Two Saints for ‘La Belle Province’

COMMENTARY: The intercession of Sister Marie of the Incarnation and Bishop François de Montmorency-Laval might just be what Quebec needs right now.

St. Marie of the Incarnation, canonized April 3
St. Marie of the Incarnation, canonized April 3 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis, in what may be a spiritual booster shot to a spiritually ailing Quebec, signed a decree on April 3 certifying canonization for Marie of the Incarnation and François de Montmorency-Laval. The two new saints, both from Quebec City, are the first from that historic and charming community.

As the province of Quebec promotes abortion and euthanasia, endorses same-sex “marriage” and displays an exceedingly low birth rate, a reminder of its more glorious Catholic past may be just what is needed to revive its dormant Christianity.

These two staunch Catholics may not be well known, even in today’s Canada. Nonetheless, both were beatified by St. John Paul II on June 22, 1980. But that was nearly 34 years ago. A brief description of their extraordinary lives, therefore, is in order.

Marie de l’Incarnation was born in 1599 in Tours, France, the fourth of eight children born to Florent Guyart, a master baker, and Jeanne Michelet, a member of the minor aristocracy. Her brief marriage produced a son (who ultimately became a Benedictine monk) and left her a widow at 19. On March 24, 1620, she had a mystical vision that set her on a path of devotional intensity. After serving for several years as a spiritual director, she entered the Ursuline monastery in Tours, where she professed her solemn vows.

As a result of reading The Jesuit Relations and her continuing visions, she came to believe that God was calling her to Canada. Her primary mission there would be to bring the Catholic faith to the New World.

In 1639, Marie, together with her religions cohorts, established, first, a convent in Quebec City and, later, the first school in what would eventually become Canada. She mastered the local languages and composed dictionaries in Algonquin and Iroquois, together with a sacred history in Algonquin and a catechism in Iroquois. Her voluminous writings have long been regarded as an important source of Catholic, French and Canadian history. She died in 1672.

St. Marie of the Incarnation’s immense contribution to Canada, both historically and spiritually, should not fade into the unremembered past. Quebec can be proud that she has produced a saint whose vocation was to bring the Catholic faith to Canada and is now honored worldwide.

François de Montmorency-Laval was born in 1623 in Montigny-sur-Avre in Normandy. From his youth, his desire to be a priest was very strong. To prepare himself for the priesthood, he became, in 1647, a Congregant of the Blessed Virgin. King Louis XIV chose him to be the first bishop in New France. The young prelate, now 36 years of age, landed in Quebec City on June 16, 1659, and was greeted there by the French settlers with great fanfare and joy.

His pastoral work across his immense diocese was daunting. In the winter, he traveled long distance on foot, wearing snowshoes. When the ice melted, he navigated by canoe. His faith and holiness was made evident in a most spectacular way when a fire broke out in lower Quebec City.

Bishop Laval descended towards the location of the blaze with the Blessed Sacrament. The flames, according to accounts, extinguished themselves in the presence of the Eucharist, and the lower city was saved.

Under this energetic bishop’s care, membership in his Catholic diocese grew from 2,500 in 1665 to 6,615 by 1673. By 1681, the number of parishes grew to 25. Bishop Laval passed away in 1708, fully meriting the title of “Founder and Father of the Catholic Church in Canada.”

The lives and the work of these two new saints are, by any standard, most admirable. It is to be hoped that what Canadian Catholics in the contemporary world find admirable they will also find worthy of imitation. Imitation is the sincerest expression of admiration.

For Catholics in Quebec and throughout the rest of Canada, perhaps this imitation will be extended, in the spirit of Marie de l’Incarnation and Bishop Laval, to evangelization.  

 Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.