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An Archivist in Maria Province, a CND Province

Denys Chouinard

From March 28 to April 12, 2016, upon an invitation from Sister Kyoko Terashima, the author of this text met with the teachers and directors of the teaching establishments of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in Japan as well as the sisters and associates. In Fukushima, Kita Kyushu (Tobata) and Tokyo (Chofu), he gave six presentations of a conference entitled Marguerite Bourgeoys, 1620-1700. Liberating Education for Everyone, Everywhere. The presentation was given in English with simultaneous Japanese translation graciously provided by Sister Terashima. During this period, accompanied by Sister Mary Gillis, he visited Nagasaki, the birthplace of Christianity in Japan.

 

Christian Faith and the Spirit of Visitation

From 1587 to 1873, Christianity was prohibited in Japan. Among those who practiced it were some who met with a tragic end. The most well-known were the twenty-six martyrs of 1597 whose memory the city of Nagasaki still honours with a striking monument in the shape of a cross. The adjacent museum has a very informative collection of artefacts, illustrations, books and archives on the long and difficult history of those who were called the hidden Christians.[1]

An interesting fact, which is also related to the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, is that the Jesuits who first came to Japan in 1549 were leading, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the movement of Catholic renewal that proposed, among other things, a thorough reform of education. Marguerite Bourgeoys, in her teaching activities in Troyes, France, and later in New France, was participating in the same movement inspired by the Jesuits. When the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame arrived in Japan in 1932, they were still conveying the educational ideals of the 17th century. History’s return had been long awaited, but Christian Faith and the Visitation Spirit do not keep track of time!

 

Under the Protection of Mary – Auspice Maria

At the door of the schools and colleges of the Congregation in Fukushima and Kita Kyushu (Tobata), as well as at the entrance to the kindergarten and convent in Tokyo (Chofu), a statue of the Virgin Mary greets occupants, residents and visitors. At the entrance to Sakura no Seibo College and near the Heritage Room, and on the wall of the convent in Chofu, are the letters AM – Auspice Maria – which means Under the protection of Mary. In all these establishments, the statue of Mother Bourgeoys also draws attention. Always near or in association with the Virgin, the foundress of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame is presented with her role model, the Mother of God.

With a full understanding of Marguerite Bourgeoys’s profound inspiration – Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elisabeth – Sakura no Seibo College installed prominently in a staircase a beautiful stained glass window that recalls how those indwelt by God are drawn to the love of neighbour.

In a very religious nation such as Japan, even if there is a very small proportion of Catholics (less than 0.5%), this Christian invitation to compassion touches spirits and stirs hearts. Teachers and students alike are marked by it. They say it, even sign it!

Attentive and, at times, Surprised Audiences

The objective of the conference given to the teachers and directors (around one hundred in Fukushima, a bit more in Tobata and about twenty in Chofu) and to the sisters and associates, was to situate the life and work of Marguerite Bourgeoys in the context of the 17th century both in France and in New France. The goal was to draw attention to the scale of the challenges this Champagne native faced and to her determination to meet them.

It was important to begin by situating Marguerite Bourgeoys in her city of Troyes, which was in serious economic decline that led to widespread poverty, and in her family of merchants who taught her good business skills. It was also important to emphasize her life choice – teaching young girls. The twelve years she spent doing this in Troyes were a determining factor. With her broad range of knowledge, she was ready to set off for the New World, to Ville Marie in New France. There, she hoped to realize what was impossible in France at the time – to found an uncloistered congregation dedicated to free education for girls.

The road leading to this objective must have been particularly difficult despite the gratitude of the population and the recognition of the State, that was, in 1671, King Louis XIV himself. The approval of the Church was only granted in 1698, two years before Marguerite Bourgeoys’s death. Thanks to the intervention of Louis Tronson, Superior of the Sulpicians in Paris and friend of Mother Bourgeoys, the latter and her companions finally obtained from the Bishop of Quebec, Mgr de Saint-Vallier, the constitutions officially establishing, in the name of the Church, that Les Soeurs de la Congrégation de Notre-Dame were authorized to go wherever their services were needed.

Given that the conference was addressed to teachers and administrators, a good portion of it was on the education given by Marguerite Bourgeoys and her companions. The hundred or so pages on the education of girls found in the Constitutions of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in France provide a very good idea of it. This text is equivalent to a teaching manual or programme of study. The content of this precious document, currently kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, reveals the desire to help girls participate in the economic life of families and to develop their intellectual potential. For several teachers attending the conference, including those who came to Montreal in 2011 and 2013 to discover the origins of the Congregation, the methods used in the 1600s are still pertinent today. We can still draw inspiration from them in the 21st century.[2]

Among the numerous discussions that followed the conference, certain questions and comments are worth mentioning. In Fukushima, an associate particularly knowledgeable in the history of Montreal asked what Mother Bourgeoys’s reaction might have been after the Governor of Montreal was sent back to France in 1665. The question could not have been more pertinent. Without a doubt, Marguerite Bourgeoys must have been very affected by this departure because it represented not only the loss of a friend but also confirmed the end of the project of the Société Notre-Dame to create in Ville-Marie a new society bringing together the French and the Amerindians.

In this situation, the foundress of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame revealed one of her great strengths, her ability to adapt. When faced with a change in government in Ville-Marie and the colony, she adjusted. While continuing to advocate for the education of young girls, she opened her doors to the Kings Wards in response to King Louis’s wish that, upon their arrival to Canada, these young women destined to be married be taken charge of and taught. This was how she created new alliances with the authorities while steering a steady course towards creating a new congregation of uncloistered nuns. She lost an important ally and friend in de Maisonneuve but she still had other invaluable ones like Jeanne Mance, her neighbour from Hôtel-Dieu.

