The Beginnings : Angela Merici’s Mission
The history of the Ursulines began in 1535 in Brescia, Lombardy, Italy. After years of preparation and waiting, on November 25th, 1635, Angela Merici, at age 60, committed to following Jesus Christ with 28 other women, for the purpose of fostering Christian values in the family, society, and the Church. Without being tied down by a common activity, these women formed a true spiritual family, the Company of St. Ursula, the name of a virgin from early Christianity chosen by Angela as the patron of the group.
To freely choose this state of life was to engage oneself in a novel and unique enterprise in the Church at the time and to courageously contribute to the advancement of women in the society of the day, since these women were not cloistered nor did they make public vows.
The early years of the Company of St. Ursula were marked by rapid growth. From the 28 women who had followed Angela in 1635, the numbers had grown to 150 at her death in 1540, only five years later. During this period, the members of the Company of St. Ursula did not wear any distinctive habit and they carried out their mission in their workplace and in their families.
Angela Merici left her wishes and educational approach in documents she dictated to her secretary: her Rule, Counsels, and Testament. As a person of rich and practical experience, her principles were full of wisdom and common sense which, in addition to forming the first Ursulines, would guide so many others throughout the centuries in their educative mission.
After Angela’s death, in a context of war and religious ignorance, the members of the Company were called, little by little, to dedicate themselves to teaching Christian doctrine and to care for young girls.
The Order of St. Ursula
In 1567, Archbishop Charles Borromeo established a Company of St. Ursula in his Diocese of Milan, Italy. He did not delay to modify Angela’s Rule and to introduce the authority of an ecclesiastical superior into the young Company. Other bishops followed his example and established similar Companies in their dioceses. In France, a group of women began to live according to the Rule of Angela Merici in 1592. Soon, the Companies of St. Ursula would become the Order of St. Ursula with an obligation of cloister and have as specific end, “the education of young girls”.
This education would be dispensed within the monasteries. The education of young girls was so important in many instances that the Sisters committed to it by a special vow, namely, a 4th vow added to those of chastity, poverty and obedience. From then on, a boarding school for young girls was attached to each monastery. By 1789, just before the French Revolution, there were approximately 400 Ursuline monasteries in France.
Among the many French monasteries, it was from that of Tours, in 1639, that Marie Guyart of the Incarnation left for New France at the peak of France’s missionary era.
The Dawning of a New Mission: Mary of the Incarnation and Madame de la Peltrie
Unbeknownst to each other, Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation and Madeleine de Chauvigny de la Peltrie nurtured a desire to bring the Gospel to New France. Marie wanted to build a house “for Jesus and Mary”, according to her childhood revelatory dream. Madeleine de Chauvigny, widow of Sieur de la Peltrie, wished to contribute part of her heritage to establish “a seminary in Canada for the daughters of the natives”. After having been miraculously cured, she made a vow to St. Joseph to actively seek a companion sharing her aspiration. In the fall of 1638, Father Poncet, a Jesuit, spoke to her of Mary of the Incarnation and her missionary desire. And thus were joined the destinies of the two women.
The Voyage and the Founding
On February 19th, 1639, Mary of the Incarnation and Madame de la Peltrie met for the first time. Nine days later, they left Tours in direction of Paris in the company of a second Ursuline, Sister Marie de Savonnières de Saint-Joseph. In Dieppe, where the final preparations for the voyage were under way, Sister Cecile Richer de Sainte-Croix, an Ursuline from Dieppe, joined them after having been designated for the mission. Equally of the voyage were the following people: Charlotte Barré, Madame de la Peltrie’s maidservant, who would become the first Ursuline to be professed in Canada under the name of Sister Saint-Ignace; and three Augustinian Sisters: Marie Guenet de Saint-Ignace, Anne Le Coindre de Saint-Bernard, and Marie Forestier de Saint-Bonaventure.
On May 4th, 1639, the “Saint Joseph” weighed anchor and set sail for New France. The voyage lasted three months during which the passengers suffered many hardships. Finally, on August 1st, 1639, the Ursulines and Augustinians land in Quebec and were welcomed with due honors by the Governor and the people of the young colony.
