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Marguerite: A Woman Who Compassionately Lived Life on The Peripheries

Norma Gallant, CND and Doreen Gowans, associate

A Canadian Saint Celebrates 400th Anniversary

Marguerite Bourgeoys was born in Troyes, France on April 17, 1620, the seventh of 13 children in the family. She was raised in a loving and nurturing family. At the age of 20, Marguerite’s young life changed forever. In her most complete account, Marguerite Bourgeoys wrote, “On Rosary Sunday, I went to the procession at the Dominican Church where there was so great a number of people that the cloister was not large enough. So, we crossed the street and passed in front of the portal of Notre Dame where there was a statue in stone above the door. And glancing up to look at it, I found it very beautiful. At the same time, I found myself so moved and changed that I no longer recognized myself. When I returned home, this was apparent to everyone.” It was then she decided to give herself to the service of God with little idea of what her gift would imply.

Marguerite tried to enter religious life but was refused. The chaplain, Fr. Gendret, possibly saw Marguerite had a calling to a very different form of religious life.

Marguerite joined the ranks of the Congregation of Notre Dame as an “extern” member and taught poor children for several years in Troyes. This extern congregation allowed young women to live at home but come to the convent, where they were formed and organized to teach the children who did not have the financial means to attend the convent school. Marguerite remained with this extern congregation for 13 years and her experiences there were to mark her for life.

Marguerite continued to have Fr. Gendret as a spiritual director. He began to speak to her of another kind of religious life for women. In her writings, Marguerite said, “he told me one day that Our Lord had left three states of women to follow Him and to serve the Church. The role of Magdalene was filled by Carmelites and other recluses; that of Martha by cloistered religious who serve their neighbour; but the state of the journeying Virgin Mary, which must also be honoured, was not yet filled.”

At 32, Marguerite met with Monsieur de Maisonneuve, the governor of Montreal who sought a lay teacher for the children of the colonists and the natives in Ville Marie. Marguerite Bourgeoys accepted his offer to go to Ville Marie, now known as Montreal. In Marguerite’s writings, we read, “One morning, when I was fully awake, a tall woman dressed in a robe of white serge, said to me very clearly, ‘Go, I will never forsake you.’ I knew it was the Blessed Virgin. This gave me great courage. This made me believe that if this was from God, I did not have to make any preparations for it. Consequently, I did not bring a penny for the journey.”

Marguerite never lost sight of what she believed God was asking of her. Despite many refusals and hardships, she patiently lived in the present moment, always seeking to know God’s will. As the colony developed, the number of children increased. When asking more women to come out west to the new colony of New France, all Marguerite could promise the fathers was their daughters would have bread, soup and work to sustain themselves. There were 18 young women who travelled back to New France with Marguerite. Four wanted to work alongside Marguerite while the remaining 14 women had hopes of marrying and establishing families. On the trip back there was a great deal of sickness, and many of the passengers died and were buried at sea. Marguerite, although weak herself, continued to minister to the people.

Marguerite finally had companions with whom to share her life and to participate in the creation of a new kind of religious community—one that was uncloistered and where women lived and worked among the people. Since Marguerite and her four companions still lived in the stable/ school, they realized the quarters were becoming too crowded. Marguerite bought a small house nearby, had it prepared and moved there with the women. Marguerite and her companions offered these young women hospitality, friendship and initiation into the skills needed for this new life. The women needed to find ways to be self-sufficient, and so Marguerite Bourgeoys established a model farm that met her congregation’s essential needs. From the year 1668 right up until 1955, the farming sisters of the congregation cultivated the land and gave the fruits of their labour to the local community. Today, the farm has been transformed into a museum and designated a national historic site known as Maison de St. Gabriel.

There were few priests to minister to the people, so the sisters saw the need for education in the faith. They lived in utmost simplicity, sleeping on straw mattresses, sharing the coarse bread of the colonists.

In 1700, Marguerite Bourgeoys died in Montreal at the age of 79—but not before knowing the congregation had an approved constitution, validated by the bishop two years before her death. Almost three centuries later, in 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized Marguerite, recognizing her work.

The Congregation de Notre Dame continues the educational and apostolic work of its foundress. Over the years, the community established houses beyond its original borders so that today, the sisters of the congregation can be found in many Canadian provinces and the United States, as well as many foreign missions established in Japan, Cameroon, Central America and France.

After Marguerite’s early life, it was decided by the congregation to open its doors to what is now called associate relationship, open to both men and women. It is noteworthy, that in today’s age, there are more associates than vowed members in the congregation.

Marguerite’s remains are entombed in the chapel she established, called Bonsecours. If you find yourself in Montreal and have a bit of time, be sure to visit the chapel on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Old Montreal.

Saint Marguerite was a Catholic woman, and if she were living today, I am sure she would belong to the League. Resolution 1950.02 Beatification of Venerable Marguerite Bourgeoys resolved that members extend their sincere felicitations to the Rev. Mother General and the Sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame on the occasion of the beatification of their devoted foundress. In many ways, her lifestyle reflects the objects and mission statement of the League.

Watch for celebrations in the community as the 400th anniversary is celebrated now through April 17, 2020, the year the League marks its 100th anniversary.  

Information taken from the writings of Sr. Patricia Simpson, CND. Written by Sr. Norma Gallant, CND and Doreen Gowans, CND associate and national chairperson of communications.

Published with the permission of The Catholic Women’s League of Canada.


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