Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620 - 1700)

Marguerite Bourgeoys
April 17, 1620 - January 12, 1700)


Marguerite was born in Troyes, in the province of Champagne (France), on Good Friday, April 17, 1620. Her parents, Abraham Bourgeoys and Guillemette Gamier, baptized her on the same day in the church of Saint-Jean located near her home.  She was the sixth child in a family of twelve. The family was neither rich, nor poor, so she lived a rather comfortable Christian life.  When Marguerite was nineteen years of age, her mother died and had to help take care of her siblings. Her father, a candle maker died when she was twenty-seven.

On October 7, 1640, while participating in a procession to honor Our Lady of the Rosary, she had an unforgettable experience. Her eyes rested on a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and at that moment she felt inspired to withdraw from the world and to consecrate herself to the service of God. She believed it to be God's will. With great eagerness, she set out to accept this vocation.

Almost immediately, she joined the Congregation of Troyes, a convent of young girls devoted to teaching children in the poor districts of the town.  In 1642, while engaged in this work, she learned about the foundation of Ville Marie (Montreal) in Canada, but it wasn't until 1652 when she met Monsieur de Maisonneuve, founder and governor of the settlement of New France, that she volunteered her services. She longed to teach French and Indian children.  Marguerite gave away her share of her inheritance from her parents to other members of her family and departed from Troyes in February, 1653 and arrived in Montreal on the following 16th of November. She began working immediately.

When she arrived in Ville Marie, as it was called then, she found that few children survived to school age. She helped the remarkable Jeanne Mance, who ran the hospital, to change this tragedy.  One of the first things she did was restore the Cross on Mount Royal after it was destroyed by hostile Indians. She also undertook the construction of a chapel dedicated to Notre-Dame de Bon Secours.  In 1658, in a stable which had been given to her by the governor for her use, she opened the first school in Montreal.  She also organized a convent patterned after the one which she had lived in while in Troyes.

But her Sisters were more than willing to live in huts in order to fulfill their call from God. She had set up schools all over the territory, not just for children. When the king, in well-meaning ignorance, had sent untrained orphans over to be colonists she had set up a school for the women to teach them how to survive and thrive in Canada.

In 1659, she began receiving girls who were recommended by "les cures" in France, or endowed by the King, to come to establish homes in Montreal, and she became a real mother to them. This initiated a school system and a network of social services which led people to refer to her as "Mother of the Colony".

Marguerite Bourgeoys returned to France three times to recruit more teachers. This new group of nuns wanted to remain uncloistered, free to conduct their work. The concept was an innovation at that time. They called themselves the Congregation de Notre-Dame and they received approval from Louis XIV in 1671 and the Bishop of Quebec in 1676.
The sisters helped people in the colony survive when food was scarce, opened a vocational school, taught young people how to run a home and farm. Marguerite's congregation grew to 18 sisters, seven of them Canadian. They opened missions, and two sisters taught at the Native American school. Soon after, Marguerite received the first two Native American women into the congregation.

Marguerite had survived many threats in the twenty-six years she had been in wilderness of Canada. She had lived through Iroquois attacks, a fire that destroyed her small village, plagues on the ships that she took back and forth to France, but nothing threatened her dreams and hopes more than what her own bishop said to her in 1679. He told her that she had to join her Congregation of Notre Dame with its teaching sisters to a cloistered religious order of Ursulines. This was not the first time she'd heard this command. Whether from a misplaced desire to protect her Sisters or from discomfort in dealing with an active religious order of women, bishops had long wanted to fit her into the usual mold of cloistered orders.

So she was not ready to surrender to the bishop. There was too much at stake. She reminded him that the Ursulines because they were cloistered could not go out and teach, as her Sisters had done. The poor and uneducated would not and could not travel to a Quebec cloister over miles of frontier at the risk of their lives. In this way, she managed to hold her ground and retain indepedence for her order.

In 1693, with her foundation assured, Marguerite handed over her congregation to her successor, Marie Barbier, the first Canadian to join the order. She wrote her autobiography.

On December 31, 1699, a young sister lay dying and Mother Marguerite asked God to take her life in exchange. The next morning of January 1, 1700, the sister was completely well, but Mother Marguerite had a raging fever. She suffered for twelve days and then on January 12, 1700 in Montreal.

She is buried in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel in Montreal, which also houses a museum about her life and the early history of Montreal.

She is acknowledged for her holiness of life. Today, her commitment lives on through the members of the community she founded. More than 2,600 Sisters of the Congregation de Notre-Dame now work in the fields of education and the promotion of family in Canada, the United States, Japan, Latin America, Cameroon, and most recently in France.
On November 12, 1950 Pope Pius XII beatified Marguerite Bourgeoys. Canonizing her this October 31, 1982, Pope John Paul II gives the Canadian Church its first woman saint.

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Lucy said…
You have written a post that absolutely touches my heart! Wonderful! 2 of my daughters attended Villa Maria High School here in Montreal. It is an historical site and started by the very Marguerite herself. So, yes I know the history behind this great woman. I love it! Her is the link of the high school, with its brief history, if you're interested.

Thanks for this wonderful post!
Anonymous said…
hey hey this is Tina i love your story i am doing a project about Marguerite Bourgeoys. I think she rock so thanx for the info
byeeeeeeeeeeeeee once a again thanx for the info
Anonymous said…
thanks for the info
Anonymous said…
This is a great post. I have look everywhere to get good information about marguerite and this was the best, it was better than wiki.