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Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, Foundress

Sr. Louise Côté, CND

In 1640, Marguerite was 20 years old. Following a spiritual experience, she decided to “give (herself) to the service of God.” At that time, her spiritual guide was Monsieur Gendret, priest in St-Nizier Parish (Troyes). She wrote that the good Father spoke to her about religious life. “But the Carmelites refused me even though I was strongly drawn to them. I went to others, but this did not succeed either.”

Monsieur Gendret was aware of Marguerite’s efforts. He studied the quality of the young woman who was under his guidance, her spiritual aspirations and her ability to attract others to her. He spoke to her about planning to found a community which would honour the life of the Blessed Virgin. An unsuccessful attempt was made in Troyes: of the initial group of three, one of these young women died, the other married and Marguerite was left alone. What was God’s will for her? For a while, she continued to commit herself to teaching in the outskirts of her home city. In 1643, she made a vow of chastity and a little later a vow of poverty.

In 1653, she travelled to New France to become a teacher in Ville-Marie (Montreal). Did this mean that she no longer aspired to religious life?

The plan to found a community was unsuccessful in France. Would it be more successful in the New World? Marguerite took it up again and created a religious and apostolic congregation in which the sisters were free to go wherever the mission took them. This was at a time when the life of women religious generally still evolved behind a cloister’s grille. She and her sisters became the Filles séculières de la Congrégation de Notre-Dame. For Marguerite, “even without veil or wimple, one could be a true religious.”

In 1672, she obtained the letters patent signed by Louis XIV which ensured the continuity of her mission. In 1676, the Bishop of Quebec, François de Montmorency Laval, issued a canonical approbation for the Congregation. However, the Rule of Life would not be recognized until 1698. The Congregation’s foundress worked tirelessly for her sisters to be “daughters of the parish, non-cloistered sisters,” members of an “Institute for Apostolic Life.”

The first sisters of the Congregation were the young women whom Marguerite had brought back with her from France to help her in her mission of education: four during the voyage of 1658 and six during the one of 1670-72. To these young women she could only offer a roof (a simple refurbished stable), and for food, “bread and soup.”

In 1678, Marguerite received the first Canadian-born sisters in her Congregation. Within two years, nine young women entered the novitiate – eight Canadian and one from France. Among them was Marie Barbier who, in 1693, succeeded Marguerite Bourgeoys as superior. Amerindians were also welcomed in the Congregation.

Marguerite Bourgeoys encouraged her daughters to imitate the life of the Blessed Virgin while she was on earth. “The Blessed Virgin was not cloistered, but wherever she was, she preserved an interior solitude. She never refused to go wherever charity or need required her assistance.”

She compared her Congregation to a small plot in the garden of the Church: “All Christendom is a great garden created by God and all the communities are as so many plots in this large garden. Ours, as small as it is, does not fail to be one of those little squares the Gardener has kept for Himself to set out a number of plants and flowers. In this little garden, they are all different in color, in savor, in fragrance.”

Within the Congregation, Marguerite wanted the ministry of authority to be exercised using the principle of co-responsibility. She wrote, “In all matters of general concern, the superior ought to act in harmony.” Tradition relates that at the beginning of the Congregation, the sisters met each month to consider questions of common interest. In The Writings, we can also read: “Whenever a sister is given a position, the superior must authorize it and give her the means of carrying it out.”

The foundress bequeathed her sisters a Marian spirituality based upon the two mysteries of the Blessed Virgin: the Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth and her presence among the apostles in the early Church. The first mystery inspired Marguerite to give herself swiftly and unselfishly to the service of her neighbour, and encouraged her to offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving. The second is the source of her love of the Church and her desire that there be revived, within the community, “the true spirit of cordiality and love of the first Christians.”

The Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal is today present on four continents, in the following countries: Canada, the United States, Japan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cameroon and France.


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