Mance, Jeanne (1606–1673)

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Mance, Jeanne (1606–1673)

One of the early colonizers of Canada, inspired by religious devotion and the desire to serve God, who is credited as the founder of the Hôtel Dieu hospital and the co-founder of Montreal . Pronunciation: Jan Monce. Name variations: Jeanne de Mance. Born Jeanne Mance in late 1606 (she was baptized on November 12, 1606) in the town of Langres, France; died in Montreal, Canada on June 18, 1673; daughter of Charles Mance (a lawyer) and Catherine Émonnot Mance; never married; no children.

Worked as a nurse attending to victims of war and plague (1635–36); immigrated to New France (1641); Montreal founded (1642); secured funds to stave off Iroquois attack (1651); journeyed to France, returned with nursing sisters to Montreal (1658); was present at the founding of the Church of Notre Dame (1673).

The early exploration and settlement of North America has traditionally been viewed as the work of men. Along the St. Lawrence River, however, in the small settlements of the 17th century which were to form the backbone of New France, women played a significant role in early colonial life. One of these women was Jeanne Mance, who was born in France and spent the first half of her life in relative obscurity. However, by the age of 33, she had decided that the best way for her to serve God was to go to the New World to aid in the process of settlement and in the spread of Christianity to the natives. Mance played a critical role in the fortunes of the new colonies. As one of the founders of the City of Montreal, she was instrumental in the colony's survival, advising the governor and securing financial aid. She was also given sole responsibility for establishing a hospital and worked tirelessly over the years overseeing its construction and administration, while providing nursing care to the colonists. As well, she arranged for the establishment of an order of nursing sisters at the hospital, thereby ensuring its independence and survival after her death. As a testament to her success, the hospital, the Hôtel Dieu, still exists in Montreal.

Jeanne Mance was born in late 1606 (she was baptized on November 12, 1606) in Langres, a town in the province of Champagne, France. She was the second of twelve or thirteen children born to Charles Mance and Catherine Émonnot Mance . The family may have been minor nobility, although there is no doubt they were middle class by the standards of the time. Charles Mance was a king's proctor, a legal position of relative importance in the king's bureaucracy.

The details of Mance's early life are sketchy. According to memories recorded later, she decided at the age of six or seven to devote her life to God. Although this may seem young (and is perhaps an exaggeration), it is important to understand both that this was a period of increased religious fervor in France and that the nature of faith in the 17th century was different from that of today. Religion was all-pervasive in the lives of believers, affecting their daily actions and thoughts. It was also more mystical in nature, particularly for Roman Catholics (the dominant religion of the French). Tales of miracles and encounters with saints or other representatives of God were common and must be understood as a feature of this period. Whatever the age at which she made the decision, there is no doubt that at an early stage in her life Mance had decided to serve God. However, she did not wish to become a nun, because that required withdrawal into the cloister. Instead, Mance seems to have believed that her "calling" lay in helping others. Thus, her early years were spent caring for the sick and injured.

Mance's commitment to nursing was forged during the years 1635–36. The region where she lived was invaded by the Lorrains in 1635. As often happened, battle was followed by the pillaging and destruction of homes and property and by the widescale massacre of the local population. By 1636, sickness and plague were the natural consequence, adding to the devastation of the region. Throughout this period, Mance acted as a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers on the battlefield and for the plague-stricken population.

Up to this point, Mance was unsure as to what her life course would be. In 1640, while attending Lenten services, she had the opportunity to converse with a canon of the Cathedral at Langres. Eventually, their conversation switched to the topic of missionary activity in "New France." (By 1640, France had a number of small colonies situated along the St. Lawrence in what is present-day Quebec.) Mance was impressed and inspired by the efforts of the Church to Christianize and "civilize" the native population. Among the faithful existed a genuine belief that it was God's will and in the best interests of the natives that they be converted and dissuaded from "pagan" ways. Mance was particularly impressed by the contributions of women in New France. In the French colonies, unlike in those of Britain, women played a prominent role in early

settlement and missionary activity. Convents existed, offering women an alternative to marriage and motherhood. Many of the orders were dedicated to social services such as teaching and nursing, thereby effectively offering Catholic women the opportunity to play a role in society. In New France, two orders of nuns were already involved in establishing hospitals and schools.

