Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Writing the Convent in New France: The Colonialist Rhetoric of Canadian Nuns

Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Writing the Convent in New France: The Colonialist Rhetoric of Canadian Nuns

Article excerpt

Most writing by women that has survived from before the fall of New France--perhaps most writing by women during that period--was done by nuns in the seven communities founded before 1763: the Ursulines, the Hotel-Dieu, and the Hopital-General in Quebec; the Ursulines of Trois-Rivieres; the Hotel-Dieu and two uncloistered institutes, the Congregation de Notre-Dame and Sisters of Charity of Marguerite d'Youville in Montreal. (2)

While the nuns wrote above all to promote the spiritual vitality of their communities, they also provide a unique female perspective on the colonial milieu. Marie Guyart, Catherine Simon de Longpre, and Marguerite Bourgeoys are the best known women religious from the era that began with the arrival of the French foundresses in 1639 and lasted into the 1670s when they were replaced by Canadian-born nuns; but, as we will see, numerous other nuns in this first group wrote about their efforts to establish a beachhead of the Gallican Church in Canada. The second period from about 1680 to 1725 was dominated by the first generation bore in the New World--Marie Morin of the Hotel-Dieu of Montreal or Jeanne-Francoise Juchereau of the Quebec Hotel-Dieu--who sought to consolidate the work of the foundresses by writing annals of communities that had become thoroughly Canadian. The third period, exemplified by Marie-Andre Regnard Duplessis of the Hotel-Dieu of Quebec, had to cope with the discouraging realization that Canada was on the periphery of France's colonial interests.

Thus, instead of examining Canadian convent writing as spiritual discourse, this article focuses on how it embodied the rhetoric of colonization by which the settlers explicitly or implicitly justified France's enterprise in the New World. The intersection of convent writing (3) and this colonialist rhetoric is particularly revealing because the two share multiple features. First, both subordinate the individual entity, whether a nun or a colony, to some larger whole. When a nun writes she invariably promotes the vitality, present and future, of her monastery and order. The rhetoric of the colonizers justifies the introduction of metropolitan culture into the colonized territory. Second, the most famous of these texts, such as those of Marie Guyart or Samuel de Champlain, gain from being read in light of more routine examples. Thus the need for the kind of extensive inventory of published convent writing attempted in the bibliography. Finally, just as Canadian nuns accepted their subordinate position in the Church, while simultaneously extending the frontiers of what was permitted to women (Choquette 655), so the settlers seldom called into question their dependency on France, even though they constantly maneuvered to make a system designed for the benefit of the mother country work for them.

Convent Genres in the New World

Before addressing the colonialist rhetoric of convent writing, a survey of the chief genres that Canadian nuns brought with them from Europe will be useful. Although many nuns must have written little, and strict rules governed the writing that was done, Tridentine convents were textual communities governed by the written word; nuns exchanged abundant texts with the outside world and produced numerous others for internal use. The Post-Reformation era saw the renewal of genres that had flourished in the Middle Ages, such as the letter and chronicle, and the flowering of new ones such as the spiritual autobiography modeled on Teresa of Avila.

Rules, constitutions, directories, customary books regulated the operation of the convent. While male superiors usually took a leading role in their production, the contribution of the nuns was not insubstantial. Thus, when the original Ursulines, who came from both Tours and Paris, wanted their own constitutions in 1647, they turned to the Jesuit Jerome Lalemant, but Marie Guyart wrote the Reglements that accompany them. The constitutions of most new or reformed orders enumerate a good dozen registers and record books that convent officers were required to keep, often in armoires a deux or a trois cles for security. …

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