Meet the Women of the Llandovery Castle

In the darkest of times, there were those who chose to walk in the light

The nurses aboard the Llandovery Castle came from all across Canada. At this point in the war, serving on a hospital ship was seen as an easy assignment, a break from the harsh and traumatizing realities at the front.


Rena 'Bird' McLean served under dreadful conditions in the field hospital in Salonika, Greece.
Soprano Larissa Koniuk sings the role of Bird  as she seeks to prove to Matron Margaret 'Pearl' Fraser that she is strong enough to return to the action after being traumatized by conditions at the front. "All else seems a dream or a play. The Front is real; I should go back today... You have to send me! It’s where I’m needed most, where I can do the most."


Catherine Daniel will sing the role of Matron Margaret 'Pearl' Fraser, who supervised and mentored the 13 other nursing sisters on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. Pearl’s father had been the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and sang bass in his Presbyterian church choir. Pearl kept a diary in 1914 which her family has treasured for 100 years, and which they generously shared with the composer and librettist for the development of the opera.


In our opera Minnie 'Kate' Gallaher, sung by Allison Angelo, expresses her frustration that her work seems in vain — she only stitches up young men in order to send them back to the front. Her colleague Bird consoles her that their work is not futile. Prior to the war Kate was well known in Toronto nursing circles, having been in charge of a model hospital camp on the Exhibition Grounds.


A plaque in Calvin Church, Toronto honouring nurse Mary Agnes 'Nan' MacKenzie sparked composer Stephanie Martin's interest in the Llandovery Castle and started a two-year search for more information about the hospital ship and these nurses. Rebecca Genge will bring Nan to life.


Nurse Christina Campbell, sung by Emma Char, is also honoured on a historical plaque which Stephanie Martin visited in the historic chapel of the Jubilee hospital in Victoria B.C. Like Bird, Christina served in Salonkia  in harrowing conditions, enduring two consecutive months of night watch.


Alexandra Beley will sing the role of Alexina Dussault, a nurse from Saint-Hyacinthe Quebec who made many trips across the Atlantic on hospital ships after serving in the field in France.


A story that echoes in Canadian women's lives today

In June 1918 the hospital ship HMCS Llandovery Castle set sail on her return journey to Liverpool, having delivered wounded soldiers to Halifax. On board were 14 Canadian nurses, women of diverse backgrounds who had been serving at the front, offering healing and compassion to soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

These nurses represent the beginning of a profound change for women in Canada: They received pay equal to their male counterparts, were the only women to have military rank as officers, and could vote in federal elections. No other Canadian women had these privileges at the time.

The efforts of women during the war helped pave the way for rights for all women. When women's suffrage was achieved in Canada, the major argument advanced to support the change was women's contributions to the war effort.

The danger faced by medical professionals around the world is with us today. Said Joe Belliveau, Canada's Executive Director of  Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières, "As medical humanitarians working in contemporary conflict settings, the story of the Llandlovery Castle strongly resonates with our cause. It was then (in 1918), as it is now, outrageous and profoundly wrong that men and women healing the war-wounded should themselves be shot at."

Kate PeerComment