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Marie De L'Incarnation (1599–1672)


MARIE DE L'INCARNATION (15991672), French mystic and missionary. Marie Guyart of the Incarnation was a leading figure of the Catholic mission to the Amerindians of New France; she was also a theologian (she was called "the Saint Teresa of the New World"), a spiritual adviser, mystic, businesswoman, and founder of the Ursuline convent in Quebec (Canada). Her extensive correspondence reveals a profound spirituality combined with a remarkable sense of organization and outstanding linguistic skills. As the first female missionary outside Europe, she exemplified female religious patronage and activism, which led to the development of social welfare in early modern Catholic Europe and its colonies. In New France, she was a star; it was almost compulsory for every newcomer to the colony to visit her, for she could provide information not only on the natives' languages and customs, but also on the settlers' living conditions.

Marie Guyart was born in Tours (France) to parents who operated a bakery. Nothing is known of her education or how she developed such a talent as a writer. Married to the silk manufacturer Claude Martin in 1617, but widowed two years later, she raised her only son Claude by herself while running her brother-in-law's shipping business for more than six years until she decided to retire from society. In 1631 she entered Tours' Ursuline convent, leaving her son in her sister's care, and pronounced her vows after two years of probation as a novice. By then she had decided on the great project of converting souls. She succeeded in going to New France in 1639 with the help of a large network of supporters that extended from her close relatives to Anne of Austria, queen of France (16011666). Two Ursulines, Marie de Savonnières de La Troche (16161652) and Cécile Richer (16091687), accompanied her and helped her found, the same year, the first teaching convent in North America.

After a long life of ecstatic visions, letter writing (more than 10,000 in all), and down-to-earth missionary work, Marie Guyart died in Quebec in 1672. By merging contemplation and action, she typified the mystics of the early seventeenth century. On the one hand, she was an expert in speculative theology, which she taught to her fellow nuns. Considered a sensible spiritual adviser, she was frequently chosen as the mistress in charge of the probationers of her convent. Over the years she also became the thoughtful director of conscience of many of her correspondents. She was more reserved about her mystical ecstasies, which she confided only to select people such as her son. On the other hand, she was also a devoted missionary, teaching and assisting Amerindian girls and women and raising funds for her mission. All things considered, however, regard for her missionary work was poor. Her Amerindian pupils were always few in number and often died early. Their numbers fell drastically at the end of the century because of epidemics and wars.

Marie Guyart's task did not end with her mission to the Amerindians but extended to the rest of the colony. She not only converted Amerindian girls, she educated the French girls with the aim of raising them as good and pious housewives. Her other, numerous skills ranged from translation of dictionaries in various Amerindian languages to architecture and crafting such as embroidery and gilding, which she introduced into the colony.

See also French Colonies: North America .


Primary Sources

Marie de l'Incarnation. Correspondance. Edited by Guy-Marie Oury. Solesmes, France, 1971.

. Écrits spirituels et historiques. Edited by Albert Jamet. Quebec, 1985.

Secondary Sources

Bruneau, Marie-Florine. Women Mystics Confront the Modern World: Marie de l'Incarnation (15991672) and Madame Guyon (16481717). Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Comby, Jean, et al., L'itinéraire mystique d'une femme: Rencontre avec Marie de l'Incarnation, Ursuline. Paris and Québec, 1993.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1997.

Deslandres, Dominique. "In the Shadow of the Cloister: Representations of Female Holiness in New France," in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, edited by Allan Greer and Jodi Bilinkof, pp. 129152. New York and London, 2003.

. "'Le Diable a beau faire . . .', Marie de l'Incarnation, Satan et l'autre," Théologiques, 5, (1997): 2341.

. "L'éducation des Amérindiennes d'après la correspondance de Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation." Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, 16 (1987): 91119.

. "Les femmes missionnaires de Nouvelle-France," In La religion de ma mère: Les femmes et la transmission de la foi, edited by Jean Delumeau, pp. 7484. Paris, 1992.

. "Qu'est-ce qui faisait courir Marie Guyart?: Essai d'ethnohistoire d'une mystique d'après sa correspondance." Laval théologique et philosophique 53 (June 1997): 285300.

Deroy-Pineau, Françoise. Marie de l'Incarnation: Marie Guyart, femme d'affaires, mystique, mère de la Nouvelle France, 15991672. Paris, 1989.

