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“I gave myself to God.”
“All I have ever desired most deeply and what I still most ardently wish is that the great precept of the love of God above all things and of the neighbour as oneself be written in every heart.” So wrote Marguerite Bourgeoys, who left the security of a seventeenth-century French bourgeoisie life to serve the early pioneers in New France. She assisted in bringing the gospel to the natives, established schools, taught vocational and domestic skills to women, helped the poor, and founded the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal.
Marguerite was born in the city of Troyes, the ancient capital of the province of Champagne, in France, on Good Friday 1620. She was baptized in the parish church the same day. Her father was a master candle maker and a official in the city mint, giving the family a respected position in the community. At the age of twenty, while taking part in a religious procession, Marguerite was touched by an experience of grace so profound that she felt herself transformed. Late in life, she wrote, “I gave myself to God in 1640.”
Marguerite began working among the poor in Troyes with other young women who were organized and directed by the sister so the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Troyes, a cloistered teaching community. They met regularly, prayed together, taught the children of the poor, dressed simply, and were known as the extern congregation. Marguerite had previously declined to join them because she thought of herself as rather flighty, liked to be chic, and didn’t want to be seen as sanctimonious. She was to become not only a member but also the prefect of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, whose number swelled to four hundred under her leadership.
In 1652, Marguerite met PAUL DE CHOMEDEY DE MAISONNEUVE, who had founded the settlement of Ville-Marie on the island of Montreal in Canada in 1642 for the express purpose of carrying the gospel to the Amerindians of the New World. Its organizers, a group of devout men and women in France who financed, recruited, and planned the settlement, believed that, just as other Christians had left the Mediterranean world to carry the gospel to their ancestors in northern Europe so they were now responsible for reaching the aboriginal peoples of North America. They hoped life in the settlement would reflect that of the early Christian church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Maisonneuve, in France to seek more recruits for the tiny, fragile settlement, happened to visit his sister Louise, a cloistered nun in the congregation of which Marguerite was the prefect. When Maisonneuve said that it would be along time before Montreal could support such a convent of cloistered teaching nuns, Louise suggested that he take Marguerite to teach the children.
The decision to go to Montreal was not easy for Marguerite. It meant leaving the poor of Troyes, and it also seemed to mean abandoning the idea of a community dedicated to honouring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, she eventually found peace with the idea and arrived in Montreal in November 1653.
During her first five years in Montreal, she lived in the governor’s house within the fort. Marguerite worked closely with Maisonneuve and with JEANNE MANCE, the foundress of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. In 1658, Marguerite opened Montreal’s first school. Later that year, she made the difficult journey back to France and return with four companions to help in her work. Three would remain with her and would become the first members of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal, dedicated to imitating the life of Mary, particularly Mary’s visitation and her work in the early Christian church. They were later joined by other women from France; by the daughters of French settlers; by Amerindian women; and even by women from the American colonies, who, brought to Montreal as captives by the Amerindians, chose to stay there, became Catholics, and joined the congregation.
Led by Marguerite, these women taught the children of the French settlers, first in Montreal and then in the villages coming into being along the Saint Lawrence. They also received into their convent young women who had come to marry. The Filles du Roy (King’s Daughters), as these young women were called, were recruited by the royal government in France and given a dowry on condition of going to New France to marry. After they married, Marguerite visited them in their homes to teach them to read and to perform for them whatever services were required. Marguerite, who greatly valued the role of women in the family and in society, saw in these women the future of Canada. She welcomed them, helped them adjust to their new conditions, and later supported them in their efforts to raise families.
In 1676, Marguerite and her followers began teaching Amerindian girls in what was called the Mountain Mission. Although the transmission of the Christian faith was the most important part of their mission, they also taught reading, writing, arithmetic and the skills needed to earn a living. Because they considered the last such an important responsibility in the teaching of the poor, they even opened a vocational school for the teaching of older women. All of this education was offered free of charge. Marguerite wanted her community to be self-supporting, and her members worked hard not to be a burden to the settlement. They lived a poor and simple life close to the ordinary colonists.
The Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal achieved civil recognition when Louis XIV granted letters patent to Marguerite in 1671. In 1676, it received ecclesiastical recognition. In 1693, an aging Marguerite resigned as the superior of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal. She lived long enough to see, in 1698, it’s Rule of Life approved, permitting the sisters to pronounce their vows publicly for the first time.
Marguerite Bourgeoys died in Montreal on January 12, 1700. A local clergyman wrote to a friend: “Never were there so many … as there were this morning at the funeral of this holy woman. If the saints were canonized today as they were in olden times, tomorrow we would be saying the mass of Saint Marguerite of Canada.” Almost three centuries later, in 1982, Marguerite was, indeed, canonized into sainthood.