St. Marie of the Incarnation, Pray for Us!

SAINTS & ART: Strong-willed women like Mère Marie, committed to God, played critical roles in Canadian Catholic history.

“Portrait of Mother Marie of the Incarnation,” attributed to Hugues Pommier, 1672
“Portrait of Mother Marie of the Incarnation,” attributed to Hugues Pommier, 1672 (photo: Public Domain)

No history of the Church in Canada could ignore St. Marie of the Incarnation, whose feast is observed throughout that country on April 30. 

She was an Ursuline nun, born Marie Guyart in Tours, France, on Oct. 28, 1599. She claimed to have had her first mystical experience at age 7, when she saw Christ approaching her, asking, “Do you wish to belong to me.” Her affirmative answer left her thereafter “inclined towards goodness.” Expressing an interest in the religious life, her parents nevertheless pressed her into marriage. She married around age 17, bore a son, and was a widow by 19. She returned temporarily to her parents, made apparently private vows of the evangelical counsels, then managed her sister’s business affairs, finally entering the Ursulines. 

Influenced strongly by Teresa of Ávila and convinced of a calling she shared with her spiritual director that she was called to the New World, to New France (Canada). In 1631, she entrusted her son to her sister, joined the Ursulines, and professed vows in 1633 as Marie de l’Incarnation. Her son would later be a Benedictine monk.

The Jesuits, who were already in Canada, welcomed a female religious order and Marie finally left in 1639. Her order was not enthused and her family did not want her to go. (The Jesuit North American Martyrs would be slaughtered mostly in the mid-to-late 1640s.) Madeleine de la Peltrie, another widow who was well-endowed, funded Marie’s departure and accompanied her: one could argue they were both responsible for the mission in Canada. 

Three months later, on July 4, 1639, she arrived in New France, reaching what is now Québec City in August. There she founded both an Ursuline Convent and the first school in Canada. Slow successes among the native populations, the conflicts between the Hurons and Iroquois, and their convent burning down all discouraged the sisters, whose motherhouse also wanted them to return home. But they stayed, building a school system.

Sister Marie died April 30, 1672. She left behind an extensive corpus of spiritual and mystical writings and correspondence (in part for her son), key primary sources in the early history of Canada. She also composed dictionaries of various native languages. She was declared venerable in 1911, beatified in 1980, and canonized by Pope Francis in 2014. She was canonized by “equipollent canonization,” i.e., dispensed of the need for a miracle, given the continuous tradition of her veneration as in the odor of sanctity.

This oil painting of “Mère Marie de l’Incarnation” (roughly 40 by 30 inches) was attributed to Hugues Pommier and is said to date from 1672, i.e., the year of Marie’s death. It is believed this is a death portrait of Marie. Pommier was a priest who arrived in New France about two decades after Marie and returned to France probably sometime in the late 1670s. In a hinterland like then-New France, his artistic talent as a portraitist was rare. The allusions to canons for the depiction of female religious are clear: compare this to a late-life portrait of Marie’s model, St. Teresa of Ávila. This painting is a replica; according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the original perished in a fire in 1686, but this version is almost constantly reproduced to depict the saint.

Strong-willed women, committed to God, played critical roles in Canada — especially in Canadian Catholic education, throughout its history. Two such examples — Marie-Anne Blondin and Marie de l’Incarnation — are just two examples in April of such women on the Catholic Canadian liturgical calendar of saints and blesseds.

For more background, see here, here, here and here.