If the walls of Sainte-Justine could talk, the names of founders Irma LeVasseur and Justine Lacoste-Beaubien would ring out loud and clear. But echoing in the background would be the voices of an entire community – a community that has been, and continues to be, the driving force behind this singular Quebec institution.

The objectives that guided the creation of Sainte-Justine were simple and profound: reduce infant mortality, provide all children an equal chance and save lives. In 1907, when the hospital was founded, one out of every four children in Montreal didn’t make it past their first year. 

Irma LeVasseur, herself the only child in her family to survive into adulthood, decided to take action in response to this alarming statistic. As a result, the first woman in Quebec to graduate from medical school also became the co-founder of the first French-speaking pediatric hospital in Montreal. To bring her idea to fruition, she actively sought out allies and supporters. Without this unwavering determination, the Sainte-Justine as we know it today would not exist.

I can no longer bear watching children die. I’ll study whatever I need to. I’ll go to other countries that will take me. But I’ll become a pediatrician.

A young Irma LeVasseur

co-founder of Sainte-Justine

Meeting Justine Lacoste-Beaubien, who hailed from a well-to-do Montreal family, was decisive in moving things forward. The co-founder would end up chairing the hospital’s board of directors until just before her 87th birthday. She was a life-long believer that philanthropy was integral to fulfilling the hospital’s mission. 

At a time where individualism is so widespread, it is reassuring to think of what the sustained effort of a few people toward such a modest project could achieve.

Justine Lacoste-Beaubien,

co-founder of Sainte-Justine
Irma Levasseur Justine Lacoste Beaubien
Irma LeVasseur and Justine Lacoste-Beaubien

When the first incarnation of the hospital opened on Saint-Denis Street, its total cash assets amounted to a meagre $287.11. Justine Lacoste-Beaubien and the group of women she had rallied around her pulled out all the stops to win the community over to their cause. In no time, they had convinced donors that their support would help save lives. Hence philanthropy became a cornerstone of the hospital’s funding efforts. 

Inspired by the determination of the hospital’s founders, volunteers enthusiastically donated hours upon hours of their own time. By the end of the 1950s, their numbers had grown to over 500. For several decades after Sainte-Justine was founded (until 1935), even the doctors and nurses who cared for sick children did so on a non-remunerated basis.  

Premier Bebe Sainte Justine
Sainte-Justine's first baby, Roland Brisebois (1907 | © CHU Sainte-Justine)
1908 1914 Petits Patients Qui Samusent Dans Une Piece De La Maison
Young patients playing in their room (1908, | © CHU Sainte-Justine)
1911 Une Fille De La Sagesse Avec Des Patients
A Daughter of Wisdom with a patient
1912 Distribution De Lait Pasteurise Au Dispensaire La Goutte De Lait De Sainte Justine
Distribution of pasteurized milk at the ''Goutte de lait'' dispensary (1912 | © CHU Sainte-Justine)
1920 Infirmieres Et Patient Orthopedie
Orthopaedic Unit (1920 | © CHU Sainte-Justine)
1928 Salle Ste Therese Reservee Orthopedie
Sainte-Thérèse room, in the orthopaedic unit (© CHU Sainte-Justine)

Sainte-Justine quickly grew out of its original location. Five expansions were necessary to keep up with the constantly increasing demand. Similarly, the need for financial resources continued to rise. Close to $4,000 poured into the hospital during the first year of its operation, from various fundraisers, raffles, card games, leisure activities, sponsorships and donations of all sizes. The foundations for the hospital’s success and longevity were thus laid through the generosity, action and commitment of an entire community.

1907 1908 Rue St Denis Pres De Roy
The first Sainte-Justine Hospital, located at 644 Saint-Denis Street
Sainte Justine1909
The second Sainte-Justine Hospital, located at 820 De Lorimier
1914 1957 1879 Rue Saint Denis Bellechasse2
The third Sainte-Justine Hospital, located on Saint-Denis Street

It takes a village, as the saying goes. And every social stratum, without exception, contributed to the effort: the middle class, corporate leaders, teaching institutions, politicians, doctors, artists and so forth. And the response to this call for support was unequivocal. True wonders would occur every time the community was approached. From the hundreds of dollars raised in 1907, proceeds soon figured in the thousands, then tens and hundreds of thousands, to the millions raised annually at this point in the hospital’s history. 

Sainte Justine Histoire Philanthropie

Over time, the hospital’s administration became more structured. Fundraising activities were more frequent and more sophisticated, especially when came time to build the new hospital on Côte-Sainte-Catherine Road, which officially opened in 1957. The first campaign in preparation for the relocation began in October 1951. Donors mobilized like never before for a phone-a-thon that was aired on Radio-Canada. Montreal’s mayor shared the radio airwaves for nine hours with a number of well-known personalities to take people’s pledges. The result: $25,000 in a single night. The bar had just been raised. 

If it’s for Sainte-Justine, it’s for a good cause.

Maurice Richard1956
In 1955, Maurice Richard made a $1,000 donation to Sainte-Justine. Here he is surrounded by patients in 1956.
Demenagement Sainte Justine1957
The move into the new hospital, located on Côte-Sainte-Catherine.
Sainte Justine Retro
© CHU Sainte-Justine

During these early years, the amounts raised were enough to cover the hospital’s operating costs. But the co-founders wanted to do more to make Sainte-Justine “not just a place of healing but also a centre of scientific study and research.” Their tenacity transformed Sainte-Justine into a world-renowned leader in pediatric and obstetric care. 

Staying at the cutting edge of scientific and medical progress, caring for an ever-growing number of patients, introducing new services, constantly improving our instrumentation, […] recruiting, training and educating staff, keeping the eternal flame alive (as a hospital never closes and never dies): this is what remains to be done and what has to be redone over and over again.

Justine Lacoste-Beaubien

Since 1957, donors’ unconditional support has been galvanizing the efforts of all those who work every day for the children of Sainte-Justine, helping them to grow, evolve and innovate.  

  • In 1974, the Sainte-Justine Research Centre was founded by Dr. Jacques Ducharme.
  • In 1995, the hospital was rebranded as the Centre hospitalier universitaire mère-enfant Sainte-Justine (Sainte-Justine Mother-and-Child University Hospital Centre). That same year, the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation’s capital campaign (Investir pour l’amour des enfants[S1] ) raised $45 million. The funds went toward research, renovations to the parent/child care units and the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment.
  • During the Growing Up Healthy campaign, which ran from 2002 to 2005, a grand total of $125 million was raised. As a result, Sainte-Justine’s facilities could be updated on an ongoing basis in line with the needs of the patients, families and teams.
  • Despite growing pressure on the world of philanthropy, donors stepped up to the plate for the Healing More Better campaign (2013–2018). A record $255 million was raised to ensure more children and mothers in Quebec could receive high-quality health care.
  • With a team of more than 200 researchers, the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre is known worldwide for an extensive array of basic and clinical research.

The reason that the children and mothers-to-be treated at Sainte-Justine can enjoy access to highly specialized medical care with a uniquely patient-centric approach can be traced back to the hard work and dedication of an outstanding group of women and the community that has backed their dream with more and more passion as the years have gone by.

Together, one donation at a time, we will continue to write the story of innovation and philanthropy that makes Sainte-Justine what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.