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Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal

Adapted from the introduction to Patricia Simpson's Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1665 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997)

1. Educator of Montreal

Marguerite Bourgeoys, a native of Troyes, the ancient capital of the province of Champagne, in 1653 came to a tiny and beleaguered Ville-Marie, still undergoing its birth pangs. The city that we now know as Montreal came into existence through the desire of a group of devout men and women in seventeenth-century France to share with the native people of the New World what they regarded as their most precious possession: their Christian faith. They hoped to achieve this goal through the establishment of a settlement on the island of Montreal in the colony of New France. The foundation was intended to embody the Christian ideal described in the Acts of the Apostles in such a way as to attract the Amerindians just as the communities of early Christians had drawn their first converts in the Mediterranean world of the first century. To attain this end, the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal was formed in France in 1640, and Ville-Marie founded on the island of Montreal in May two years later.

Marguerite Bourgeoys's arrival eleven years after the initial foundation was to fulfill part of the original design for the colony, which included a plan to provide for the education of its children. She came with the recruitment known as the “hundred men” (« La grande recrue »), who were to prevent that first foundation from abandonment or extinction, the alternatives facing Ville-Marie by 1653. On the voyage between France and Canada, during which she had cared for the sick and consoled the dying, the prospective settlers with whom she journeyed had already begun to address her as “Sister.” From this beginning until her death in 1700, she was totally dedicated to the welfare of the people of Montreal.

2. Early Beginnings of the Congregation

With the first settlers she shared the dangers and hardships, as well as the efforts and hopes that marked life in the early colony. Like them, she was vulnerable to the threats posed by the environment the enemy, and disease, as well as by sometimes hostile or incompetent authorities in both church and state. She consistently avoided and, whenever possible, refused all preferment or privilege that would remove her from the lot of ordinary people in New France, the poor and struggling settlers attempting to build a better life for themselves and their families in the New World.

She also performed the task for which she had come to Montreal, opening the first school in an abandoned stable in the spring of 1658. To give permanence and stability to the work of educating children and women in New France, she founded a community of uncloistered women. Although civil and especially ecclesiastical approbation lay far in the future, this community came into existence on July 2 1659 when Marguerite's first companions joined her on the ship carrying the last of the great recruitments undertaken by the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal.

3. Marguerite, Women, Families and the People of God

Like several of the other leaders in early Montreal, Marguerite Bourgeoys came from a region of France where women had played important public roles since at least the Middle Ages. In becoming part of the Montreal endeavour; she participated in an undertaking in which women played key roles, both behind the scenes in France and in the leadership of the early colony.

The evidence of the time indicates that the relationship between these women and the men who were their partners was cooperative rather than confrontational. But Marguerite Bourgeoys was not just concerned with the prominent persons of Montreal, the men and women whose names history has recorded. She was convinced of the importance of the ordinary women of the colony: in their hands - the hands of those who were to be its wives and mothers - lay the future of Canada. Their education was of paramount importance to her. Marguerite's words, as well as the life work she undertook, reflect her belief that people, and therefore society, can be changed if only they can be enabled “to understand,” an object of all true education.

4. Liberating Education: Working With the Families

The instruction that Marguerite Bourgeoys and her companions provided to the children (initially boys as well as girls) and women of New France was foremost an education in faith that sprang from a profound religious impulse. The faith, which found expression in her life as well as in the words of hers that have been handed down and was the foundation of all her teaching, was a belief in the primary and overriding importance of the double commandment at the heart of both the Old and New Testaments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

However education had, for Marguerite, other important functions than that of conveying religious instruction. Her first pupils were not the wealthy and powerful; they were the children of colonists in seventeenth-century Montreal, who had early faced the challenging tasks of earning a living for themselves and their families and of building a new country. To enable them to accomplish these tasks, she stressed the importance not only of “honourable work” but of the value and importance of their efforts.

Marguerite's educational efforts were not confined to the teaching of children in the schoolroom. She reached out to the young immigrant women who came as prospective brides to New France (known as « Les Filles du Roy »), going so far as to give them a home, where she lived with them while she helped them to adapt to their new country and situation. She also opened workshops where poor women could learn the crafts that would enable them to earn their living. The intimacy in which she and her companions lived with the other settlers in the early colony, as well as her genius for perceiving and responding to the needs around her; made possible a form of education that was truly relevant to the lives of those who received it.

5. A New Form of Religious Life: the CND

Although Marguerite Bourgeoys spent most of her life on what her European contemporaries would have seen as a boundary of the world, she was at the centre of an important development taking place in the Roman Catholic Church of her time: the attempt to establish a different kind of consecrated life in community for women.

Until the seventeenth century and until much later in the minds of many ecclesiastical authorities, women who lived in community and dedicated themselves to the service of the church were of necessity cloistered women, prohibited from leaving their convents and able to admit outsiders only into designated areas of those convents. The material security of these communities depended on endowments and dowries, thereby closing them to poor women unless they could find a sponsor.

Marguerite was to be successful in establishing one of the first uncloistered religious communities of women in the Catholic Church, a community that was self-supporting and that, unlike most of its counterparts in France at the time, has survived until today. This community was to owe its character and its survival to her experience in the so-called heroic period of Montreal's history.

Her inspiration in founding such a community was Mary the mother of Jesus, whom she saw as the first and most faithful disciple of the Lord, going about teaching and doing good in the primitive church. Her sense of identification with this figure grew with her own experience of the “primitive church” of Montreal's earliest years.

6. Sustaining Marguerite’s Dream

If Marguerite herself had been asked to choose an era of her life to designate as “golden,” her writings imply that it would quite certainly have been the period between 1653, when she arrived in Montreal, and 1665, when the departure of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and the arrival of the Carignan-Salières regiment signaled the end of an era in the city's history.

These had been years of struggle, danger, deprivation, and hardship; they were also years of hope, friendship, and shared dreams. During these years, Marguerite knew every settler in Montreal, many of them intimately, and was as much a part of their lives as they were of hers. …The life of Marguerite Bourgeoys did not finish with the departure of de Maisonneuve in 1665.

…She was to win civil and then ecclesiastical recognition for one of the first uncloistered communities of women in the Roman Catholic Church. In her lifetime the members of that community were to include not just French but North American women of French, Amerindian, and even English ancestry. They were to extend their educational efforts beyond Montreal to Quebec and to the little settlements coming into being along the St Lawrence River…

A study of Marguerite Bourgeoys can do more than help us understand the past. She was a pioneer, a leader in attempts to build a better church and a better society in a world where those two were not really separable. It was a world where she made the welfare of women and children her special concern, one that she believed could be improved if people could learn to understand one another.

The worlds in which we lived only yesterday are as irrevocably lost to us as Europe was to the settlers of the seventeenth century who left it for the New World or as pre-Columbian America was to its native peoples once the Europeans had arrived. Though experienced so long ago, the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys in early Montreal can tell us something about meeting the challenges of the present, in which we are all pioneers, and about the need for understanding and compassion, which are no less important now than they were more than three centuries ago.


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