Another comment came from a teacher from Kita Kyushu, one of the ones who came to Montreal. He said he was worried about the future of the work of the Congregation in Canada due to the seeming decline of the Catholic religion there. This was a very justified comment. The speaker recalled that, in her time, Marguerite Bourgeoys participated in the Catholic reform movement in response to the withdrawal of the faithful in favour of Protestantism. Her constant adaptation to the realities and difficulties of her time constitute, still today, a strong inspiration.

Another topic fuelled conversation – the meeting of Marguerite Bourgeoys with Madame de Miramion in France in 1680. It was during a dinner at the Kita Kyushu convent that the speaker underlined the extent to which Mother Bourgeoys was attuned to the most recent developments in the Catholic Church in France. The purpose of her third voyage to the motherland (1679-1680) was to recruit other companions, but also to learn about the new congregations of women devoted to education. To do so, she met with Madame de Miramion because she had established the Congrégation des Filles de Sainte-Geneviève whose constitutions showed that these women were not cloistered; this example would, of course, be good for Montreal. It should be noted that these novelties were popular in France at the time. The wife of the Sun King, Madame de Maintenon created, in 1694, the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, led by women who taught less affluent noble girls. They were not cloistered!

 

Follow the Light and Be Women of the Parish

In the convent chapel in Tobata, a flame permanently illuminates the cross of Christ. Despite its small size, it draws a great deal of attention. The light seems to come from far away, like at the beginning of Christianity. During each event, Mass, vespers or other religious ceremonies, it calls people together. Once the assembly has ended, the flame continues to shine, assuring everyone that it will still be there tomorrow to accompany those who do not cease to give of themselves.

And every day, ready to contribute to a better society and a better Church, the sisters set out like the apostles. Mother Bourgeoys expressed it very clearly in her writings: “The apostles were sent in the name of Our Lord and they worked wonders. The sisters of the Congregation are sent under the protection of the Blessed Virgin to teach school and they instruct girls as though they were very learned.” In Japan, like elsewhere, the sisters of the Congregation are women of the parish and they participate in apostolic work. Some accompany students in classes, others provide teaching support or work in the library, and others have administrative functions. When you take a close look, there is really no difference with what Marguerite Bourgeoys did in Troyes and in Ville-Marie over three centuries ago!

 

“Why Do You Love Marguerite Bourgeoys?”

In the dining room of the convent in Chofu, Sister Takako Kikuchi turned toward the speaker and asked with an elegant French accent: “Monsieur Chouinard, why do you love Marguerite Bourgeoys?” This very direct question required an immediate answer. It went like this: “Mother Bourgeoys and the CND have helped to place in my life a mother and a wife who, having studied in their schools, shared and continue to share with me very strong human values. In addition, the project of liberating education that began in 17th century is still, in 2016, a promising path for the future of individuals and societies. The road has been paved, now all we have to do is follow it.” This answer seemed to please the young 94 year old sister.

 

A Constant and Continuously Renewed Partnership between Sisters and Lay Persons

The schools of the Congregation in Japan, like the other schools of the CND in the world, are part of a very long tradition of partnership and collaboration between sisters and lay persons.

An eloquent and recent demonstration of this reality is the beautiful speech given by the Principal of Sakura no Seibo Junior College in Fukushima on April 5, 2016 during a ceremony marking the beginning of the school year.[3] Mrs. Nichiuchi Minami, first lay person to hold this position in the history of the Junior College, recalled that her institution works in the spirit of the Visitation, that is to say, all the personnel want to go out towards the other to help, as Mary did with her cousin Elizabeth. She added that all the employees express the wish to live in love and service, the founding principle of the College, following the example of the Virgin Mary and of Marguerite Bourgeoys. Finally, she mentioned that she is committing herself to do all she can to ensure that each student may, in turn, live in the love and service of society. We could not ask for a better climate in which to continue the mission undertaken in Japan in 1932.

The final word came from Sister Eleanor McQuaid from the Chofu convent who wrote the following at the end of the speakers visit to Tokyo: “The collaboration of lay persons is an inspiration for the sisters.” She had thus returned the courtesy to him, he who had said how the sisters can encourage lay persons and even challenge them to exceed themselves. After all, these sisters are masters of pedagogy!

 

Conclusion

This may be what makes for a more promising future, when in the spirit of Visitation and of Pentecost a woman (the Mother of Christ) was respectively the bearer of Hope and the mentor of those who would spread it (she brought together the apostles to found the Church). Marguerite Bourgeoys made her her role model, her mission, her project. As we have had the great privilege of seeing, it continues unabatedly in Japan, through the sisters, the associates and the teachers. It is an inspiration for the archivist who is also a layperson and friend of Marguerite Bourgeoys.

Auspice Maria.

 

 

 

[2] This part of the conference has already been translated into Japanese and left at the disposal of the teachers of Kita Kyushu.

[3] I attended three ceremonies for the opening of the school year, two in Tobata and one in Chofu (kindergarten). The solemnity and the quality of these events certainly met the level of pride of the parents present for this important event in the life of their children.  Added to this was the charm of the three-year-old toddlers who, totally amazed, make their entry into the world. Their calls to their mothers were irresistible. 

 

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