Read the summary of the trip of Mere Cecile de Sainte-Croix
The Ursulines moved into a house which they rented from the Company of the Hundred Associates, in Quebec’s Lower Town. Without delay, they began studying the different native languages. One month after their arrival, they took in young native girls as boarders and French girls as day students. In 1642, the building of the stone monastery – one of the few buildings in the colony to be made of this material – was completed, and the Ursulines moved in. Madame de la Peltrie had a house built for herself adjoining the monastery.
The Rules and Constitutions regulating monastic life were soon drawn up, taking into account the community’s particular situation in Quebec. In spite of their cloister, the Ursulines remained open to events in the country, thanks to the numerous visitors who came to parlor. As superior of the community, Mary of the Incarnation received at parlor not only the Jesuit missionaries, the parents of the pupils, the settlers of the colony and the fur dealers, but also governors and intendants who sought her counsel.
Trials and Tribulations : 1650-1690
The monastery was struck by two major fires, the first in 1650, the second in 1686. In both cases, the Ursulines took refuge immediately with the Augustinian Sisters and subsequently moved into Madame de la Peltrie’s house, where they found temporary shelter. Each time, the population, the authorities of the colony, the Augustinian Sisters and the Jesuits gathered sufficient supplies to allow the Ursulines to start all over rapidly. Death soon began reaping the founding members: firstly, Sister St. Joseph (1652), then Madame de la Peltrie (1671), soon followed by Mary of the Incarnation herself on April 30th, 1672, at age 72. The last Ursuline founding member, Sister Cecile de Sainte-Croix, died in 1687.
A Period of Calm and Development : 1690-1754
In 1697, the second bishop of Quebec, Mgr de Saint-Vallier, asked the Ursulines of Quebec to establish a monastery in Three Rivers (Trois-Rivières) where the Sisters would have as mission, the education of young girls and the care of the sick.
Three Sisters from Quebec landed in Three Rivers on October 10th, 1697 : Mother Marie Drouet de Jésus, the first superior of the Ursulines of Three Rivers, Mother Marie Le Vaillant de Sainte-Cecile, assistant, and Sister Françoise Gravel de Sainte-Anne. They were led to the Governor’s palace on the “Platon”, where they would live until 1699, after which they would take possession of the monastery that was built for them on Notre-Dame Street, today “Ursuline Street”. Their function as Hospital Sisters would last till 1886, the year in which the Sisters of Providence would take over this responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Monastery of Quebec was expanding. This expansion was concurrent with the regular increase in the number of Sisters and pupils.
Making use of this period of calm, both political and economic, art thrived in the Ursuline monastery of Quebec. Let it be mentioned that Mother Marie Lemaire des Anges, who had arrived in the colony in 1671, gave a great artistic impulse to the community. There was a thriving of the arts of embroidery, gilding, painting, lacework, singing, engraving, and the confection of reliquaries.
War and a Change of Regime : 1754-1759
The beginning of the Seven-Year War foreshadowed darker days for the community. The bombardment that began on June 12th, 1759, would destroy the greater part of the buildings of Quebec. The Ursulines would partially desert their monastery and find refuge, once again, with the Augustinians.
In September, the English army would take possession of a devastated Quebec City. The English General Murray, asked the Mother Superior, Mother Marie-Joseph-de-l’Enfant-Jesus (Esther Wheelwright), to convert the monastery into a hospital and tend the wounded soldiers in exchange for having the monastery repaired, a deal which she accepted. British and Ursulines thus cohabited for more than one year. As far as 1763, misery was widespread in the colony and the Ursulines multiplied their acts of charity towards the population.
The Early Years Under British Rule
From 1775 onwards, life became more clement for the French Canadians and for the religious communities, largely because the rulers did not want to stir up the susceptibilities of the revolutionary movement in New England.
