Lifelong CatechesisForming Catholic identity across generations
During the Christmas season from December 24th until the Sunday after Epiphany, we reflect upon the mystery of love that is made visible in the birth and early childhood of Christ.
Marguerite Bourgeoys, Religious, 1620-1700
Born in Troyes, Champagne, France, Marguerite was the sixth of twelve children. She was inclined to a religious life from her early years, but, at the age of twenty, she was turned down by both the Carmelites and the Poor Clares. The Abbé of the local Augustinian monastery felt that her rejection by these two cloistered orders was a sign that she should lead a new order of nuns who would not be cloistered. Marguerite’s first attempt at establishing such an order failed, but another opportunity would present itself later.
In 1652, the governor of the French settlement at Ville-Marie (present day Montreal) was visiting Troyes. He invited Marguerite to become the schoolmistress in his small colony and she agreed to go. The first few years in Ville-Marie were spent in taking care of the few children in the colony, helping at the hospital, and preparing a chapel for the arrival of priests from France. It was not until 1658 that a school was opened with fewer than a dozen students.
From this small start, Marguerite Bourgeoys looked ahead to future growth for the school. Sailing to France, she returned with four young women as volunteer teachers. Later growth brought more volunteers and, in 1676, the women formed a community called the Congregation of Notre Dame.
Troubled times followed. A fire destroyed the convent in 1683, killing two of the sisters. The bishop of Quebec felt that this was the time to combine this order with the Ursalines who had been in Quebec since 1639. Mother Bourgeoys suggested that this would force her nuns to live a cloistered life which would make their work impossible. The bishop acquiesced, but his successor raised similar issues before finally accepting the Congregation as the first non-cloistered foreign missionary community for women in the Church. Even so, it was not until 1698, five years after Mother Bourgeoys resigned as superior of the order, that twenty-four of the sisters were able to take simple vows.
Meanwhile, the first boarding school had been opened in Ville-Marie in 1673, and the first missionary school for Indians began there in 1676. Other schools were established outside of the colony, including a school on the island of Montreal. The little order faced the many hardships of colonial pioneering, along with a lack of understanding by their superiors. Through it all, however, Mother Bourgeoys was an indomitable figure who steered the order through these rough times.
From the time when Mother Bourgeoys resigned as superior, her health began to fail. In late 1699, she prayed that God would take her life in place of the young novice-mistress of the order who was seriously ill. The younger nun recovered and Mother Bourgeoys died on January 12, 1700.
St. Marguerite Bourgeoys is especially honored in Canada on January 12.
Marguerite’s message today: Marguerite Bourgeoys felt God’s call at an early age, but the direction of that calling did not become clear to her until she was in her thirties. When it did become clear, she thrust herself wholeheartedly into the work which God chose for her. Only by prayer can we, too, become aware of what God’s plan is for us.