SONG REVIEW: Stephen Medd – Sisters of Saint Joseph

By Jeanette Arsenault

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear *Sisters of Saint Joseph* by Canadian balladeer Stephen Medd is: “Wow.  He reminds me of Stan Rogers!”.

For you non-Canadians, Rogers was a well-known, well-loved Canadian historical folk/roots balladeer from the East Coast revered as a masterful singer/songwriter.  Look him up on YouTube and you’ll see why.

The song opens with lovely guitar picking and a bell tolling in the distance then a beautiful strong confident voice starts to sing about the loving care the Sisters of Saint Joseph nuns showed to Irish immigrants during the Typhus Epidemic in the late 1840s in Kingston, Ontario which killed over 1400 people.  

“They came to Canada to escape the Great Hunger known as An Gorta Mor”, says Medd.  “Many children were orphaned and on Christmas Eve 1847, over one hundred orphans were dropped on the doorstep of the nuns”, he explains.

How do you write a song about such a devastatingly tragic story?  A skilled songwriter shows you how it’s done.  Medd has a beautiful way of telling the story by acknowledging the tragic loss and, at the same time, honouring those who provided care and comfort to the sick, the dying and their loved ones.  

“Aye Oh

They’re the faces I know

Aye Oh Aye Oh

From the places back home”

You can almost feel the agony of loss and longing for home. But for the Irish immigrants, there was no going back home because that meant starvation.  Your heart weeps to hear how their hopes and dreams of escaping to a new home in a new land disintegrated in the fever sheds built along the waterfront around Kingston General Hospital to house the sick and the dying.  

“Aye Oh

Where’s a mother to go

Aye Oh Aye Oh

Now we’re all on our own”

Photo by Carolyn Miller (Medd)

Most of us are descendants of immigrants.  Unless you are First Nations/Aboriginal/Indigenous or their descendants, you are an immigrant.   My ancestors came from France to settle in the Maritimes – they were the first European settlers in North America. They were persecuted & driven off their land in the Great Upheaval of 1755.  

The remarkable story of the Acadians is too long to tell here but maybe this is why I feel so deeply and personally about Medd’s tale of the Irish immigrants who landed on the shores of a bustling Canadian harbour town.    

They were my ancestors, too, landing in a foreign land, falling sick in squalid conditions & being cared for by loving strangers.  Many orphans left behind and many parents losing a child.  Children are not supposed to go before you do.

“Now the devil’s got a grip on me

As he stokes the fire of my agony

Sister Amable strokes my brow

Her tender touch brings me peace somehow

Aye Oh

Is it heaven I go

Aye Oh Aye Oh

Only my Maker knows”

“The Sisters of Saint Joseph were among our Country’s most courageous first-responders while also providing the crucial last-responder role of spiritual counselling and bereavement”, says Medd.

Medd, as well as being a singer/songwriter, works at Kingston General Hospital and is one of many in the healthcare field working under extraordinary circumstances during this COVID-19 pandemic.  I suspect this song is very personal to him on many levels.

*Sisters of Saint Joseph* will be included in Medd’s labour of love “If Lilacs Could Sing”, Volume 2 – an anthology of historical ballads of Greater Napanee, Kingston & Quinte in a combination book/album.

If Lilacs Could Sing Volume 1

“Hear the church bells toll each day

For the dead and dying class

Sisters of Saint Joseph pray 

And bring comfort at last

Wrap my child in God’s embrace

Love her when I pass

Sisters of Saint Joseph pray

For my wee orphan lass”

That last verse gets me every time.  It’s a gorgeous ballad – have a listen.  

YOUTUBE:

FACEBOOK:  @StephenMedd.Napanee

Published by Jeanette Arsenault

Jeanette Arsenault is a singer/songwriter/recording & performing artist/mentor/coach who is now pursuing her new passion for music journalism. She is also currently preparing the foundation for her new business to provide support, consulting and resources to musicians. www.JeanetteArsenault.ca

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