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“We were obliged to do so many things, so often, that in our head, we didn’t feel that we were able to say, ‘No, not this time, another time.'"

604: Cécile Dionne

The Third of Five of the First Set of Quintuplets Known to Survive Infancy

Born: 28 May 1934, Callander, Ontario, Canada

The quints were born two months premature; their parents having no idea Mrs. Dionne was pregnant with more than one child. At the time of their birth, combined, the five girls weighed thirteen pounds six ounces (though soon after they began to lose weight).

The girls actually had six older siblings (one of whom died soon after birth) and then three younger siblings as well. The Dionne family was incredibly poor by today’s standards, and after the girls were born, Oliva and Elzire Dionne were terrified at the thought of suddenly having five more mouths to feed. The house they lived in had no electricity, which posed further challenges for charities and medical workers trying to bring in incubators to keep the girls alive. After their story made international headlines, the Red Cross sent in round-the-clock nursing care and breast milk was shipped in far and wide for the girls.

After four months with their parents, the girls were taken away by the Canadian government to become wards of the state. The government did this by passing the Dionne Quintuplets Guardianship Act of 1935. Unlike normal interference between government and private families today though, the quints were not given to foster families. Instead, they were simply moved to a new facility right across the street from their parents’ home.

The Ontario government turned a profit on the quints by making the girls a tourist attraction in a place called “Quintland” (where 6,000 people a day could observe them from galleries placed around the complex the girls were raised in. In fact, by 1937, Quintland was more popular than Niagara Falls). Quintland, as previously mentioned, was built very close to the Dionne home. The quints were raised by nurses, with their every wish and whim catered to them. The world was terrified that one of the girls would die, and so they received around the clock care. The girls also received a few visits with their birth family, but to say tension and pain erupted between the Dionne quintuplets and their parents and siblings during this time would be an understatement.

If Quintland wasn’t enough, the quints also ended up starring in three Hollywood films about a fictionalized version of their lives. They even appeared in numerous advertisements for brand names you would recognize today. The quints were famous worldwide, while their parents and siblings were scrutinized for every little thing.

The sisters rarely left Quintland; but one of the times they were allowed out, they met the King and Queen of the United Kingdom in Toronto. For that trip, the rest of the Dionne Family was also invited along, but the quints remained the stars of the entire show.

When the girls were nine years old, their parents regained custody of them. The girls moved back in with their parents and siblings; however, this situation wasn’t any better than living in Quintland (in fact, the quints themselves stated it was absolutely worse). When the quints returned home, one of their older sisters reportedly told them the reason there were two tables in the dining room was because one was for the quints and one was for the rest of the Dionnes; they were two separate families living in one home. The new nineteen-bedroom mansion the Dionne’s all lived in together was paid for by the quints’ trust fund (see more information below).

Soon after, the quints later revealed, their father also began to abuse them in various ways, including sexually assaulting them. Also, their mother screamed at and hit them at various times. The girls couldn’t escape from everything fast enough. Unbeknownst to them, each girl had a trust fund set up with money from the Quintland attraction. They would not be able to access these funds until their twenty-first birthday and had no idea they even existed when Émilie passed away at the age of twenty. Unfortunately, by the time they learned of the trust funds, most of the money was already gone. The money had paid for everything to keep Quintland up and running, from the construction of public bathrooms for the tourists to the meals doctors ate when coming to observe the girls.

After the quints moved back in with their parents, Quintland was turned into a private Catholic school for the quints and some other girls to attend. It was while attending this school that Annette told the chaplain of the school about her father abusing her, but the chaplain did nothing.

Also, around this time, Émilie started to suffer from seizures, which their parents and doctors covered up for fear of the stigma of epilepsy at the time. When they were fourteen, a newspaper chose to publish how much each girl weighed, proving that while media attention was slowly going away, it was still very prevalent in the girls’ lives.

Eventually, the girls all escaped their hellish homelife, and went on to write their own stories. When they were nineteen, Marie and Émilie were the first to escape, by joining different convents. When Émilie died two months later, media attention in the quintuplets dried up; after all, they were no longer quintuplets, but instead four sisters. As devastating as Émilie’s death was, it gave the others a chance to finally escape once and for all.

So, enough about all the quints in general, let’s talk about Cécile. After Émilie’s death, Cécile and Yvonne attended nursing school together.

Cécile married and had five children (two of her boys were twins, and one of those twins died at fifteen months of age), but her marriage failed. This despite the fact she was the first of the quints to ever reach out and risk dating in the first place. Within months of her wedding, Cécile was pregnant. By the time the marriage failed in 1964, Cécile learned her husband was a closeted gay man, an alcoholic, and was also unfaithful to her. Her ex-husband would never ask to see his children, nor would he provide financial support. At times, Cécile would have to give her children to various foster homes when she was unable to support them emotionally or financially.

In 1998 she, Annette, and Yvonne reached a $2.8 million settlement with the Ontario government for their exploitation (or $4 million in Canadian money). In that same year, Cécile moved into a duplex that her son Bertrand had bought with his portion of the settlement his mother received. In 2006, Bertrand sold the duplex and moved his mother into a nice senior living facility. However, six years later, in 2012, Bertrand disappeared off the map, taking all of Cécile’s money with him. As of 2019, Cécile had yet to hear from him, and is now a ward of the Canadian government once again.

Annette and Cécile cannot see each other in person often, but they call each other multiple times a day. Of the five, they are the only two still alive in 2020.

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The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller


The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller