Bourgeoys, Marguerite (1620–1700)

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Bourgeoys, Marguerite (1620–1700)

French Catholic founder of the Congrégation de Notre Dame de Montreal who dedicated most of her long life to educating the poor and underprivileged in the pioneer settlement of Ville-Marie, New France, later to become Montreal, Canada. Name variations: Marguerite Bourgeois; Soeur du Saint-Sacrement. Born on April 17, 1620, at Troyes, Champagne, France; died on January 12, 1700, at Montreal, Canada; daughter of Abraham Bourgeoys and Guillemette (Garnier) Bourgeoys; beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1950; canonized in 1982.

Born into a large and affectionate family in the prosperous French town of Troyes; though not particularly religious, underwent a spiritual experience at age 20 which transformed her life; became dedicated to the service of God and had a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary; well trained in Troyes as an external member of the Congrégation de Notre Dame; refused entry into several established religious orders; was 33 when she accepted the invitation of the governor of Ville-Marie (Montreal) to accompany him to New France (Canada) as a teacher; as the settlement grew, so did the number of her pupils, the size of the community of women which she established and the number of her schools; her ideas about pedagogy, based on those of Pierre Fourier, stressed kindness and encouragement rather than punishment; established the Congrégation de Notre Dame de Montreal, an order of teaching women who were not cloistered nuns but women who served the community by living and working in it.

Not content with her day schools and boarding schools now flourishing inside the confines of Ville-Marie, Marguerite Bourgeoys set out to take education to the native children of Canada. The sisters went by canoe, on horseback, and on foot to isolated settlements far distant from the main settlement, and in 1678 she established a permanent mission school in the Indian village of Montagne. Despite the ever-present danger of capture, torture, and death at the hands of hostile tribes, Bourgeoys justified the activities of her Congrégation, in these first missions specifically aimed at native children, by citing an irrefutable precedent: "The apostles went forth into every quarter of the world to preach Jesus Christ; like them we feel urged to make Him known in every part of this country to which we may be sent."

Marguerite Bourgeoys was born during one of France's most turbulent centuries. The middle-class daughter of Abraham Bourgeoys, candle-maker and employee of the mint in Troyes, she lived in a time which saw France ravaged first by the Thirty Years' War and then by the Civil War called the Fronde, a period in which unprecedented magnificence was created by

Louis XIV at his court at Versailles and during which bad harvests brought famine, disease, and death to the poor. Marguerite, the 7th of 13 children, was 19 when her mother died and must have assisted her elder sister in caring for the younger members of the family.

A lively and popular girl, fond of pretty clothes and not particularly religious, Bourgeoys refused an invitation to join a group of young women who met regularly for religious instruction at the convent of the Congrégation de Notre Dame. Although the nuns had not initially been forbidden by their rule to leave the convent, their movements were being increasingly restricted, as were those of most female religious orders in 16th-century France. Rather than the sisters leaving the convent, the lay or external women went to them and, as well as lessons in the Catholic faith, the young women were taught the essentials of how to teach, so that they might serve as an "outreach" arm, spreading instruction and education in the community where the sisters could not. According to her memoir, which she wrote almost 60 years later, Bourgeoys keep her distance because she was fond of fine clothes and was afraid of being thought a religious fanatic. However, in 1640 an event occurred which changed her life—an event which mystics frequently refer to as a "conversion experience." Walking in a religious procession, she passed in front of the convent of Notre Dame, where there was a stone statue above the door. "When I looked up and saw it I thought it was very beautiful, and at the same time I found myself so touched and changed that I no longer knew myself. On my return to the house everybody noticed the change, for I had been very light-hearted and well-liked by the other girls."

From this point onward, Bourgeoys was to develop both the mystical and the practical sides of her nature and to devote both aspects to the service of God. Her first step was to enter the external congregation of the sisters of Notre Dame. The sister placed in charge of the group was Marie Louise de Chomedey de Sainte-Marie , sister of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the recently appointed governor of Ville-Marie, a settlement in New France. Prospective candidates usually had to apply twice before being granted admission, but Marguerite was admitted at once. It was probably felt that such a popular young woman would attract still more members, and this proved to be the case: she lead the group for 12 years and during that time its membership expanded from about 30 to more than 400 young women.

The religious order of which the Congrégation de Notre Dame de Troyes was a part had been established in 1598 by Pierre Fourier and Alix le Clerc, and one of its primary aims was to improve the education, both spiritual and otherwise, of young girls, for its founders were deeply aware of the important role these girls would one day play as mothers of families. Fourier was a great innovator in the area of pedagogy, and his ideas concerning the dedication required of teachers, the need to serve the poor as well as the wealthy, and the necessity of using kindness rather than harsh discipline were to become cornerstones of Bourgeoys' own teaching method.

"When God in His divine goodness gave New France to the Blessed Virgin…, she wished to have the little girls formed as good Christians so that they might later become good mothers. … For this she chose poor women without learning, without distinguished bearing, without talent and without money."

—Marguerite Bourgeoys

Much as she must have enjoyed her work as an external sister, teaching in people's homes and sharing prayers with the other young women while still living with her own family, Marguerite soon felt the need for a life of even greater religious sacrifice. Her decision to become a nun was probably influenced by the advice of the priest who was the group's spiritual director, Father Antoine de Gendret. It was perhaps Gendret who suggested that she apply to the Carmelite order but, as Bourgeoys records, "the Carmelites refused me, even though I was strongly drawn to them." This rejection is puzzling; at 23, Marguerite was certainly old enough to know her own mind, and her father had agreed to provide her with the necessary dowry. Her most recent biographer, Patricia Simpson , suggests that Bourgeoys, with her solidly bourgeoisie background, may not have been socially acceptable to the now fashionable and upper-class order. She tells us that she tried other orders "but did not succeed either"; in these cases, Simpson speculates, the orders may not have met Marguerite's own needs for a strict religious life combined with community service.

Not finding a home in an existing religious order, Bourgeoys began the construction of her own spiritual way; a process that was to continue all her life:

I gave myself to God in 1640. A few years later, upon the advice of my confessor, I took the vow of chastity and some time later, the vow of poverty. I made both of these vows with all the zeal and all the perfection possible to me, together with the resolution to keep them all my life. I have never had a thought contrary to this.

However, hers was to be a life of work as well as renunciation, and once again, Father Gendret assisted in finding the way:

M. Gendret … told me one day that Our Lord had left three states of women to follow Him and to serve the Church: the role of Magdalene was filled by the Carmelites and other recluses; that of Martha, by cloistered religious who serve their neighbour; but the state of the journeying Virgin Mary, which must also be honoured, was not yet filled. Even without veil or wimple, one could be a true religious. This was very acceptable to me because I had compassion on the young women who, for lack of money, could not enter the service of God. I always held to the purpose which we had hoped to realize in Troyes—that there would be a refuge for those girls who had all the qualities but who could not become religious for lack of money.

The model of the "journeying Virgin Mary" was to serve Bourgeoys well, although her first attempt to emulate her in a more regulated way did not yield permanent results.

In the years between 1644 and approximately 1651, Bourgeoys established a residence with two other women in Troyes, in an apartment belonging to a married sister of de Maisonneuve, living lives of devotion and service according to a rule developed by Gendret and another theologian. But the arrangement did not last; one of the women married and the other died. Marguerite returned home in time to care for her dying father, and his death, in October 1651, left her once again searching for the way.

Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve passed through Troyes in 1652, taking time to visit his sisters while on a mission to provide settlers and financing for his fledgling settlement of Ville-Marie in New France. He was now 41, 8 years older than Bourgeoys, a devoutly religious man who had embarked on a military career at the age of 13 but had turned from warfare to the even more challenging task of assisting in the conversion of the native people of Canada, then called New France, to Christianity. Ville-Marie, the settlement named after the Virgin Mary, which was to become known as Montreal, had been established ten years earlier.

In 1642, de Maisonneuve himself had carried a heavy cross for the altar to the top of the mountain and joined in the prayers of the settlers that God would grant the conversion of the Indians and that they would come, submissively, to be instructed. But, after a deceptively peaceful first year, the task had proven more difficult than anticipated and while some tribes had been responsive, the Iroquois had staged a series of attacks on the tiny settlement, killing and carrying off women and men to torture and death. The eradication of the mission at Sainte-Marie and the murder of its priests by the Hurons in the autumn of 1649 convinced most of the colonists that the days of New France were numbered unless France sent reinforcements. Even de Maisonneuve seems to have been ready to abandon the faltering experiment, when Jeanne Mance , the devout woman who had been one of the community's first settlers, supplied the money for de Maisonneuve to journey back to France in order to seek settlers and financial support. His efforts were successful, and in 1653 de Maisonneuve was to return with new recruits and with Marguerite Bourgeoys.

Sister Louise had tried to persuade her brother to allow her to accompany him to Montreal with a small group of nuns, but he refused. He was well aware that his tiny and embattled settlement was not yet ready to support a religious community. He did, however, see the need for a teacher. Marguerite, who was then 33 and free of all family obligations, offered to fill that role and de Maisonneuve accepted her. Not a woman guided by impulse, Bourgeoys had sought guidance from God in prayer and had consulted with several religious authorities whose opinions she trusted before committing herself. In a dream the night before meeting de Maisonneuve, Marguerite had seen St. Francis "and another bald man, dressed simply like a priest going into the country, not an intellectual." She immediately recognized de Maisonneuve as the man in her dream. She had also shared with Father Gendret her regret that the new project would mean the end of her cherished ambition to establish a community of lay women, dedicated to the service of the Virgin Mary, in Troyes: "M. Gendret told me that what God had not willed in Troyes, He would perhaps bring to pass in Montreal."

Bourgeoys left Troyes in February 1653 but it was late June of that year before her ship was ready to sail. Along the way, she had recurrent doubts about the wisdom of the path she was taking, doubts which were stilled by prayer and a vision which came shortly before departure: "One morning, when I was fully awake, a tall woman dressed in a robe of white serge, said to me very clearly: 'Go, I will never foresake you.' I knew it was the Blessed Virgin. This gave me great courage and I found nothing difficult, even though I feared illusions." Accompanied by the 108 colonists recruited by de Maisonneuve, 100 of whom survived the journey, the ship had to return to port because it was taking on water, and it sailed again on July 20, the feast of St. Margaret, finally landing at Quebec on September 22, 1653.

Bourgeoys was to dedicate the remaining 47 years of her life to the service of Montreal. She began her service on the ocean voyage, nursing the sick and bringing spiritual counsel to the men so that they became "as gentle as true monks … changed like freshly washed linen." However, she may well have experienced momentary hesitation on her first sight of the her new land. After the carefully tended fields, neat villages and temperate climate of her native Champagne, Bourgeoys was transported to a place of towering forests, with winters in which exposed limbs could freeze in minutes, a land in which isolated European settlements were surrounded by warlike natives, eager to capture and kill the unwelcome colonists. She found the settlement at Quebec "so poor it was pitiful," with no more than five or six houses. Refusing an invitation to stay at the Ursuline convent, Bourgeoys started out as she intended to continue, sharing the spartan accommodation of the colonists. As she was later to instruct her community: "When the sisters are travelling and it is necessary to sleep away from home, they ought to choose the homes of the poor where they ought to give very good example and always give some informal instruction." In mid-November, as soon as the sick recruits were well enough to travel, Marguerite went with them to Montreal.

Her first home was in the Governor's House, inside the fort. This was the home for all of the new arrivals who had not yet left to build their own houses; the only other buildings in the settlement were the priests' quarters and the soldiers' barracks. It was to be five years before Bourgeoys would have the school which she longed for; there were, as yet, not enough children to justify a building. In 1653, there were only 14 women and a total of 15 children in the settlement. In her earliest years, Marguerite performed a variety of functions, taking care of the linen and general maintenance in the Governor's House, providing support, advice and spiritual counsel to the families, and caring for the sick, as well as giving private lessons to the children. In 1654, 15 marriages took place and soon the number of children began to grow, although infant mortality was a continuing concern.

