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Marguerite Bourgeoys, Intrepid Missionary

Sr. Louise Côté, CND

In 1653, the time had come to leave Troyes. Marguerite Bourgeoys undertook her first long voyage across the Atlantic on a sailing vessel under the navigation conditions of that time. Her journey began in Troyes in early January; in March, she left Paris for Nantes; on June 15 or 16, she embarked from Nantes to New France; she finally arrived in Quebec on September 22 of that year. The trans-Atlantic voyage alone took two entire months, not counting the time spent navigating along rivers – one week on the Loire and “a good week” on the Saint Lawrence.

It is worth mentioning how much time Marguerite Bourgeoys spent sailing back and forth from one continent to the other. In addition to her crossing to Canada in 1653, she travelled three other times to France. In all, she crossed the Atlantic seven times. She described the shortest voyage by saying that “(it) only took us 31 days.” This intrepid traveler spent one entire year of her life at sea and close to four months navigating rivers.

The 1653 Crossing

Shortly after the Saint-Nicolas set sail, the ship began to take on water. Returning to port, it was found that the damages were irreparable. Another ship was boarded, one which, most likely, had been contaminated by infectious diseases during previous voyages. (At that time, disinfecting was, of course, unheard of.) An epidemic broke out on board. Marguerite acted as nurse to all who were sick. Eight died at sea. Dom Jamet, her biographer, wrote, “Her vigils were incessant, her kindness unwearied. Marguerite’s voice was the last sound they heard as she recited the prayers for the dying.”

First Voyage to France

In 1658, Marguerite Bourgeoys once again took to the sea. She accompanied Jeanne Mance, foundress of Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, who had accidentally broken her arm. Marguerite also wanted to go to Troyes to recruit young women to help her teach.

While in France, Jeanne Mance’s infirmity was cured at the tomb of Monsieur Olier, founder of the Society of Saint Sulpice.

Marguerite returned to New France in April 1659 with four new collaborators for her school and a dozen young women who had been entrusted into her care.

The Saint-André, had formerly been a hospital war ship which had served to transport those suffering from infectious diseases. An epidemic broke out on board. Like the one used to travel in 1653, this ship also became a hospital ship. One family saw three of their four children succumb to the illness. Marguerite cared for the surviving infant, a nine-month old baby girl, who would have otherwise been thrown into the sea.

Second voyage to France

In 1670, Marguerite undertook another voyage in order to ensure the continuity of her work.

Her trip was crowned with success. In 1671, Louis XIV signed the Letters Patent. This civil charter gave the Congregation which she founded legal power to expand her work throughout New France. She was also able to enlist six new companions. In addition, she again had the care of several young women destined to “establish new families.”

The journey back began peacefully. However, France and Holland were at war and despite the real possibility of encountering difficult situations, the ship was unarmed. Four ships appeared on the horizon. “Sister Bourgeoys, we are lost,” exclaimed the ship’s captain. You and all the young women with you, pray for us all.” A priest celebrated Mass. As the priest gave the last blessing, the winds changed and the dreaded ships disappeared in the East.

The rest of the voyage continued without incident.

Third Voyage to France

In 1679, Madame Perrot, wife of the Governor of Montreal, needed to go to France and Marguerite offered to accompany her.

There is very little information about these crossings to and from France. As in previous voyages, the care of a group of young women was entrusted to Marguerite. However, this time she did not return with the companions she needed, since Monseigneur de Laval had opposed it.

This ends Marguerite Bourgeoys’s travels to her native land and her “time at sea.”

Was this last trip unsuccessful? Humanly speaking, yes! However, for this woman of faith, it was a setback she was able to accept.

Marguerite was now 60 years of age – at a time when the average life expectancy for women was 47. (She lived until the age of 80). Back in Montreal, she bravely resumed the work interrupted over a year ago.

 

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