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Marguerite Bourgeoys: A Builder?

Sr. Louise Côté, CND

Marguerite Bourgeoys – To Love is to Serve

In 1652, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve (native of Neuville-sur-Vanne), founder and governor of Ville-Marie (Montreal), was passing through Troyes in search of a teacher. For Marguerite, it is a call: “I offered to go and he accepted me.”

“About fifteen days after the Feast of All Saints,” following her long journey (two long months at sea) from Troyes to New France and her stay in Québec to care for the convalescing recruits, Marguerite finally arrived in Ville-Marie. She had at last reached the place where she would fulfill her mission, the place for which she had left her family and her native France.

However, in this December 1653, there were no opportunities for her to teach. This was because there were no school age children. What ways did she find to integrate herself into the life of the colony? How did she demonstrate her devotion?

Marguerite’s zeal quickly found means of expression. She responded to the needs of the settlers, comforted the troubled, assisted the foundress of Hôtel-Dieu, Jeanne Mance (also from the region of Champagne, the town of Langres), spread the Good News with humble everyday actions, and counseled all those who sought her advice. Clearly, she was in no way withdrawn or selfish.

She was responsible for the formation of Marie Dumesnil, a twelve-year-old girl who had been entrusted into Marguerite’s care when she left France. She was also involved with other young women who came to New France to “establish new families.”

Each year from 1663, ships brought young women, often orphaned, who had been granted King’s dowries to populate the colony; hence the name filles du roi or King’s Wards. They came from cities and small villages; they were often young with bleak futures ahead of them. Marguerite prepared them for their future life in this rough country and offered what could be considered today “marriage preparation courses.” Her signature appears in several marriage contracts that were signed in the parloir de la Congrégation, the Congregation’s parlor.

From 1668, in order to fulfill the needs of the colony, she organized and operated a farm. In 1676, she opened a house, the equivalent of a domestic science school, known as La Providence, where young women learned skills they needed at the time.

Marguerite and her companions also offered retreats to women and young girls.

In a play about the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys, the author imagined a dialogue between Marguerite and a coureur des bois:

Mother Bourgeoys – A real coureur des bois does not abandon his trail at the first obstacle. I too am in your line of work... and have been for almost forty years.

Coureur (not taking her very seriously) – What do you track? Fox, beaver, hare?

Mother Bourgeoys – I track souls... the souls of savages as crafty as that of the fox; the souls of settlers as valiant as that of the beaver; the souls of children as timid and as gentle as that of the hare.

Coureur (recognizing the person he was addressing) – God forgive me, you are the Mother of our mothers, of our sisters and of our daughters... (bowing) Mother Bourgeoys...

Very quickly, Marguerite began to participate actively in the life of the fledgling community that was Ville-Marie. She became Marguerite the builder. She helped erect a cross on the mountain, replacing the one the Iroquois had taken away. She wrote, “I took Minime (Gilbert Barbier, a carpenter) and several other men and we were there for three consecutive days. The cross was erected and there were stakes to enclose it.”

During 1657, she dreamed of building, on the outskirts of Ville-Marie, a small Marian chapel – a place where settlers would go on pilgrimage to honour the Mother of God. To this end, Monsieur de Maisonneuve gave a piece of land on the shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Marguerite sought workers from among her friends and hired labourers. In exchange, she offered to sew for them – for days and nights she sewed. Even though the project had to be abandoned for some time, the chapel was built. It still stands today and is still a place of pilgrimage in present day Montreal.

In 1658, when Monsieur de Maisonneuve ceded to her a stone stable to use as a schoolroom and teachers’ living quarters, Marguerite Bourgeoys with the aid of carpenters, immediately cleaned it, had a chimney installed and the roof repaired to make it livable. The dove-cote was transformed into a loft to serve as the teachers’ dormitory.

Gradually, the expansion of Marguerite’s work made it necessary to construct other buildings in Montreal and its outskirts.

In describing Marguerite Bourgeoys, the builder, Dom Jamet, one of her biographers, wrote: “She accepts concessions, she acquires property, she builds. At a time when Ville-Marie is in extreme poverty this surely demonstrates great faith in Providence.”

Sister Marie Morin, annalist of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, described Marguerite in this way: There is nothing Sister Bourgeoys cannot do. She succeeds in both spiritual and temporal matters because her actions and her intelligence are inspired by the Lord’s love.

Sister Marie Morin, annalist of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, described Marguerite in this way: “Sister Bourgeoys succeeds in both spiritual and temporal matters because her actions and her intelligence are inspired by the Lord’s love.

As a woman of faith, Marguerite Bourgeoys, always attentive to the needs of others and ready to bring proper solutions, put all her creativity at the service of the mission.


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