Although her fellow immigrants on the ship from France, aware of her spiritual calling, had begun to call Marguerite "sister," she had not joined any formal order, and the vows of chastity and poverty she had taken were personal and private ones. While she considered herself completely dedicated to God, she probably dressed much like any of the other women, not in any formal habit that would proclaim her mission. It is this apparent ambivalence about her status that perhaps explains an incident reported by Sister Marie Morin in later years. De Maisonneuve, experiencing spiritual difficulties, which we can only assume were of a sexual nature, consulted a Jesuit priest who advised him to marry. Sister Morin says that he sought Marguerite's advice, but perhaps he may also have been sounding her out as a possible wife. Whatever de Maisonneuve's motives, the response he received from her was that, instead of marrying, he should take a vow of chastity. He followed Marguerite's suggestion, and the two remained friends and allies for another decade, until de Maisonneuve left the settlement for the last time in 1665.

In the meantime, there was much to be done, and de Maisonneuve did not hesitate to delegate significant responsibilities to Marguerite. Soon after her arrival, she was given an escort of 30 men to restore the original cross on the mountaintop which had been overthrown by the Iroquois. While visiting the site, she found the remains of a banner which Sister Louise had given her brother on behalf of the Congrégation de Notre Dame of Troyes, an image of the Virgin surrounded by the message which was a play on words: "Sainte Mère de Dieu, pure Vierge au coeur royal, gardez-nous une place en votre Montroyal" ("Holy Mother of God, pure Virgin with a royal heart, keep a place for us in your Montreal"). Bourgeoys viewed her discovery as a confirmation of her mission to the new world. The following year, she was placed in charge of having a chapel built some distance from the fort itself; de Maisonneuve helped to drag the trees, Marguerite repaid the men by doing sewing and mending. The Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) still stands.

But Bourgeoys' main mission was to teach, and finally, in the spring of 1658, she was able to open her school. De Maisonneuve obtained a stone stable for her, the former property of a cowherd killed by the Indians in 1652. The deed of gift makes clear that the school was to serve the girl children of the settlement, and that there was to be a community of women teachers who would reside there. Still a community of only one, Marguerite oversaw the renovations to the building which included the installation of a chimney for heat, and the digging of an encircling ditch along with the installation of a removable ladder to the loft as rudimentary protection against Indian raids. But within a few months of the school's opening she had to close it temporarily and return to France. Jeanne Mance needed specialized medical care for a broken arm, and Bourgeoys agreed to accompany her, deciding to use the visit to fulfil a long-cherished dream:

Five years later I returned to Troyes to bring back some women to help me teach a few girls and boys able to learn. We would live in community as we had planned it and in conformity with what we had planned in France. … I promised … that we would have bread and soup and that we would work for our living.

Just two months before the voyage, Marguerite had already demonstrated her love for the native people of this new land; she had reluctantly adopted an Iroquois baby, the child of a single mother whom she describes as "somewhat neglectful." The child, the first Iroquois to be baptized, was called Marie-des-neiges (Marie of the Snows). Bourgeoys, with typical reserve, records merely that "she died at the age of 6 in our house," but it is clear that she loved her very much, and she kept her name alive by bestowing it on other girls whom she later adopted.

During the six months which she spent in France, most of it in her native city of Troyes, Bourgeoys found four women willing to accompany her back to New France, a group which would, at last, form the nucleus of a community of lay women, dedicated to community service and prayer. The form that the community would take was not yet clearly defined; it was to based on the rule which had been drawn up for the projected house in Troyes, but this group would develop in a very different environment, with its main goal that of educating children, both those of the settlers and of the native peoples.

From the first, Bourgeoys was determined that the community be completely egalitarian; those recruited to teach, like Edmée Chastel, were valued no more highly than Catherine Crolo , the "sturdy wench" whose strong arms would produce the bread and take care of the laundry. Edmée renounced her share of the family property before leaving with Marguerite, stating in the legal document which was drawn up that she was going to New France to spend her life "in a congregation of women which is established in the said region on the island of Montreal to care for young French girls and even Indians as far as this is possible." Her father insisted that Edmée sew enough gold pieces into her corset to cover the cost of her return to France, should the spartan life in New France prove too harsh for her; none of the four women who accompanied Bourgeoys to Montreal was ever to return to France.

