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The Resilient Ursulines of Québec

For the week of Monday October 20, 2014

On October 20, 1686, fire destroyed the convent of the Ursulines in Québec City. True to their resilient nature, the Ursulines Sisters rebuilt their convent and continued their mission of educating French and Aboriginal girls, and spreading Roman Catholic values. To help teach the Aboriginal children, the nuns wrote dictionaries in the various Indigenous languages.

Chapel of the Ursulines, sketched 1829
© Library and Archives Canada / 1968-67-4

The Ursulines arrived in New France on August 1, 1639, and soon established many communities, including Trois-Rivières and Québec.

Finally, in 1642, the construction of their convent in Québec City was completed. However, it burned down only eight years later, on December 31, 1650, and then again in 1686! Luckily, both times, the sturdy foundation kept the crypts intact and the nuns were able to rebuild the convent. To reduce the cost of construction, the nuns even helped clear the burnt debris.

Ursuline Nuns with pupils
© Library and Archives Canada / 1983-45-1 / C-010520

The convent has gone through numerous renovations over the centuries. It is now a multi-winged building encompassing a chapel, church, school, and living quarters for the nuns. While sundry changes have helped modernize the convent, many of its historical features have been preserved, such as the high sloped roofs, elaborate roof frames, chimneys, and segmentally arched openings. The 18th-century hand-carved staircase and the chapel altar, built by renowned woodworkers Noël and Pierre-Noël Levasseur, are some of the most notable historic interior features.

In addition to educating young girls and offering them religious guidance, the Ursulines also provided solace during the colonial wars and often guarded precious works of arts in their underground crypts during invasions. To this day the Ursulines still play an active role in the education of Quebec youth.

Ursulines` Chapel
© Michel Élie, Centre de conservation du Québec, Musée des Ursulines

For its architectural value and the significant role it played in Canadian history, the Ursuline Convent in Québec City is a National Historic Site. For their contribution to New France communities and their historic role in the establishment of Canada, the Ursulines of Trois-Rivières are a National Historic Event. Marie de l'Incarnation, the founder of the Quebec City Ursulines, was declared a Saint on April 3, 2014.

To learn more about the Ursulines please read: The Mother of Universal Charity in the This Week in History Archives and visit the Musée des Ursulines. To learn about the establishment of New France and the role of religious orders visit: Seasons of New France in the Virtual Museum of Canada.

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