The Canonesses of St. Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus are a Roman Catholic religious order of canonesses who follow a semi-contemplative life and are also engaged in the ministry of caring for the sick and needy, from which they were also known as the "Hospital Sisters".
The canonesses' origins were in the 13th century, when a group of women in France joined together to assist the Augustinian Hermit friars who cared for the poor and the sick at the Hôtel-Dieu of the fishing port of Dieppe. Known originally as the "Hermit Sisters of St. Augustine", they formed a lay confraternity following the Rule of St. Augustine, living on goods held in common and on alms, and under a set of constitutions drawn up for their use. Apart from the services they rendered to the Hôtel-Dieu, they were also employed in assisting the sick poor in all quarters of the city. They would visit and care for the destitute living in their hovels, or even lodging in caves hollowed into the cliffs of the region.
Eventually they were formed into a religious congregation under the spiritual authority of the friars. The constitution of the new congregation established two classes of religious: lay sisters and canonesses. The former were employed at the manual tasks of the community, in order to relieve the canonesses. They were not obliged to recite the Divine Office, nor did they nurse the sick. The canonesses were obligated to recite the Divine Office in common, and daily employed in attendance on the sick. They were required—as far as health permitted—to go at least once a day to the hospital to render some service to the poor. Two of their number took in turn the night watch in the wards.
The General Chapter was composed of all who are ten years professed. They elected a Superior General triennially, but her charge could not be prolonged beyond six years. They also elected the Assistant Superior General, the Mistress of novices, the treasurer, and four other advisers, thus forming a council of eight principal officers. The same officers could be retained as long as they had the majority of votes in the chapter. The religious habit of the canoness is a white tunic girdled by a leather cincture. On their head they wear a black veil for the professed—with a white veil for the novices—formerly attached to a coif and bandeau. To this was added a starched guimpe covering the neck and chest, and for choir duties, a rochet, all covered by a black cape, before the simplification of the habit in the 20th century.
In the early 17th century, the canonesses established their first hospital outside of Europe in New France, with the establishment of the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, which was the first hospital in North America north of Mexico. By the 19th century they had communities in France at Dieppe, Rennes, Eu, Vitré, Château-Goutier-St-Julien, Château-Goutier-St-Joseph, Malestroit, Auray, Tréguier, Lannion, Guingamp, Morlaix, Pont-l'Abbé, Gouarec, Fougères, Harcourt, and Bayeux; and in Quebec, in addition to the foundations in the city of Quebec, there were communities in Lévis and Chicoutimi. They became established as well in South Africa, where communities were founded at Estcourt, Natal, Durban, Ladysmith, and Pietermaritzburg. Communities also were established in the Netherlands at Maasbracht; and in Italy, at Turin. They arrived in Britain in 1902, establishing over the years nursing homes in Waterloo and in Cumbria (1921).
During the Second World War, the canonesses of Dieppe ran an underground hospital, La Bimarine, where they cared for wounded French and Allied soldiers.
A canoness has been honored by the Catholic Church for the holiness of her life. The Blessed Catherine of St. Augustine, O.S.A., who was among the first volunteers to go to Quebec, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1989.