Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin, Pray for Us!

SAINTS & ART: Sister Marie-Anne founded the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Anne, with a mission to teach “poor country children,” in 1850.

Sister Marie Hélène-de-la-Croix of the Sisters of St. Anne, “Esther Blondin Meets Msgr. Bourget,” 1941
Sister Marie Hélène-de-la-Croix of the Sisters of St. Anne, “Esther Blondin Meets Msgr. Bourget,” 1941 (photo: Centre Historique des Soeurs de Sainte-Anne)

Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin’s optional memorial is observed by Canadian dioceses on April 18. Who is she?

She was born Esther Blondin on April 18, 1809, in Terrebonne, north of Montréal, a farmer’s daughter. Illiteracy was prevalent among Catholic Québécois. At 22, she became a domestic for nuns who had opened a convent in Terrebonne and, desiring to overcome her illiteracy, signed up as a “boarder” to learn to read and write. She later became a novice but ill health forced her out.

What she received, she gave: in 1831, she became a teacher in a parochial school in Vaudreuil, also near Montréal. She learned that one reason for widespread illiteracy among French Canadians was a local ecclesiastical role that required segregated schooling: boys could only be taught by a male teacher, girls by a female. Rather than spend money for two teachers, many parish priests had none.

Blondin turned to her bishop, Ignace Bourget of Montréal. Bourget, who led Montréal from 1840-76, was aware of the growing population and needs of the Church in Québec. He had recruited various European orders, such as the Jesuits, to return to Québec. He was instrumental in founding the University of Laval as a Catholic institution. So, Blondin asked for permission in 1848 to found the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Anne, whose mission would be to teach “poor country children” in coeducational settings. While a radical innovation for the times and place, Bourget approved, and the congregation was founded Sept. 8, 1850, with Blondin, in the religious name “Marie-Anne” as first superior.

The initial growth of the congregation led to a new motherhouse and chaplain, Father Louis Adolphe Marechal, who actively intervened in the Congregation’s internal affairs and who did not get along with Blondin. Bourget, whose history was generally protective of clerical privilege, asked Blondin in 1854 to “resign” and not accept election as superior, even if the nuns chose her. She obeyed her bishop.

Sent to another convent, her relations with the Marechal-influenced Motherhouse were tense. She was recalled there in 1858 and spent the rest of her life marginalized in the community, consigned to the laundry and ironing room in “obscurity” for over three decades. She died Jan. 2, 1890, in Lachine. The Vatican’s biography of Blondin emphasizes the great influence she had on new sisters who learned, both from her example and her own lips, the value of humble service. She put her confidence in God, even though most descriptions of her treatment might be characterized as clerically abusive.

It was only in 1917, on the basis of talks given by a chaplain who had spoken with those who knew Blondin, that her reputation began to be rehabilitated and considered anew. In 1950, then Archbishop Paul-Émile Léger of Montréal launched the process that led to her being declared venerable in 1991 and beatified in 2001.

Today, the Sisters of Saint Anne are present in Canada, Haiti and the United States (motherhouse in Marlborough, Massachusetts).

As is often the case with contemporary saints, classical artwork is absent. That reality is compounded by the fact of the obscurity to which Blondin was consigned for much of her religious life. We have various illustrations of her life, some from sisters in her order but more from 20th-century artists who drew inspiration from the rehabilitated blessed.

The painting above is a 44 x 34-inch oil painting from 1941, signed by Sister Marie Hélène-de-la-Croix of the Sisters of St. Anne. It depicts, in very basic colors, the 1848 meeting of then-Esther Blondin with Bishop Bourget, seeking to found the new congregation. It depicts the two figures in the bishop’s residence, with a depiction of the Cross and of the Immaculate Conception (we are six years away from the definition of the dogma, which was under discussion) on the back wall. For a catalogue of other works depicting Sister Marie-Anne, see “peinture” here.

For more background, see here and here.