Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“The will of God is my God”
Jeanne Mance, a nurse from a small French town, founded the first hospital in Montreal and cofounded the settlement with PAUL DE CHOMEDEY DE MAISONNEUVE. Saintly, womanly, courageous, idealistic, yet vastly practical, Jeanne had a rich character in which exceptional qualities were graciously blended. Her primary passion was revealed in a letter:
“There is nothing in the world that I would refuse to do to accomplish the divine and all-loving will of God. [God’s will] is the only desire and love of my heart. Therein is my passion, all my affections, my only love, and my sole paradise. In a word, it’s my God; the will of God is my God. The good pleasure of my God is my God.”
Jeanne was born in 1606 in Langres, in the Champagne region of north-eastern France. During her youth, she witnessed the death of almost half her town from war and epidemic. As a result, she dedicated her life to extending the healing hand of Christ by becoming a nurse during the Thirty Year’ War.
In 1639, Jeanne was thirty-three, unmarried, and unaffiliated with a religious order when she heard of MARIE-MADELEINE DE CHAUVIGNY DE LA PELTRIE, a wealthy widow and lay-person who had left for New France with three Ursuline sisters. Among the sisters was MARIE GUYART DE L’INCARNATION. Jeanne was intrigued by the vision these women had of founding a school for native girls.
Through acquaintances, Jeanne met Angélique de Bullion, an intriguing and wealthy woman who wanted to fund a hospital in New France—if Jeanne would oversee its founding. Jeanne felt the call to go and sought counsel from her priest and the Jesuits. After much prayer, Jeanne’s priest, too, felt that she must go to Canada, “that it was infallibly Our Lord who wanted this association” with the wealthy lady. Madame de Bullion was delighted with Jeanne’s decision and gave her a purse of over 40,000 livres.
Jeanne joined the founders of Ville-Marie as their nurse, treasurer, and supervisor of provisions. In May 1641, she set sail for New France.
On May 17, 1642, she joined Maisonneuve and the other settlers in the founding of Montreal. Jeanne cared for her fellow colonists under a makeshift tent and organized the first temporary dispensary. Although a few Algonquin had dared to pitch their tepees near the fork, they soon departed, fearing Iroquois attacks. Jeanne wanted to seek out the Huron and to care for them where they lived, on their terms, but was unable to do so because of Madame de Bullion’s insistence that she be directly involved with establishing the first hospital in Montreal.
In June 1643, some forty Iroquois attacked six colonists who were at work in their fields. Three colonists were killed and the other three were carried off to the Indian camp. Of the latter, one escaped to Ville-Marie, where, despite his terrible wounds, he was able to tell of the fate of his companions: “carved up, scalped, and killed at the stake in a barbaric fury.”
Construction on the hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, began in 1645 under Jeanne’s supervision. The building measured sixty feet by twenty-four feet and was made of logs. Subsequently, it was clap-boarded and solidified in wood. The hospital’s chapel was built of stone. Ornaments and pictures, statues and sacred vessels were sent from France for the chapel. Later, Jeanne would import furniture, clothing, utensils, medicines, and domestic animals from France.
On three different occasions, Jeanne was required to return to France. From 1649 to 1650 she had to convince Parisian sponsors to maintain their support amid France’s difficult political and social climate. From 1658 to 1659 Jeanne, accompanied by her friend MARGUERITE BOURGEOYS, again returned to France, to care for her broken arm and to recruit nuns to work in the Hôtel-Dieu. In 1662, another trip was needed to set in place the legal structure necessary for the ongoing transfer of resources to Montreal. On each of these occasions, Jeanne conducted delicate negotiations concerning new funds and the arrival of future hospital worker—the Hospitalières de la Flèche—in New France. Her recruiting efforts increased the membership in the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal, a society devoted to improving the Catholic Church in New France, from eight to thirty-seven, of whom eight members were women.
In Montreal, Jeanne faced floods and harsh winters, inconsistent administrators and supporters, and intestinal disorders. Of particular concern was the ever-present danger of attack. Sister Marie Morin, Ville-Marie’s first historian, recalled: “The Iroquois have now turned entirely against us. They encircle us so closely and their attacks are so sudden and frequent that there is no safety for us. They kill our people and burn down our houses…our hospital is far from being secure, and we have had to place a strong garrison to protect it.” Jeanne narrowly escaped capture several times and often found herself in the heat of battle.
Amid the turmoil, Jeanne planted gardens of medicinal plants that were the perfect treatment for scalp and other wounds related to climate and conflict. She also welcomed orphans and was a constant resource to the inhabitants of the city—men and women, adults and children, French and native.
After more than thirty years of tending to the sick and the wounded of New France, Jeanne saw the colony at Ville-Marie grow strong and secure. Wearied, however, by the excessive demands of a new administration that seemed oblivious to the challenges facing the pioneers and to the unique role played by women, Jeanne Mance died in obscurity in June 1673.
Eventually, Jeanne has come to be recognized as a remarkable individual who participated in the transformation of an inhospitable island into a prosperous city. Her journey, much like the city’s development, extended into new frontiers—political, interracial, economic, geographic, and spiritual. Through caring for the physical bodies of those she encountered, Jeanne also nurtured the social body of the settlement. The bonds woven together through her service provided cohesion for a new society.