The history of the Ursulines of the Canadian Union begins with the arrival of Mary of the Incarnation in New France in the 17th century.
In Tours, France, on October 28th, 1599, a little girl, Marie, was born to Florent Guyart, master-baker, and his wife Jeanne Michelet. The baby was the fourth of a family of eight. As they admired the baby in her crib, how could the parents possibly foresee how their daughter would be endowed with such a rich personality. Time would disclose her generous heart, keen intelligence and unusually strong character. Her spiritual and mystical life was rooted in her family and in the poor around her.
A First Call
At age 7, Marie had a dream in which she saw the heavens open and Jesus come to her and embrace her. “Will you be mine?” He said to her. “Yes!” answered the child. A question and an answer which, even at this tender age, revealed to Marie the path she would perseveringly follow without ever going back on her word. This special dream became an incentive for her to do good, be united to God and care for others.
Wife and Mother
At age 14, Marie Guyart told her mother of her desire to enter the convent, but her family considered her to be too jolly for this type of life. Eventually, therefore, and according to the custom of the time, her parents chose Claude Martin, a master silk merchant, as their daughter’s husband. The young couple was blessed with the birth of a son, whom they called Claude after the father.
Her husband’s premature death left Marie a widow at age 19 with a six-month old baby to care for. She inherited her husband’s bankrupt business, which she masterfully managed, set right, and finally sold. Then, accepting her father’s invitation, she returned to the family home, an environment conducive to prayer and meditation. For roughly one year, as a means of earning a living for herself and her son, she applied herself to embroidery, an art in which she excelled. The vow of chastity which she made at this time put a timely stop to all remarriage proposals.
Maid and Manager
Shortly afterwards, the young woman accepted a request for help from her sister and brother-in-law, Paul Buisson, owner of a land and water transport company. In accordance with the social habits of the day, the numerous employees were lodged by Buisson and his wife.
At first, Marie did the cooking and cleaning and took care of the sick and wounded. Later, her talent for commerce and business was largely exploited by her brother-in-law, as she herself has written: “I would spend entire days in a stable which served as a store; and, sometimes, I was on the wharf at midnight, directing the loading and unloading of goods. My usual company was that of dockers, carters, and even fifty to sixty horses that needed tending.”
Amidst the coming and going of so many employees and clients, Marie, as a responsible and loving mother, took care to give a solid education to her son. Moreover, in spite of being overloaded on all sides, her desire to enter religious life became stronger and stronger. She took time for personal prayer and attended daily Mass. The Lord favoured her with deep spiritual experiences and, one day, let her know that it was time for her to embrace religious life.
A Tested Vocation
Marie’s motherly love was sorely tested. Must she leave her son to become a nun? She sought counsel in order to validate the authenticity of her vocation. Objections were numerous but the call so strong that, beyond heart and reason, she decided to enter the Ursuline community. Her sister and brother-in-law promised to look after Claude like their own son.
However, after she entered the convent, relatives and neighbours won Claude over to their opinion and together they tried to dissuade Marie from her purpose. But they did not succeed in discouraging the novice. Soon, she was reassured when the Jesuits offered to take Claude into their college.
A Second Call
Marie entered the Ursuline Monastery of Tours in 1631 and completed the different stages of formation. She was soon asked to do embroidery for the chapel altar. Later, she was placed in charge of the boarders. And, after her vows, she was named assistant to the Sister in charge of the formation of the novices.
In the days following Christmas 1634, a second dream left the young nun wondering. In this dream, Marie sees herself climbing a narrow road, filled with obstacles, and holding a lady by the hand. They come to a wide open space. There, a man points out the direction they should take. In a vast countryside filled with mist and fog, a small church appears, the only light in the surrounding obscurity. Seated atop the church, the Virgin Mary holds the Child Jesus on her lap. Three times, the Blessed Mother speaks to Jesus, then embraces Marie who is reaching out to her. Upon awakening, Marie believes that the verbal exchanges between Mother and Child concerned her and some project of hers.
Soon, the Lord would confirm her intuition: “I want you to go to Canada to build a house for Jesus and Mary.” In 1639, the road that would lead her to a country “as pitiful as it was frightful” would strangely resemble the difficult path she saw in her dream. From this moment on, her prayers and zeal would extend across all borders, allowing her to accompany the missionaries: “I tour the world in spirit, seeking all the souls redeemed by the most precious blood of my Divine Spouse.”