Mali, Anya. Mystic in the New World: Marie de l'Incarnation, 15991672. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1996.

Rosario Adriazola, María-Paul del. La connaissance spirituelle chez Marie de l'Incarnation: La Thérèse de France et du Nouveau monde. Paris, 1989.

Dominique Deslandres

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l’Incarnation, Marie de (1599-1672)

Marie de lIncarnation (1599-1672)

Businesswoman, mystic, founder of the ursuline convent in quebec


Life in France. Marie de lIncarnation exemplifies the mark an energetic woman could make as a missionary nun in New France. She was born Marie Guyart, daughter of a baker who sold his loaves in the French textile center of Tours. Marie enjoyed mystical experiences even in her youth and dreamed of entering a nunnery. Her father, however, disapproved and arranged a marriage for her to a silkmaker named Claude Martin when she was seventeen. She bore a son the next year, and before the child was a year old her husband died. Marie refused to marry again, devoting herself to religious exercises whenever she could free herself from other tasks in her sisters household, where she and her son Claude had taken up residence. She spent the next decade helping with her brother-in-laws carting business, grooming horses, keeping books, and writing correspondence. Sometimes during his absence Marie supervised all the work. All the while, however, she was seeking to dedicate her life to Gods service as a nun, even though that would mean leaving her son Claude behind.

Sisterhood. Marie never gave up her longing to become a nun although family members worked diligently to dissuade her. Finally her brother-in-law agreed to act as legal guardian for her son, setting aside a fund for his upbringing in recognition that the familys recent prosperity owed much to Maries talent for business. In January 1631 she appeared at the door of a nearby convent kept by the Company of Saint Ursula, where she threw herself at the feet of the reverend mother. There she took the religious name Marie de lIncarnation, and for the next few years she carried on a life of physical deprivation, constant devotion, and intensive spiritual training. She soon became an instructor of Christian doctrine in the convent, even writing explanations of the faith and a commentary on the Old Testament Song of Solomon. She also listened to the preaching of Jesuit fathers, some of whom had gone as missionaries to Canada and returned with stories of people who had no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Eventually she had a vision in which God told her to go to Canada and make a house for Jesus and Mary.

Missionary. On 4 May 1639 Marie de lIncarnation embarked for Canada in partnership with the noble-born Madeline de La Peltrie, who had pledged to devote her wealth and life to missionary work in the service of savage girls. When they arrived at Quebec in August, Marie kissed the soil on which she would spend the remainder of her life. She threw herself into the work of establishing a convent, painting altars, cooking, lugging logs for building, studying Native American languages, and teaching young Huron and Iroquois girls whenever possible. She served as the convents superior for three six-year terms and held other offices. Marie also became a tireless promoter of the new convent through her writings. She carried on an extensive correspondence with her son, relatives, friends, religious officials, and potential donors in France. She composed accounts of her mission work for the Jesuit Relations, a popular collection of missionary narratives that were published annually in France to promote the Jesuits work in Canada. In 1661 she began writing catechisms, prayers, and instructional materials in Algonquian and Iroquoian. The largest of these was a big book of sacred history and holy things, written in Algonquian and titled Sacred History. Seven years earlier she had composed a spiritual autobiography at the request of her son, Claude Martin, charging him to keep it private. In 1677, five years after her death, he published it as La Vie de la venerable Mere Marie de IIncarnation. The books spiritual reflections and detailed accounts of mission life among the Canadian Indians made it a popular seller, spreading throughout France the fame of this enterprising woman. The autobiography remains an important source of information on how contact between two races changed the lives of Native American and European women in seventeenth-century Canada.


Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

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Marie de l'Incarnation

Marie de l'Incarnation (də lăNkärnäsyôN´), 1599–1672, French missionary. Her name was originally Marie Guyard. She was married in her youth and bore a son; when her son was 12 years old, her husband being dead, she entered the Ursuline order. At her entreaty, the authorities gave her and another nun permission to go to New France to work among the Native Americans. In 1639 she arrived in Quebec, where she was soon head of an Ursuline convent. She administered her house with great success and worked among the Native Americans with notable results. Her letters are valuable sources of French Canadian history. She wrote devotional works and catechisms, not only in French but in Native American languages.

See A. Repplier, Mère Marie of the Ursulines (1931).

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