The new community was essentially established on the ship which sailed for Canada on July 2, 1659; this hardy group of secular women formed the nucleus of the Congrégation de Notre Dame of Montreal. Their primary function was to teach, and in this they were guided by the constitutions of the co-founder of the original Congrégation de Notre Dame, Pierre Fourier. Recognizing that women were best suited to educate other women, he had called upon the sisters to realize that the girls they taught would grow up to perform an essential role as mothers of families:

Although still small in years, they are not a small or paltry portion of the Church of God even in the present, and in a few years will be capable of great good. For this reason, it is very expedient to see that everything necessary is done for their own well-being and for that of their fathers and mothers, the families they will one day govern, and the state itself.

Marguerite adopted Fourier's ideas, adapting them, as required, to the needs of New France. The sisters were not to usurp the authority of the family but were rather to work with the parents, using kindness and good example rather than punishment, to lead the children to learning. Punishment was to be administered "very rarely, always with prudence and extreme moderation, it being remembered that one is in the presence of God." The sisters were to find places for the poor as well as the rich in their stable school and, as well as religion, reading and writing, also taught what might be called "life skills," preparing the girls both for the harsh pioneer life and for earning their own living if necessary. Resisting the strict hierarchical divisions of her day, Marguerite stressed the importance and value of honorable work; in order to offer the children a free education, she and the sisters supported themselves by doing needlework and laundry for the still largely male population of settlers. Until the mid-1660s, they probably taught both boys and girls since Montreal's first school for boys did not open until 1668.

By 1662, with the number of pupils growing rapidly, the stable school had become too small, and Bourgeoys acquired two new pieces of property, a house and land for a farm. She used the house to accommodate the filles du roi, the young orphan girls sent from France as wives for the settlers. Her colleagues at the school had no wish to take responsibility for these latest raw recruits, but Bourgeoys felt differently: "I went to meet them at the shore, believing that we must open wide the doors of the Blessed Virgin's house to all young women." Settlers seeking new brides came to meet them under Marguerite's roof and were doubtless subject to her close scrutiny. These were harsh times; food was scarce, Indian raids were intense and destructive, and the struggle must have seemed unremitting, yet Bourgeoys was to look back upon these years as the most satisfying of her life. No task was beneath her: as Simpson has observed, "Marguerite had that special kind of inner security that not only set her free from many of the class attitudes of her time, but also enabled her to perform with total unselfconsciousness, services that many people, both now and then, would regard as demeaning, yet she did so without compromising her dignity as a person and as a woman."

A new, more prosperous period for New France was to commence in 1664 when a contingent of French troops arrived at Quebec under General de Tracy in sufficient numbers to deter the Iroquois from further attacks. Their arrival signalled the recall of de Maisonneuve to France after 25 years in Montreal. He retained the title of governor until 1668 but never returned to Canada. On his death in September 1676, he left the biggest portion of his estate to Bourgeoys and her Congrégation. With peace established, Montreal quickly grew in numbers and prosperity. Marguerite, the only one of the early leaders to remain active through the second half of the century, frequently reminded her companions not to be seduced by material comforts and security: "O my dear sisters, let us revive at least among ourselves the true spirit of cordiality and love which formed the glory and beatitude of the first Christians."

The filles de la Congrégation, the name by which Bourgeoys and her companions were known, were given approval in 1669 by Bishop François de Laval, the apostolic vicar of New France, and were authorized to teach on the Île de Montreal and all other places in Canada that should request their services. At this time, the sisters' simple clothing of long dress, shawl and bonnet seems to have been approved as a religious habit. In 1670, Bourgeoys crossed the Atlantic once again to obtain confirmation from the king in order to ensure the continuity of her community. The document, given in May 1671, records:

Not only has she performed the office of school mistress by giving free instruction to the young girls in all occupations that make them capable of earning their livelihood, but, far from being a liability to the country, she has built permanent buildings, cleared land concessions, set up a farm. …

On her return to Canada, Bourgeoys brought three of her nieces back from France, two of whom were later to become sisters of the Congrégation and the third was to marry a settler.