A New and Treacherous Venture
On February 19th, 1639, Madame de la Peltrie knocked on the door of the Ursuline Monastery of Tours in the company of Monsieur de Bernières who managed her affairs. She wished to go to Canada. While in Paris, she heard that an Ursuline from Tours also had the same wish.
Mary of the Incarnation was astonished to recognize in this visitor the lady she held by the hand in her dream of 1634.
From one surprise to another, obstacles were overcome, bonds were interwoven, and financial resources were taken care of, thanks to Madame de la Peltrie’s generosity. Moreover, Sister Marie de St-Joseph, 22 years old, offered to leave with them.
After have been granted all due authorizations, on February 28th, 1639, the two Ursulines, Madame de la Peltrie and Monsieur de Bernières left for Paris to sign the necessary contracts with the Company of the Hundred Associates which managed affairs in New France and to draw up agreements with the Jesuit Fathers who were in charge of the Church in New France. Madame de la Peltrie took final possession of the inheritance received from her deceased husband. In spite of strong opposition from relatives, she dedicated an important part of her fortune to establishing a “seminary” in Canada for the education of native girls.
Having settled all their business, they made their way to Dieppe and awaited favourable winds to embark. During their stay, the two Sisters were guests of the Ursulines of Dieppe. To Mary of the Incarnation’s great joy, one of them, Sister Cecile de Sainte-Croix, accepted to join the missionaries. The sailing ship, named Saint Joseph, weighed anchor on May 4th, 1639.
The voyage lasted three months. As their drinking water had been contaminated shortly after their departure, they soon became very thirsty. Long, heavy storms made them seasick. But worse yet, everyone expected to die when their ship just missed striking an iceberg.
On August 1st, 1639, after transshipments in Tadoussac and on the Island of Orleans, the travellers finally landed in Quebec. “Forest as far as the eye can see, a country covered in fog, an abrupt and rocky path”, a sight that reminded Mary of the Incarnation of her dream of 1634.
A Community, a Monastery
The little colony welcomed the newcomers with all due honors. The three Ursulines and Madame de la Peltrie were lodged in a house near the port. It had two bedrooms, a cellar and an attic, and above that, the general store of the Company of the Hundred Associates. They could see the stars through the cracks between the planks.
They had hardly set foot on dry ground that the French settlers and the natives brought their daughters for instruction. For the first three years, they lived in close quarters and carried out their regular duties: Mass and Divine Office, cooking, cleaning, teaching, studying the native languages, taking care of the little native girls, etc. Moreover, in an improvised parlor, the Sisters received the children’s parents, the settlers, the Jesuits and the Governor.
It became urgent for the Sisters to build a monastery in order to carry out their mission in New France as adequately as possible. Mary of the Incarnation obtained the Governor’s authorization to raise a building in a location as safe as possible with regard to the threat of the Iroquois. She prepared plans and quotations, hired workers and closely supervised the construction.
The community’s debts began accumulating and its resources were running dry. As the Ursulines had always acknowledged the Virgin Mary as their first and principal superior, Mary of the Incarnation placed the community totally in her hands and affirmed having felt her faithful and loving presence from the beginning to the end of the enterprise.
On November 21st, 1642, the community moved into the monastery, and its little boarding school section was soon overflowing with children.
First Monastery of Quebec
Fire and Rebuilding
Misfortune soon struck the small community. A Sister forgot to extinguish the embers placed beneath the bread bin to keep the dough from freezing. The bread bin eventually took fire and soon the whole monastery was engulfed in flames. The Sisters and boarders barely made it out, while Mary of the Incarnation threw the community’s important papers out the window before joining her Sisters outside. Most of them were scantly clothed and barefoot in the snow. During this night of December 31st, 1651, the Ursulines bowed their heads and sang praises to God.
The settlers hurried to the Sisters’ help with clothing and blankets. For the following three weeks, the Hospital Sisters, though as poor as most of the settlers, welcomed the victims of the fire into their convent, furnishing them with clothing and food. The Ursulines afterwards moved into Madame de la Peltrie’s little house recently built close to the monastery. Once again, they experienced crowding and food shortage.
The civil and religious authorities as well as the settlers believed that the departure of the stricken Ursuline community was inevitable. However, Mary of the Incarnation and her companions did not share this opinion; they had come to stay.
