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A Forward-thinking Saint

For the week of Monday October 27, 2003

On October 31, 1982, Marguerite Bourgeoys became Canada’s first saint when she was canonized by Pope John Paul II. An important mystical figure, she was the originator of many great accomplishments that contributed to the development of New France.

Marguerite Bourgeoys at the first school of Ville-Marie
Elmina Lachance, C.N.D. (S.S. René)                
© Musée Marguerite-Bourgeoys

Marguerite was born into a middle-class Catholic family on April 17, 1620, in Troyes, France. At 20, the young Marguerite received God’s call and entered the Notre-Dame de Troyes congregation of teaching nuns. Here she chose to work in the external, rather than cloistered, community, believing that she would be more useful to society. Her profound desire to help gave her strength to follow Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Governor of Ville-Marie, which today is Montréal, to New France in 1652.

Upon arriving in Ville-Marie in September 1653, Marguerite dedicated herself to children’s education. Unfortunately, as a result of the high child mortality rate, there were no school-age children in the area at the time. Consequently, Sister Marguerite took on other duties, including supervising the construction of the first stone church in Montréal. In 1658, she welcomed her first students in an old stable. This small building was soon full, so Sister Bourgeoys travelled back to France to recruit other nuns in order to meet the growing demand.

In 1669, Sister Marguerite founded the Congregation of Notre-Dame - the first non-cloistered religious community of the 17th century. As a future mother superior of this community, Marguerite Bourgeoys, along with her colleagues, advocated innovative teaching principles. These nuns were noted for their accomplishments in the field of education, including an institution for the Filles du roi, a boarding school, a domestic-science school, and other smaller schools. In her work, Sister Bourgeoys focused on providing assistance to poor young women and young Aboriginal women.

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel
Photograph by Tango.                                         
©  Musée Marguerite-Bourgeoys

Unfortunately, Monsignor St-Vallier challenged the need for such a congregation and this forced Marguerite and the other nuns to fight for its survival. In spite of such adversity, on July 1, 1698, five years after Sister Marguerite had resigned as mother superior, the nuns were able to take their simple vows. This made the Congregation of Notre-Dame a canonically recognized community.

Marguerite Bourgeoys died on January 12, 1700, after, it is said, offering her life for that of a young nun belonging to her congregation who was ill. Sister Marguerite' work, however, did not die with her. Today, the community she founded operates in four countries. Marguerite Bourgeoys was beatified 250 years after her death and subsequently canonized. However, in the eyes of Canadians, she has been a saint from the moment of her death. For her influence on the religious and social life of the colony, Marguerite Bourgeoys has been designated a person of national historic significance.

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