French missionary Marie Guyart was a pioneering educator in seventeenth-century Canada. Going against the wishes of her family, Guyart achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a nun (member of a Roman Catholic order for women). In 1631 she entered the Ursuline convent (a house where nuns live) in Tours, France, where she took the religious name Marie de l'Incarnation and began her spiritual training. Eight years later Guyart went to Canada and established a convent in New France (now Quebec). Her school for daughters of settlers and Native Americans thrived in spite of many hardships. A tireless missionary, Guyart also wrote instructional materials in Algonquian and Iroquoian. Her autobiography, titled The Life of the Venerable Mother Marie de l'Incarnation published in 1677, is an important document about the lives of Native American and European women in early Canada.
Pursues dream of becoming nun
Marie Guyart was born in France around 1599 to middle-class parents. Her father was a baker in the French textile center of Tours. As a young woman, Guyart had numerous mystical experiences and hoped to become a nun. Her father, who disapproved of her plans, arranged for her to be married to a silkmaker named Claude Martin. After they married in 1617, the couple had one son, Claude. Shortly before the child was a year old, Guyart's husband died.
The Jesuits in Canada
French missionary and Roman Catholic nun Marie Guyart went to Canada in 1639 to work alongside the Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus (a Roman Catholic religious order for men founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola). Jesuits are dedicated to academic study and the establishment of foreign missions and schools. Called the "Black Robes" (because of their clothing) by Native Americans, several Jesuits wrote accounts of their life in Canada. Among them was Jean de Brébeuf, whose narrative (dated 1635) reveals European attitudes toward Native Americans:
Our Hurons, as you see, are not so dull as one might think them. They seem to me to have good common sense, and I find them universally very docile. Nevertheless, some of them are obstinate, and attached to their superstitions and evil customs. These are principally the old people; for beyond these, who are not numerous, the rest know nothing of their own belief. We have two or three of this number in our village. I am often in conflict with them; and then I show them they are wrong, and make them contradict themselves, so that they frankly admit their ignorance, and the others ridicule them; still they will not yield, always falling back upon this, that their country is not like ours, that they have another god, another paradise, in a word, other customs. . . . Two things among others have aided us very much in the little we have been able to do here, by the grace of our Lord; the first is, as I have already said, the good health that God has granted us in the midst of sickness so general and so widespread. [Possibly the Hurons were suffering from an epidemic disease brought by Europeans, who were immune and therefore did not become sick. Native Americans, on the other hand, had no builtin resistance and they died in great numbers.] For our Hurons have thought that if they believed in God and served them as we do, they would not die in so large numbers. The second is the temporal assistance we have rendered to the sick. . . . They seek baptism almost entirely as an aid to health. We try to purify this intention, and to lead them to receive from the hand of God alike sickness and health, death and life; and teach them that the life-giving waters of holy baptism principally impart life to the soul, and not to the body. However, they have the opinion so deeply rooted that the baptized, especially the children, are no longer sickly, that soon they will have spread it abroad and published it everywhere. The result is that they are now bringing us children to baptize from two, three, yes, even seven leagues away [a league equals 2.4 to 4.6 miles]. . . .
Reprinted in: Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, p. 132.
After the death of her husband, Guyart refused to marry again. She and Claude took up residence in her sister's household. Guyart spent the next decade helping with her brother-in-law's carting (hauling) business by grooming horses, keeping books, and writing correspondence. Sometimes Guyart supervised all of the work. When she was not working, she was involved in religious activities. Her ultimate goal was to dedicate her life to God's service as a nun, even though that would mean leaving her son behind.
Establishes convent in Canada
Even though her family strongly discouraged her, Guyart never gave up her longing to be a nun. Finally her brother-in-law agreed to act as legal guardian for her son. He set aside a fund for Claude's upbringing in recognition of the fact that the family's recent prosperity owed much to Guyart's "talent for business." In January 1631 Guyart appeared at the door of the Ursuline Convent in Tours, France, and threw herself at the feet of the reverend mother (the nun who headed the convent). There she took the religious name Marie de l'Incarnation, and for the next few years she carried on a life of physical deprivation, constant devotion, and intensive spiritual training.
Guyart 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 been missionaries in Canada and had returned with stories of people who had "knowledge of Jesus Christ." Eventually Guyart had a vision in which God told her to go to Canada and "make a house for Jesus and Mary [Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, and his mother, the Virgin Mary]."
On May 4, 1639, Guyart went to Canada with the noble-born Madeleine de La Peltrie, who had pledged to devote her wealth and life to missionary work "in the service of savage girls." When they arrived in Quebec in August, Guyart kissed the soil on which she would spend the remainder of her life. Her work included establishing a convent, painting altars (a table or other structure used in worship services), cooking, lugging logs for building, studying Native American languages, and educating young Huron and Iroquois girls. Despite hardships, including threats from Native Americans, the nuns remained in Canada and their convent flourished. Guyart served as the convent's mother superior for eighteen years and held other offices.
Writes spiritual autobiography
Through her writings, Guyart became a tireless promoter of the new convent in Quebec. She carried on an extensive correspondence with her family, friends, religious officials, and potential donors in France. Guyart composed accounts of her mission work for the Jesuit Relations, a popular collection of missionary narratives published annually in France to promote the Jesuits' work in Canada. In 1661 she began writing catechisms (a summary of religious doctrine often in the form of questions and answers), prayers, and instructional materials in the Algonquian and Iroquoian languages. Her best-known work, Sacred History, was a "big book of sacred history and holy things" written in Algonquian. Guyart died in Quebec in 1672.
Seven years before her death, Guyart wrote a spiritual autobiography at the request of her son. Although she had instructed him to keep it private, he published her autobiography as La Vie de la venerable Mere Marie de l'Incarnation (The Life of the Venerable Mother Marie de l'Incarnation) in 1677. Guyart's spiritual reflections and detailed accounts of mission life among Native Americans made the book a popular seller, spreading her fame throughout France. The autobiography remains an important source of information on how contact between the two races changed the lives of Native American and European women in seventeenth-century Canada.
For further research
Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, p. 132.