The debt of the first monastery was far from written off. Rebuilding on the existing foundations required an act of faith in Divine Providence and a necessary appeal for help. Encouraged by the parents of the French and native children and still more by their faith in God, the Ursulines decided to remain in the country. Once summer came around, the sailors returning to France brought letters relating the painful ordeal. Help, however, might not come before another whole year.
As soon as the snow melted, Mary of the Incarnation began directing the new construction. The Ursulines did not wait for the interior to be completed before moving in.
Mary of the Incarnation had other huge responsibilities, alternating as she did between the roles of superior, assistant, treasurer of the community, and mistress of novices. Besides this, she successfully learned four native languages, composed dictionaries for these languages, participated in the education of the children, and shared in the household chores.
But where did she find the resources to feed the household, clothe the little native boarders, pay the workers and building materials and carry the weight of enormous debts? While she gives all the glory to God and the Virgin Mary, her contemporaries cry, “Miracle!”
Mary of the Incarnation exchanged an enormous number of letters, both business and personal, with people in France. Her letters are a goldmine of information on the history of the first decades of the colony.
As a loving mother, she wrote moving letters to her son who had become a Benedictine monk. She responded with wisdom and astonishing clarity to the young religious in search of counsel. In 1654, upon her son Claude’s insistence, she once more took to put to writing the history of God’s grace in her life, the first manuscript having been destroyed in the fire of 1651. In spite of being separated by an entire ocean, these two people kept very close in God’s love, thanks to an assiduous exchange of letters.
Mary of the Incarnation found time to write only after sundown and late into the night. Only when her frozen fingers could no longer hold the pen would she extinguish the foul-smelling, smoking candle. After a few hours of sleep, she would join the community at sunrise for the prayer of Divine Office, meditation, and Mass. After which, together with her Sisters and united to Jesus, she would work hard to build a Church in Canada.
Aging and Death
A serious illness threatened Mary of the Incarnation’s life in 1645. A remission allowed her a few more years, but the illness continued its devious work. In 1657, she wrote to her son: “The extremity to which my illness reduced me made me realize more than ever that we must work for God and practice virtue when we are in good health, and especially keep a clean and pure conscience.” Despite the uncommon courage that kept her active, she suffered greatly in her later years from the ailment that had never left her.
Up to the last hours of her life, she showed her affection for the little native girls whom she called, “my heart’s delight”. She received the Sacrament of the Sick with full consciousness, asked forgiveness of those around her and thanked her Sisters for their charity towards her. She encouraged them to remain faithful to their missionary vocation. She said goodbye to her son in a final letter. And, on April 30th, 1672, surrounded by her Ursuline Sisters whom she had loved and served, she went to join her “Great God”.
In the obituary that her Sisters sent to the Ursuline monasteries in France, we read: “The rare virtues and excellent qualities that adorned the life of our beloved deceased Sister lead us to believe that she holds a high place in glory.” And from his Benedictine Abbey where he had become the Abbot, Claude wrote: “God did not will that love alone separate her soul from her body; He joined suffering to her love, that she might die, like her Divine Spouse, of love and suffering together.”
Mary of the Incarnation was beatified on June 20th, 1980, by Pope John Paul II.
She was canonized by Pope Francis, on April 3rd, 2014, as the Ursulines celebrated the 375th anniversary of her arrival in Quebec.
The remains of Saint Mary of the Incarnation rest at the Monastery in Old-Quebec. You are invited to visit this oratory of recollection.
Next to the Chapel of the Ursulines of Quebec, 18 rue Donnacona, the tomb of Mary of the Incarnation creates an oasis of prayer for the people of the area, for groups of pilgrims and tourists from all countries.
18 rue Donnacona, Vieux-Québec, G1R 3Y7
May to October from 10:30 a.m. to 16:30p.m. (4p.m.)
November to April Saturdays and Sundays from 12:30p.m. to 16:30p.m. (4pm)
upon request at other times.
The Center of Marie-de-l’Incarnation opened its doors May 10, 2011. This historical place interprets and conveys the heritage of Saint Mary of the Incarnation.
6 rue du Parloir, Vieux Québec
Responsible : Sr Lise Munro
May to October from 10:30 a.m. to 16 :30 p.m. (4p.m.)
and upon request at other times.