Following this conversation, Mance began to consider the possibility of going to New France. But this was not a decision made easily, and as it was extremely dangerous, her family was completely opposed. New France was an unsettled wilderness with a harsh climate, lacking even the most rudimentary comforts of civilization and faced with the threat of attack from the native population. The distance was formidable. The ocean voyage was also dangerous, took a minimum of six weeks, and could only be taken during the summer months, meaning there was no communication with the colonies for most of the year. Effectively, this meant that she would be completely cut off from her friends and country. As well, Mance was frail in constitution, making her susceptible to illness. And, of course, she was a woman. Because she did not belong to a religious order, it was questionable what she would do in New France and through what means she would even get there.

Nonetheless, Mance persisted. The canon was supportive and encouraged her to go to Paris and consult with Father Charles Lalemant, the Jesuit priest in charge of Canadian missionary activities. Mance hid her intentions from her family, claiming that she was going to Paris to visit cousins. While in Paris throughout the summer of 1640, her plans solidified; she met Father Lalemant twice, and was encouraged by him to attempt the journey. Still, serious obstacles stood in her way. However, word began to spread throughout élite Paris society about Mance's religious devotion and her desire to go to the colonies. Eventually, she was introduced to Angelique Faure , the widow of Claude de Bullion (the superintendent of finance for the French government), a very wealthy woman who was actively involved in supporting numerous charities. After four visits, Madame de Bullion was so impressed by Mance that she asked her to go to New France with the purpose of establishing a hospital there for the benefit of the colony. Though she would finance the hospital and support Mance, the widow requested that her name be kept secret.

Montreal owes a great debt to [Jeanne Mance].

—Sophy L. Elliott

In the spring of 1641, Mance arrived at the port of La Rochelle ready to embark for the New World. In a church there, she met Jérôme de La Dauversière, the founder of an association called the Company of Montreal. Comprised of 45 devout men and women, the Company had been formed with the purpose of founding a colony in the New World to be named Ville Marie de Montréal (present-day Montreal, Canada). It was to be a religious colony, dedicated to the Holy Family, and some colonists, supplies, and the chosen governor of the new colony, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, were already assembled to leave. Believing that the small group of settlers needed a woman to be responsible for the administration of supplies and care of the sick, Dauversière asked her to join the Company. Thus, Jeanne Mance came to be a member of the Company of Montreal and was given a concrete destination in the New World where she could establish a hospital.

Before embarking, Mance suggested to Dauversière that the Company of Montreal extend its membership in order to have a larger base of financial support from which to ensure the colony's survival. She asked him to write and send to her several copies of an outline of the Company's plan. Once she received the outline, she distributed it, with a personal invitation from herself, to the many prominent and charitable people with whom she had become acquainted. Through this means, Mance was able to secure several new members for the Company who were willing to donate money.

The group set sail on two ships in the early spring of 1641, and Jeanne Mance arrived at the colony of Quebec (modern-day Quebec City) at the beginning of August. It was soon decided that it was too late in the season to attempt founding a settlement before the winter set in, and the group therefore decided to winter at Quebec. Over the next nine months, they encountered opposition from the governor and residents of Quebec. Some feared a new settlement would compete with them for furs from the natives, while others believed it would be better for all if the new arrivals stayed in Quebec and helped to develop that colony. Nonetheless, on May 17, 1642, Mance and her group arrived on the Island of Montreal to found a new colony. Consequently, Jeanne Mance and Paul de Maisonneuve are credited with being the founders of Montreal.

