Canada’s first female saint, Marguerite Bourgeoys, was a pioneer in many respects. Not only was she the first teacher of Montreal and the foundress of the first non-cloistered female religious community in Northern America, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame.

The one that was considered the “Mother” of the colony of New France also initiated a whole spiritual approach in regard to the organization of modern Christian life.

Her revolutionary mind led John Paul II to say, on the day of her canonization (1982), that “what many are trying to achieve today with methods, institutions and associations adapted to our times, for a quality education, preparation for Christian marriage, for a work of counseling and support to homes, seems to have been contained in germ, in other ways, in the spirit and initiatives of Marguerite Bourgeoys.”

Born April 17, 1620, in Troyes (northeastern France), Marguerite discovered her religious vocation at the age of 20, after taking part to her city’s annual procession in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary. She became an external member of the Canonesses of Notre Dame, after her candidacy was refused by several religious communities, dedicating herself to prayer and to educating the poor.

Her life took an unexpected turn when her superior’s brother, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, founder of Ville-Marie (presently Montreal) in New France, came to visit their convent in Troyes. Struck by her personal qualities and her natural leadership, the latter informed her of the need for a laywoman to teach the children of the settlers and encouraged her to go and fulfill this mission.

In 1653, at the age of 33 and in a state of complete poverty, she sailed across the ocean to the New World, facing the serious risks that such a long travel represented for a single woman at that time. “Among her many qualities, Marguerite was a woman of great courage,” Sr. Agnes Campbell, the current leader of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, told the Register. “When I even think of what kind of a trip that was, I can’t imagine how she could endure it — and yet she made that trip six more times in search of other young women who would help in the new settlement.”

Marguerite played a key role in developing a long-lasting community in Ville-Marie, notably through the sound education she provided for the poor, especially women.

 

Promoting a Genuine Female Advancement

Indeed, the highly feminine dimension of her apostolate can be measured thanks to the numerous fruits her actions bore in this land. As John Paul II himself highlighted during his address for her canonization, Marguerite offered the women of her colony the most complete education, from basic domestic arts to the teaching of the most refined decorum and intellectual training. “The result will be that her girls became almost more literate than the boys, which was a rare and precursory sign of genuine female advancement at that time,” he said.

In fact, the conditions of her time were quite unfavorable to the kind of spirituality and education she was promoting, and she had to be faced with different kinds of barriers, from the economic and social situation (including the Iroquois peril), to the hostility of some ecclesiastic authorities and local inhabitants.  

However, her unshakeable faith, pugnacity and rare goodness quickly made her win the sympathy of a large number of families and clergymen, especially the Jesuits, as many of them were particularly involved in the evangelization process of the New World.

St. Marguerite also knew how to establish a fruitful relation with native Indian women of New France, training many of them to become schoolmasters.

Her commitment in actively promoting a greater role for women within civil society and the religious life led contemporary commentators to see in her one of the first feminist figures of Modern Age. However, her promotion of the role of women has always been indissociable from her defense of a traditional family model, inspired by her deep devotion to the Holy Family.

If she did establish a unique form of religious life for women in the Church, refusing the cloistered life for her Congrégation de Notre-Dame that was financially autonomous, it was above all for the sake of its educative mission.

 

Charism of the Visitation

The freedom of movement conferred by such a form of religious life enabled her and her companions to be present everywhere the families needed them, even beyond Ville-Marie.

“Marguerite’s dream was to found a community who would be able to live among the people,” Sr. Campbell said. Such a choice was inspired, she recalled, by Marguerite’s desire to see her sisters imitate Mary in her life among the Apostles. “This was not a dream that fitted in well with the desire of the leadership of the Church at that time, but she held her ground and permission was finally given.”

In her opinion, Marguerite’s gift to the 17th century as well as to our present time, is the charism of the Visitation. Just like Mary made a long trip to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in the wake of the Annunciation, Marguerite would travel the world to assist those in need.

It is with the same spirit of Visitation, the same spirituality of encounter, that her congregation addresses the main issues of our time, from wars to economic or spiritual crisis. “This is why this 400th anniversary is a very significant time for us, and we are more and more aware of the gift that Marguerite has been, and continues to be, to us and to our world,” Sr. Campbell said.

St. Marguerite Bourgeoys died in Ville-Marie on Jan. 12, 1700 at the age of 79. Her Congregation already included sisters from different nations, including Indian women. It is now present in eight different nations.

Her spiritual legacy has been constantly spreading over time, to become a high model of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

In 2005, the relics of the saint, who is considered the co-foundress of the Church of Canada, were transferred from the headquarter of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame of Montreal to the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, founded by St. Marguerite in 1678.