Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation
“One of the greatest of Catholic mystics.”
Commanded by a vision, Marie Guyart—better known as Marie de l’Incarnation—arrived in 1639 in what would become Quebec City. By 1642, Marie, an Ursuline nun, had established the first school and built a convent in New France.
Marie was born in 1599 in the French town of Tours into an industrious family of craftsmen and bakers. As a child, she spent hours talking with God and would stand on a chair and repeat sermons that she heard in church. At age seven, she saw the Lord Jesus in what she later described as a mystical dream. “Do you want to be mine?” he asked. “Yes,” she replied. Marie’s affirmation was to be a lifelong commitment.
Against her wishes, her parents arranged her marriage at seventeen to a man in whom she had no interest. Two years later, she was a widowed young mother. She discouraged all further suitors, lived with her father, and earned a living as an embroiderer.
Although Marie’s desire to become a nun remained unabated her worldly affairs kept her from withdrawing into a cloister. She was urged to remarry to re-establish her financial situation, but she chose instead the reading of works of piety and conversing with God.
In her diary, Marie tells of a unique spiritual experience on the morning of March 25, 1620, when an irresistible force descended upon her. In a moment, the eyes of her spirit were opened and all her faults and imperfections were revealed to her with “a clearness more certain than any certitude.” She saw herself immersed in Christ’s blood. After confession, she was completely changed, and committed to prayer. She studied the Gospels, meditated on the life of Christ, and practised the sacraments at her local parish church.
Marie left her father to help her sister and brother-in-law in their shipping and conveying company. They made her the company manager because of her knack for administration. At the same time she became deeply involved in benevolent works in Tours.
Her son, Claude, had entered college at age twelve, a separation that was hear-rending for Marie. She sought the advice for her priest and waited for divine guidance. In January 1631, she asked her sister to care for her son and entered the noviciate of the Ursulines of Tours. Distraught, Claude tried to storm the convent with a band of schoolboys. Amid the uproar, Marie overheard him crying; “Give me back my mother, give me back my mother.” She would later say of her decision to leave her son that “no human explanation can justify such an action,” she was obeying divine commands.
Marie took her vows in 1633 as Marie de l’Incarnation. Like many other nuns, Marie had read of opportunities to create religious communities in New France in Relations des Jésuites (published in English as Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents), and she prayed fervently for the Catholic work in the colony.
While Claude continued his schooling with the Jesuits in Rennes, Marie rose to become the assistant mistress of novices and an instructor in Christian doctrine. In yet another dream, however, God took her to a vast country full of mountains, valleys, and heavy fogs. “It was Canada that I showed you,” and the Lord, “you must go there to build a house for Jesus and Mary.”
Marie interpreted the dream to mean that she must go to New France to evangelize that natives and to build a convent and a school. Socially and culturally, such a project was unheard of in her day. She knew that it would draw strong opposition, especially since she lacked social status. But her passion grew. She spoke with key individuals within the French Catholic reform movement and, surprisingly, succeeded in convincing them to fund the project.
In addition, Marie found herself increasingly aligned with Compagnie des Cent-Associés (the Company of One Hundred Associates), which, already at work in New France, assisted her in getting the bishop of Tours to allow her to pursue her vision. In May 1639, she set sail from Dieppe accompanied by two other Ursuline nuns and one of her main lay supporters, MARIE-MADELEINE DE LA PELTRIE.
After three months at sea, they disembarked at the future site of Quebec City, then a community of a few dozen inhabitants. Marie threw herself wholeheartedly into the demands of the new country, striving to be of service through teaching native girls and to save souls through sharing the Gospel.
Marie’s letters overflow with picturesque stories describing the “children of the woods,” whom she often referred to as the “delights” of her heart and with whom she recommended that the nuns “use affection.” Her work among adult Indians was equally passionate. She catechized them and regaled them with sagamité (a dish of corn meal and meat). She studied Indian languages under the Jesuits and mastered them to such a degree that she wrote Algonquin, Iroquois, Montagnais, and Ouendat dictionaries and a catechism in Iroquois. She wrote prolifically, and her correspondence—over 12,000 letters—is an invaluable document of colonial history.
At age fifty-one, Marie was as active as ever—high atop scaffolding, for example, supervising the reconstruction of the convent when fire destroyed the original in 1650. Tenaciously, she disagreed with Quebec’s bishop Laval and his attempts to control Quebec’s Ursulines. She vigourously opposed him and openly challenged his authority over the religious community. Not until after her death was the bishop of Quebec able to impose his rule on the Ursulines.
Claude, meanwhile, continued to be her delight. He had joined the Benedictines of Saint-Maur in 1641 and by 1668 was the assistant to the superior general. Just before dying, Marie sent him an affectionate message: “Tell him that I am carrying him with me in my heart.” She passed away in 1672 after a bout with hepatitis.
Bishop Laval, with whom she had sparred for so long, eulogized her. “We consider as a special blessing the acquaintance which it pleased God to give us with her.… She was dead to herself to such a degree, and Jesus Christ possessed her so completely, that one may assuredly say of her, as of the Apostle, that it was not she who lived, but Jesus Christ in her, and that she lived and acted only through Jesus Christ.”
Marie de l’Incarnation is considered to be one of the greatest of Catholic mystics. She was beatified by Pope Jean-Paul II in 1980.