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Marguerite Bourgeoys – a short biography

Patricia Simpson, CND

On October 31st, we celebrate the anniversary of canonization of Marguerite Bourgeoys. 

Educator of Montreal

Marguerite Bourgeoys, a native of Troyes, France, came to Ville-Marie in 1653. The city that we now know as Montreal came into existence through the desire of a group of devout men and women in seventeenth-century France to share with the native people of the New World what they regarded as their most precious possession: their Christian faith. They hoped to achieve this goal through the establishment of a settlement on the island of Montreal in the colony of New France. The foundation was intended to embody the Christian ideal described in the Acts of the Apostles in such a way as to attract the Amerindians just as the communities of early Christians had drawn their first converts in the Mediterranean world of the first century.

Marguerite Bourgeoys's arrival eleven years after the initial foundation was to fulfill part of the original design for the colony, which included a plan to provide for the education of its children. She came with the recruitment known as the “hundred men” (« La grande recrue »), who were to prevent that first foundation from abandonment or extinction, the alternatives facing Ville-Marie by 1653. On the voyage between France and Canada, during which she had cared for the sick and consoled the dying, the prospective settlers with whom she journeyed had already begun to address her as “Sister.” From this beginning until her death in 1700, she was totally dedicated to the welfare of the people of Montreal.


Early Beginnings of the Congregation

With the first settlers she shared the dangers and hardships, as well as the efforts and hopes that marked life in the early colony. Like them, she was vulnerable to the threats posed by the environment the enemy, and disease, as well as by sometimes hostile or incompetent authorities in both church and state. She consistently avoided and, whenever possible, refused all preferment or privilege that would remove her from the lot of ordinary people in New France, the poor and struggling settlers attempting to build a better life for themselves and their families in the New World.

She also performed the task for which she had come to Montreal, opening the first school in an abandoned stable in the spring of 1658. To give permanence and stability to the work of educating children and women in New France, she founded a community of uncloistered women. Although civil and especially ecclesiastical approbation lay far in the future, this community came into existence on July 2, 1659 when Marguerite's first companions joined her on the ship carrying the last of the great recruitments undertaken by the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal.


Liberating Education: Working With the Families

The instruction that Marguerite Bourgeoys and her companions provided to the children (initially boys as well as girls) and women of New France was foremost an education in faith that sprang from a profound religious impulse. The faith, was a belief in the primary and overriding importance of the double commandment at the heart of both the Old and New Testaments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

However education had, for Marguerite, other important functions than that of conveying religious instruction. Her first pupils were not the wealthy and powerful; they were the children of colonists in seventeenth-century Montreal, who had early faced the challenging tasks of earning a living for themselves and their families and of building a new country. To enable them to accomplish these tasks, she stressed the importance not only of “honourable work” but of the value and importance of their efforts.

Marguerite's educational efforts were not confined to the teaching of children in the schoolroom. She reached out to the young immigrant women who came as prospective brides to New France (known as « Les Filles du Roy »), going so far as to give them a home, where she lived with them while she helped them to adapt to their new country and situation. She also opened workshops where poor women could learn the crafts that would enable them to earn their living. The intimacy in which she and her companions lived with the other settlers in the early colony, as well as her genius for perceiving and responding to the needs around her; made possible a form of education that was truly relevant to the lives of those who received it.


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