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Living the Charism of Marguerite Bourgeoys Today

By Denise Lamarche, CND

A charism is an inspirational force, a dynamic commitment with a perspective that mobilizes, a gift, a skill, an ability to carry out part of a mission and the capability to act or to bear witness. In short, it is a gift from the Holy Spirit for the common good. That is the message conveyed as we reread Chapter 4, verse 11 of the Letter to the Ephesians. The different gifts or charisms listed in this verse, those of being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, are not, so to speak, gifts given strictly to the persons who receive them.

They receive these gifts “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”

(Ep 4:12).

In 1653, a woman named Marguerite Bourgeoys came to our country from Troyes, France. She was filled with a great charism, that of education. She came to New France to join Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve in order to open a school for the settlers’ children. However, because of the very harsh climate, children died at a very young age. Therefore, it was not until 1658 that she was able to open her first school. During the five years when she could not teach the children, she did not bury her charism, her talent for education. Rather, she used it, elsewhere and differently than in a school, by teaching men and women about family life, civic life and Christian life.

With her companion, Catherine Crolo, she welcomed the Kings Ward’s and taught them how to be good wives and mothers. She gathered men to raise the cross on Mont-Royal and to build Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. By these actions and in her role as a school teacher, which she practiced as soon as she could, Marguerite Bourgeoys sought to raise people up so that they might, in turn, raise up others. Today, according to Paulo Freire, we call this liberating education.

The sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys, have been teachers for a very long time. They have educated generations of young people in primary and secondary schools, in classical colleges and in universities. Other sisters responsible for cooking and cleaning taught housekeeping to the young girls who helped them.

Now, due to the evolution of society and due to age, there are considerably fewer teaching sisters; however, they still carry Marguerite’s charism, only differently. Some sisters of the Congregation work for and with children who have serious family problems. The sisters welcome them, help them succeed in school and accompany them in their physical, emotional and spiritual development. They teach them how to relate to others and show them how important they are. They free them from being demoralized and help them find their dignity. Some sisters also work for and with adults.

  • They teach classes or facilitate retreats and various sessions that foster growth in faith. They thus free people by accompanying them in their search for meaning in their life.
  • Others volunteer at collective kitchens and sewing workshops, sharing their talents with women and men who have to discover their own gifts in order to then share them with their families or certain organizations.
  • Others work in a prison environment or with former inmates, revealing to them that they are greater than the offenses for which they must pay their debt to society. In this way, they help them free themselves from hate, from the desire for revenge and the false idea that they are worthless.
  • Others help young single mothers learn how to educate the child that they love but who has turned their life upside down.
  • Others welcome women who are isolated or abused and teach them the arts which gives them a sense of self worth and enables them to meet others in similar situations.
  • Others are members of boards of directors.
  • Others share their expertise with Christian communities and dioceses.
  • Others collaborate with organizations focused on social justice. They free voices that demand: respect for women and their place in society and the Church; the rights of the poor; the protection of the planet.
  • Others who exercise positions of authority at the heart of the Congregation try to ensure that all sisters assume, in diverse ways, this charism of liberating education, the treasured heritage of Marguerite Bourgeoys.

The sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame and the associates of this congregation want to continue the mission entrusted to Marguerite Bourgeoys: to foster an education that focuses on the meaning of life and growth in faith; that fosters fraternal life in the light of the Gospel; that encourages one to accomplish works of justice; that is oriented towards prayer and the celebration of the Lord.

Marguerite Bourgeoys’s greatest desire was “that the great precept of the love of God above all things and of the neighbor as oneself be written in every heart.” Her entire educational work could be summed up in this aspiration that her daughters must also have. This is why she asks them to carry out her vision in a spirituality which recognizes that “the life led by the Blessed Virgin throughout her time on earth ought to have its imitators.” Was it not Mary who taught the infant Jesus and the apostles during the birth of the Church?

For over three hundred years, women, following Marguerite Bourgeoys, have devoted their lives to God to educate by teaching in schools, by training young girls in domestic arts and by using all means to help awaken intelligence, the will and heart... They have thus contributed and continue to contribute to the liberation of persons who find, in the endless apprenticeship to freedom, a road that leads to the well-being of women and men who know how to raise up others in order that they may be happy.

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