In 1776, the influence of the American Revolution overran the entire colony, creating concern for the Ursulines who were just getting over the losses sustained during the Seven-Year War. But the French Revolution affected the Ursulines of Quebec more directly. As early as 1789, the land inherited by Madame de la Peltrie was confiscated by the revolutionaries, thus drastically reducing the Quebec Ursulines’ disposable income. Fortunately, they resided on British territory. Nevertheless, a complete overhaul of the budget became necessary. The different arts, including embroidery, were used to palliate the loss of income from France.
The Golden Era: 1810-1953
In the monastery of Quebec, the arrival of Thomas Maguire as chaplain brought about changes in the educational practices. English-speaking boarders were accepted in the school. Later, some fifty Anglophone girls would enter the community and become Ursuline sisters.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ursulines of Quebec and Three Rivers initiated an expansion comparable to that of the 16th and 17th centuries. The community of Three Rivers first established a monastery in Waterville, Maine, USA (1888), then in the adjoining cities of Grand-Mere, QC (1900) and Shawinigan, QC (1908). The Ursulines of Quebec established several monasteries in the Province of Quebec, namely, Roberval (1882), Stanstead (1884), Merici in Quebec City (1902), and Rimouski (1906). Each of these new monasteries would in turn establish new communities in the United States, and in the Provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick and British Columbia.
Some years later, inspired by the missionary spirit of Mary of the Incarnation, the Ursulines of Quebec responded to a call to establish a convent in Japan (1936).
Each of these monasteries was autonomous. However, in 1930, inspired by the desire for unity of their foundresses, a union was formed between the Quebec Monastery and Merici, to which union the monasteries of Roberval and Stanstead would soon adhere.
The Canadian Union
In 1953, in response to a desire of the Church to see religious communities maintain helpful relationships with their mission counterparts, the Ursuline monasteries of Quebec, Three Rivers, Rimouski and Gaspe, as well as the Japanese missions of Sendai and Hachinohe came together under the name of Ursulines of the Canadian Union. Soon, more than thirty other houses and missions, several of which from Peru and the Philippines, would join the Canadian Union.
The Ursulines of the Canadian Union and Vatican II
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had a great impact on all religious communities. In the spirit of the Council, Pope Paul VI requested that all religious institutes hold a special Chapter on returning to the roots of their foundation. For the Ursulines of the Canadian Union, this Chapter, under the enlightened guidance of Mother Marie-Aurea Tessier, Superior General, had to prepare new constitutions and present recommendations in order to ensure the Institute’s adaptation to the contemporary world. Some of the resulting visible adaptations were the abolition of the cloister, the simplification of the religious habit, the giving up of the religious name, etc.
The Ursulines of Quebec and the World of Education
In the Province of Quebec in 1961, the Parent Commission was mandated to update the educational system. Its report would entail radical modifications in the structures of the school system. Multi-purpose secondary schools and colleges would appear, and the formation of teachers, up to then assumed by the Normal Schools, would come under the responsibility of the universities.
These government decisions had serious impacts on the schools, colleges and normal schools held by the Ursulines in the Province of Quebec. Certain institutions had to close, or be sold, or modify to adapt to a new vocation. Others, with modifications, continued their mission in the private sector.
As for the Sisters, many pursued studies either to change orientation or to better adapt to these changes.
From Yesterday to Tomorrow
From autonomous monasteries to a corporative union with a network of international communion, such, in brief, is the tangible path traveled by the Ursulines of Mary of the Incarnation’s lineage. The Ursulines of the Canadian Union continue to exist in the Province of Quebec, as well as in Japan, Peru, and the Philippines, following in the footsteps of Angela Merici and Mary of the Incarnation.
In 2014, the Ursulines of the Province of Quebec celebrated the 375th anniversary of the arrival of Mary of the Incarnation and her companions with a solemn Mass, celebrations with the population, a seminar, concerts, etc.
The same year, Pope Francis canonized Mary of the Incarnation and Francois de Laval, thus acknowledging their holiness and proposing them as inspiration for the universal Church.
Attentive to the signs of the times, the Ursulines make every effort to share the spiritual and educative values inherited from their predecessors. They also seek to ensure the safeguard and recognition of their material and immaterial patrimony.