While Marguerite agreed to open a boarding school for the daughters of noble and bourgeois families in Montreal in 1676, her main interest was always in the poor and native children. She set up domestic training schools to teach needlework to the poor and sent members of her community to establish mission schools for the native girls, with a permanent school set up in the Indian village of Montagne. Following his visit to the Mountain Mission in 1685, Bishop Laval reported:

… about forty Indian girls are clothed and brought up according to the French way of living. Manual labour forms a good part of their training, while at the same time they are taught the mysteries of the Faith, the hymns and prayers of the Church, not only in their own tongue, but also in ours, so that they may, little by little, become used to our manners and customs.

Despite the approval which the Congrégation had received from Bishop Laval and the French king, Bourgeoys still saw the need for further, more formal recognition. Her group still represented an anomaly within the church of the day: women who took no formal religious vows and who were not confined to a convent but who emulated the "wandering" life of Mary by teaching and spreading the faith. Fearing that change would be imposed after her death, in 1680, at the age of 60, she journeyed to France for the third time, seeking reassurance, only to be snubbed by Bishop Laval and denied permission to recruit any more women. Overwhelmed with responsibilities, the bishop was clearly growing impatient with this independent-minded woman and the issue of recognition remained unresolved. By December 1683, Bourgeoys was ready to step down as superior of the community, but a fire at the mother house in Montreal resulted in the deaths of two of the sisters being considered to succeed her, forcing Marguerite to resume the leadership once again.

The order continued to grow, especially under Bishop Laval's successor, Bishop Saint-Vallier. It was Saint-Vallier who expanded the service provided by the Congrégation from the Montreal area, first to a school on Île d'Orleans and then to one in Quebec City in 1692. Bourgeoys was finally able relinquish her duties as head of the community in 1693, when she was 73 years old, but still her struggles were not over. Like Laval before him, Saint-Vallier attempted to "regularize" the Congrégation, first by trying to bring about a merger with the Ursuline nuns and then by trying to impose a rule of his own design upon the community. Bourgeoys must have assisted her successor, Sister Barbier , in resisting these efforts and in continuing the struggle for recognition of their unique form of life and service. Finally, in July 1698, the Congrégation won official recognition as a community of "secular nuns"; Marguerite's new name was "Sister of the Holy Sacrement" and she was able to spend the last two years of her life in prayer and seclusion in the chapel of the mother house.

As Hélène Bernier has observed, the manner of Bourgeoys' death represented the same combination of realism and mysticism which had typified her life. In the winter of 1700, a young nun, Sister Catherine Charly , was dying. Reliable witnesses were later to testify that Marguerite offered her own life to save the young nun, praying, "O God, why do you not take me instead, I who am useless and good for nought!" Almost immediately Sister Catherine began to recover and Bourgeoys, quite healthy until that time, was taken ill with a heavy fever. Marguerite Bourgeoys died a few days later, on January 12, 1700.

In an era of spiritual and heroic women, Bourgeoys' contemporaries realized the remarkable holiness and dedication of her life. Objects which had touched her body were treasured as holy relics, and her remains were divided between the parish of Ville-Marie, where her body was buried, and the Congrégation, which kept her heart.

While the missionary spirit is one which seems distant and perhaps even misguided to the modern observer, Marguerite Bourgeoys pursued her calling with compassion and sympathy, convinced that she was bringing "the light" of the true religion and the benefits of civilization to the native children. Hers was indeed an exceptional life, not only in terms of her piety, bravery, and dedication to New France but in ways which still have echoes for us today: her advanced views about educational methodology, her insistence that education should be free for all, and her stubborn defense of a mode of life and service which was considered unsuitable for the women of the day. Using the Virgin Mary as her model, she refused the option of the cloistered life: "The Holy Virgin was not cloistered, but she everywhere preserved an internal solitude, and she never refused to be where charity or necessity required help." On her death in 1700, Bourgeoys left 40 sisters to continue her work; by 1961, there were over 6,000 members of her order in 262 communities in Canada, the United States and Japan, teaching some 100,000 pupils. She was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1982.

sources and suggested reading:

Bernier, Hélène. "Bourgeoys, Marguerite," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 115–119.

Butler, Elizabeth. The Life of Venerable Marguerite Bourgeoys, Foundress of the Congregation de Notre Dame of Montreal. NY: P.J. Kennedy, 1932.

Simpson, Patricia. Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640–1665. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

Dr. Kathy Garay , Assistant Professor of history and women's studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada