children or work the farm. She was unmarriageable, illiterate, and her family could not afford her keep. Life expectancy was 22.

Esther went to live and work as a servant in the convent of the Sisters of Providence who taught her to read and teach and tend the sick. She was 25 when they sent her home because she could not maintain her health. Undeterred, she started a school in her village. She trained other teachers and started more schools. She scandalized the French Canadian Catholic Church by teaching girls to read and by teaching boys and girls together in “mixed schools”. When she was 40, the Church officially recognized Esther and her teachers as the Order of the Sisters of Saint Anne. She became known as Mother Marie Anne. Aunt Esther lived to be 81; she dedicated her life to promoting literacy and health, especially for women and girls. Now, 123 years after her death, the Sisters of St. Anne still operate schools and hospitals across Canada and the northeastern United States. Despite her unconventional ways, in 2001 the Catholic Church beatified Aunt Esther as Saint Mother Marie Anne Blondin.

Aunt Esther was born two hundred years ahead of her time. Today her vision of literacy as the foundation for health, an escape route from poverty and the key to the advancement of women and society is an idea whose time has come. She inspires my work at the intersection of health and literacy.

*five times removed
Mailloux, C. (1997). A Woman in turmoil. Quebec: Les Editions Saint-Anne.
Smith, S. A. (2009). Promoting health literacy: Concept, measurement & intervention. Cincinnati, OH: Union Institute and University. Publication No. AAT 3375168. 
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