In 1653, Paul de Chomedey Maisonneuve, the enterprising and devout father of Montreal, Canada, made a special trip to Troyes, in France, to invite Mlle. Marguerite Bourgeoys to become a teacher in his new transatlantic colony. He must have had some advance assurance that she would fill the bill; it was only a question of persuasion.
Marguerite was the daughter of a prosperous Troyes merchant. She had earlier felt a call to the religious life and had tried on several occasions to enter the convent. Her failure to be accepted into a French religious order was no doubt providential. The call to Canada seemed to be God’s will, so she sailed to the New World that very June.
Arriving at Ville Marie (“Ville-Marie de Montreal” is Montreal’s official name), Marguerite first engaged in whatever works of mercy were needed in the primitive settlement. On April 30, 1657, she opened her first school. Returning to France two or three times thereafter (and the crossings in those days were long and hazardous), she was able to bring back other women to assist her as teachers. In 1675 she built a shrine-chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Aid). By now, her school work expanding, she saw the need of establishing a new sisterhood to carry the work forward. But she was convinced that the congregation should not be one of nuns (i.e. sisters of solemn vows). As nuns they would have to be cloistered. Her sisters had to be free to move about whenever the needs of the frontier demanded. She therefore decided that they would take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience only in the simple form, and that their “habit” would be that of ordinary poor women. Furthermore, she disallowed any endowments for their support, intending them to maintain themselves by their own handiwork.
This all seems sensible and practical to us today. In the 16th century, however, it was an innovation that made people shake their heads. Sister Marguerite had to resist many admonitions to merge the “Congregation of Notre Dame” with the Ursuline nuns, who were more traditional in organization. Finally, however, in 1698, two years before her death, Marguerite was happy to receive the news that her community had been officially approved by the Church. After that, it spread widely throughout Canada and eventually into the United States.
Among the early institutions established by St. Marguerite were two for Indian girls: a school, and a mission for the Huron Indian girls at the “Mission of the Mountain” conducted in Montreal by the Sulpician fathers. Not long afterwards, two of her Indian students were received as candidates for her Congregation, and became the second and third North American Indian girls to take the veil.
Interestingly enough, one of these young women, Sister Marie Therese Gannensagouas, was born in the present diocese of Rochester. Her family, Hurons from near Orr Lake in the Province of Ontario, had been enslaved in 1650 by Seneca Iroquois during the war against the Hurons. Gannensagouas had been born in 1667 in the transplanted Huron village of St. Michael’s, which was probably located just east of Holcomb in Ontario County. When the family was freed in 1672, they traveled to Montreal and settled in the “Mission of the Mountain.”
As a Sister, Marie Therese’s assignment was to teach her little fellow tribesmen. When she came to an early death in 1695 (five years before the death of St. Marguerite herself) she had acquired a reputation for great holiness, a joyous reflection of the foundress’s own hardy sanctity.
At the time he beatified Marguerite in 1950, Pope Pius XII praised her as a “figure resplendent in her humility.” Pope John Paul II canonized her in 1988, the first Canadian woman to be so honored. St. Marguerite remains a leading figure in the pioneer history of Canada.
–Father Robert F. McNamara