Once the colony was established, it still faced serious obstacles to its survival. Beyond the rigors of founding a settlement in the midst of wilderness was the ever-present threat of attack from the Iroquois Nations. In the early days of European intervention in Canada, Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, in their desire to secure a steady supply of furs from the native population, had forged an alliance with the Huron, who were at war with the Iroquois. From that time on, the Iroquois regarded the French as their enemies. Montreal, situated furthest inland in the midst of Iroquois territory, faced the greatest threat of all the colonies. Consequently, the homes and fields of the colonists were built around a stone fortress in which guns, ammunition, food, and clothing were stored. In the event of attack, all could retreat into the fort. The first winter passed peaceably, giving the settlers much-needed time to clear land, construct their fort, and build homes. Mance received word at this time that a large sum of money had been sent by Madame de Bullion for the construction of the hospital at Montreal. Feeling secure, Mance argued that the funds could be better used by the Jesuits in their missionary work among the Huron. But Madame de Bullion insisted a hospital was to be built, and construction was begun immediately, with a permanent structure completed by 1645. This insistence was fortunate, as Mance soon found herself using the nursing skills she had developed on the battlefield in France to care for colonists injured in sporadic attacks by the Iroquois.

In 1649, warfare between the Iroquois and Huron came to an end with the virtual extermination of the latter group. The Iroquois immediately turned the full force of their efforts towards the French. By 1651, the situation in Montreal was critical. Sustained attack had forced the colonists to retreat into their fort, and their numbers had become seriously depleted. In the summer of 1651, one of the Montreal colonists, Dollier de Casson, wrote: "There is not a month in this summer when our book of the dead has not been stained in red letters by the hands of the Iroquois." It was obvious this state of siege could not go on for long; supplies would soon run out, and the colonists were not able to attend to the business of subsistence, such as caring for crops. But they did not have the money to purchase the necessary arms, munitions, and manpower. At this time, the French government, preoccupied with problems at home and unconvinced that the colonies had anything to contribute, was unwilling to supply the materials, men, and military strength needed to set the colonies on a firm footing. Wrote Mance:

Every person was discouraged; I felt what a loss it would be to religion and what a disgrace for the State if we had to lose the colony after all we had done; I therefore urged M. de Maisonneuve to go to France for help.

It was hoped that, with the financial support of the Company of Montreal, Governor de Maisonneuve would be able to secure arms and soldiers, although all realized that the Company might not have the resources. At this point Mance developed a plan to save the colony. She explained to Maisonneuve that some of the money given to her by Madame de Bullion (a significant sum) still existed and could be used for the purposes of defense. Given her benefactor's determination that the money be used only for the hospital, Mance instructed the governor to explain to Madame that the hospital's survival was dependent upon the continued existence of a colony which required the protection of a company of soldiers. Thus, indirectly the money was to be used for the hospital. In return for the money, Mance demanded that the hospital be given 100 acres of cleared land to aid in its future support. Maisonneuve agreed to the proposal, although he had to approach Madame delicately given her continued desire to remain anonymous.

Maisonneuve then set sail for France, leaving the colony to wait through another winter for word of his return. Desperate for news, Mance headed to Quebec once the spring arrived in 1653. On arrival, she was relieved to hear that Maisonneuve was on his way back with a contingent of soldiers. The wait was tense: just two days after Mance had passed through Three Rivers on her way to Quebec that colony was attacked by the Iroquois. In Quebec, all realized that if Three Rivers were to fall, both Quebec and Montreal would be next. Finally, after delays due to bad weather, Maisonneuve arrived in Quebec on September 22, 1653, accompanied by soldiers as well as some new colonists and supplies. The presence of the soldiers frightened the Iroquois, causing them to end their aggression. Mance had saved the colony from extinction. Renewed and newly inspired, the colonists resumed the process of building their settlement.

