Our neighbors to the north celebrate their national day today, and I couldn’t think of a more worthy woman to mention than the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal.
Marguerite was born in France, and around age twenty felt a stirring to serve in the confraternity of a cloistered religious community. The problem for women religious dedicated to a noble cause, such as teaching poor children, is that they could not do so outside of the monastic enclosure. Marguerite and others were educated and prepared, then sent into the neighborhoods to serve on behalf of those behind the enclosure walls.
Civic officials in New France did not think their colony could support a cloistered community of women at a remote outpost, Fort Ville-Marie. But a layperson would be welcome. So at age 33, Marguerite shipped out with about a hundred other colonists, arriving in Québec City. From there, she moved to what would one day be the city of Montréal, where a challenging assignment awaited.
She lived among the poorest settlers, and not finding many children to teach (infant mortality was high in the outpost), she worked alongside the colonists. She persuaded a work team to erect a chapel in 1657, and after setting up a school in a horse stable the following year, she returned to France to recruit more teachers for the colony.
Not only did Marguerite set up an educational system in what would one day be Montreal, but her sisters provided much-needed social services throughout the entire colony.
The apostolic vicar, François de Laval, was supportive of these efforts at first. But eventually, the urge bit to interfere. He tried to stuff Marguerite and the teachers into a cloister. He tried to force them to merge with the Ursuline Sisters in Québec City. When these efforts failed, he forbade Marguerite from recruiting women in France for the Congregation. It didn’t matter. Marguerite was widely recognized as a living saint, and as “Mother of the Colony.” She found many women willing to give their lives in service in New France.
Like many other worthy women, she had been rebuffed by religious communities she had sought to join. Among others, the Carmelites turned her down. She resisted the curious and ignorant efforts of male prelates to insert themselves into fruitful ministry. In 1982 she was finally recognized by the institutional Church as a saint, the first woman saint of Canada.