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Biography of Jeanne Le Ber,
North America’s First Recluse

By Marie-Josée Harvey, Pastoral Ministry Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, 400 Saint-Paul Street East, Montréal, QC H2Y 1H4

1. Only Daughter of a Historic Family in New France…

When Jeanne Le Ber was born, there was nothing to indicate that she was destined for a life of poverty and solitude. Her father, Jacques Le Ber, a wealthy and influential man from Normandy, France, became the most prosperous merchant in New France. Her mother, Jeanne Le Moyne, had four brothers who left their mark on the history of this land. One of them, Charles Le Moyne, founded the city of Longueuil. He, in turn, had well known sons, among them, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville whose many accomplishments, including keeping Hudson Bay from falling into British hands, made him a prominent figure in New France.

Montreal, then known as Ville-Marie was but fifteen years old when the Le Ber-Le Moyne family settled there. Jeanne’s parents were not the only members of her immediate family to be well known. Pierre Le Ber, one of her four brothers, was an artist and a man of great devotion. Today we are grateful to him for the “true portrait” of Marguerite Bourgeoys, which he painted shortly after the Saint’s death and which is displayed at Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum adjoining Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. In addition, Jeanne Le Ber’s godparents were none other than the founders of Montreal, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, who was also the foundress of the Hôtel-Dieu,Ville-Marie’s first hospital.

2. Day by Day, her Vocation Emerges

As a child, Jeanne was part of a loving family and first learned about God from her parents. The very turbulent social context of the time was reflected even in children’s games. The violent confrontations between the French and the Iroquois natives were frequent. Jeanne’s heart, however, remained gentle: “Even at play, young Jeanne favoured peace.” wrote Denise Lamarche, CND. Also, when visiting her godmother, Jeanne Mance, at the Hotel-Dieu Hospital, she met the sick and spoke of God with them.

The first school years are often pivotal in one’s life and certain teachers can profoundly influence one’s values. Jeanne probably frequented Marguerite Bourgeoys’ school, as it was the only one in Ville-Marie. Mother Bougeoys’ presence, her charism, her profound love of God and her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament are likely to have sown the seeds of Jeanne’s exceptional vocation.

When Jeanne was twelve years old and studying at the Ursuline boarding school in Quebec City, she showed marked interest in prayer and solitude and developed her special talent for embroidery and sewing. Jeanne was strongly attracted to the silence and wisdom of the peaceful and quiet Christ Child in the manger. She told her teachers that she wanted to “imitate Him in every way” (free translation from Jeanne Le Ber, la priante et la brodeuse, p. 24).

After her studies, Jeanne returned to Ville-Marie. Out of respect for her parents, she agreed to wear beautiful gowns befitting a young woman of her status but rejected all gentlemen suitors. She wanted to clarify her vocation and knew that God would help her do so. She consulted knowledgeable persons to help confirm, what seemed to her, her unique vocation. She herself stated that she was attracted to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament as a magnet is attracted to metal. He was her “magnet,” her joy, her peace.

3. A Vocation of Intercession…

Jeanne’s intelligence and wisdom was shown in the way she responded to God’s call in stages.

In 1680, at the age of 18, she made a vow of reclusion for a period of five years to better define her vocation. She withdrew in complete silence and solitude in her room within the family home. One thing, however, saddened her: each day she would have to leave her seclusion to attend Mass at Notre-Dame Church. Every night, she went out in the bitter cold to adore Jesus present in the Eucharist. She declared that He alone gave her the necessary perseverance, strength and courage to live her vocation.

At the end of her five-year commitment, which confirmed her unique calling. As for clothing, food and money, she wanted to experience constant deprivation. All her assets were donated to works of charity. As Jeanne was aware that she needed to work in order to occupy her mind, she used her artistic talents to make liturgical vestments and other articles in use in chapels and churches. Some were so magnificent and of such exceptional quality that they have been preserved at Maison Saint-Gabriel at Pointe-Saint-Charles.

4. Secluded but not Indifferent…

On August 4, 1695, she signed a notarized contract with the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, founded by her friend Marguerite Bourgeoys. It stated that Jeanne Le Ber had already advanced to the Congregation considerable financial assistance to cover the cost of the construction and decoration of their chapel. In exchange, the Congregation had built, to her specifications, a small apartment adjacent to the chapel and in close proximity to the sanctuary and tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. The Congregation was also to order for her each year from France whatever silk, wool and thread she needed for her sewing and embroidery.

The day after the signing of this agreement, during a procession attended by most of the population of Ville-Marie, Jeanne Le Ber pronounced vows of chastity and reclusion and entered her new quarters from which she was never to emerge. There, Jeanne lived in union with Mary and the angels, praising the Lord and living fully, in joy, her vocation of intercession.

We must not forget that Jeanne’s own family members were directly involved in wars and that she was very much aware of the dangers, the issues and the problems of her time. She became a recluse for the love of God and for the world. Through her life offered to God, she interceded for peace. Her cousin, the only person allowed to bring meals to her, would inform her of the life and experiences of her contemporaries. At 52 years of age, the one the settlers called the “Angel of Ville-Marie” died renowned for her holiness.

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