A few years later, on January 28, 1657, while heading to the hospital to attend a patient, Mance fell on the ice, fracturing her arm and dislocating the wrist. While the fracture was repaired by a doctor, the dislocation was not initially noticed. Within six months, she could no longer use her right arm and hand. Unable to attend to her patients and in great pain, she left for France on October 14, 1658, accompanied by Marguerite Bourgeoys , in the hope that a French physician could help. She also had to attend to some matters regarding the hospital. The original plan of Dauversière (and of Mance and her benefactor) was that a new order, the Hospitallers of Saint-Joseph of La Flèche, would go to Montreal once the hospital was founded to manage and operate it. Mance was concerned that this plan would not be fulfilled because of increasing pressure, particularly from the bishop of Montreal and the Jesuit Superior, that control of the hospital be given to the Hospitallers of Quebec. With two nuns from Quebec filling in while she was away, Mance knew that she had to secure the arrival of the Hospitallers of La Flèche or lose control of the hospital to the Quebec order. Her trip was successful. Through meetings with Madame de Bullion, she received additional funds to pay for the transportation and establishment of three nuns from La Flèche at Montreal. With this act, the establishment of a hospital in Montreal was finally complete. For years, Mance had overseen the building of the hospital from a small wooden room to a large, well-fortified structure. She had administered it and cared for the sick. As well, she had ensured the hospital's physical survival by securing the soldiers and its financial survival through the acquisition of the 100 acres of land and substantial funds from her benefactor. Now, she had ensured that the hospital would remain independent by establishing the Hospitallers of La Flèche to operate it in the years to come. The hospital Mance founded is now the Hôtel Dieu in Montreal.

While in France in 1658, Mance sought from various doctors, but did not receive, a cure for her injured arm and hand. Apparently on February 2, 1659, she went to the Chapel of Saint-Sulpice to pray at the tomb of M. Olier, one of the original members of the Company of Montreal. While there, she touched an urn containing the heart of Olier, which was kept as a relic, and according to the records a miracle occurred. Whether that is the case or not, there is no doubt that when Mance returned to Montreal in November 1659, she had regained the complete use of her hand.

If she stopped to pause in 1660, Jeanne Mance probably felt some satisfaction. Although she still lived in a state of hardship and poverty, the colony of Montreal was finally established on a firm footing as was the hospital to which she had dedicated half her life. With the arrival of the nursing sisters, Mance was able to work less, leaving the nuns to care for the sick while she concerned herself strictly with administration. The colony was still threatened by native attack, particularly during the years 1660–66. However, after 1663, the government of France began to take a more direct role in administering and protecting the colonies, and therefore the colonists did not have to secure and finance their own defense. The French government sent the Carignan-Salieres regiment to bring an end to war with the Iroquois. By 1667, fighting had virtually stopped, leaving the colonies safe once again to pursue settlement. The population of Montreal (and of the other colonies) was increasing steadily, partly due to government sponsorship of new immigrants. Through the presence of increasing numbers, including soldiers and adventurers, the religious nature of the colony was receding. This was probably disturbing to Mance who, with the other early members, had hoped to create a religious colony. Still, to this founder of Montreal, it must have been comforting to realize by 1672 that the colony was going to survive.

Mance's last official act in Montreal was in the spring of 1673, when she was one of five prominent people who laid a foundation stone for the Parish Church of Notre Dame. The fact that she was honored along with the four most prominent government officials in the colony (the governor general, the governor of Montreal, the intendant, and the superior of the seminary) shows the prominence and esteem with which she was regarded. By this time, Jeanne Mance was 66 years old. Considering how frail she was as a young woman, her health had been remarkably good during her years in Montreal, and she had lived a long life by the standards of the 17th century. Jeanne Mance died on the evening of June 18, 1673, not long after attending the foundation ceremony.


Elliott, Sophy L. The Women Pioneers of North America. Gardenvale, Quebec: Garden City Press, 1941.

Foran, J.K. Jeanne Mance: Her Life. Montreal, Quebec: Herald Press, 1931.

Pepper, Mary Sifton. Maids and Matrons of New France. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1901.

suggested reading:

D'Allaire, Micheline. "Jeanne Mance à Montreal en 1642," in Forces. 1973, pp. 38–46.

Daveluy, Marie-Claire. Jeanne Mance. Montreal, Quebec: Fides, 1962.

Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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Mance, Jeanne (1606–1673)

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