Academic journal article Historical Studies

Vie Voyagere for Women: Moving beyond Cloister in Seventeenth-Century New France

Academic journal article Historical Studies

Vie Voyagere for Women: Moving beyond Cloister in Seventeenth-Century New France

Article excerpt

Between 1659 and 1698 over fifty women came together under the leadership of Marguerite Bourgeoys to form what became the Congregation de Notre-Dame of Montreal. In doing so, they were following the pattern of numerous similar congregations of women founded in France during the seventeenth century. Like those other groups, the secular sisters of Ville-Marie pursued the ideal of personal holiness while engaging in the work of education. And also like their counterparts in France, the sisters of New France insisted on remaining free of cloister in order to continue this work, and this insistence brought them into conflict with church leaders and existing church legislation. (1) The source of that conflict was two-fold: not only were they seeking to expand the sphere in which women acted, but they did so on the basis of a new understanding of holiness.

While the issues to be negotiated were the same as those in France, the Ville-Marie Congregation was geographically isolated from its French counterparts and moreover lacked wealthy and influential founders to guarantee its survival. This paper will consider two of the reasons why it did survive, maintaining to a large extent its uncloistered apostolic character. The first is its setting in the New World, and particularly the sisters' participation in the project of Ville-Marie. A major source for exploring the significance of this setting is the charter issued by the founders of Ville-Marie, Les Veritables Motifs de Messieurs et Dames de la Societe de N. Dame de Montreal. However, as shall be seen, the missionary ideal of the Jesuits in New France, exemplified by the Jesuit Relations, also influenced the sisters' lifestyle and helped form their self-understanding as missionaries. It shall be argued that an even more significant factor in the Congregation's development was the theological justification for their way of life provided in the Writings of Marguerite Bourgeoys. At the center of that justification is her description of the vie

voyagere of Mary, i.e., her life as uncloistered missionary and educator.

Marguerite Bourgeoys' decision to go to New France involved the choice to participate in a project initiated by the Society of Notre-Dame of Montreal, a group of devout and wealthy Parisians inspired by the visions of the layman Jerome le Royer de la Dauversiere and of Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians. In 1643, the year after the settlement was made, the members of the Society in Paris published a detailed description of their hope for Ville-Marie:

to assemble one people, composed of French and native peoples who have been converted, to have them make settlements, ... unite them under the same discipline in the exercises of the Christian life, ... and to have the praises of God celebrated in a desert where Jesus Christ has never been named. (2)

This passage makes it clear that conversion of the indigenous peoples was only a first step, to be followed by the creation of a Christian society in which native and French would be integrated. The model for that society is the first Christian community as described in the Acts of the Apostles: "The associates hope by this means soon to behold, by the grace of God, a new Church imitating the purity and charity of the primitive one." (3)

The aim of creating a new society of Christians was mirrored in the very composition of the Society of Notre-Dame; thirty-four of the forty-six known members were lay, and of that number twelve were women. (4) Indeed, although most members of the Society were wealthy, it is noteworthy that two poor men, Claude Legay, an artisan, and Jean Blondeau, a servant, were invited to become associates simply because of their reputations for holiness. (5) Thus, given the constraints of French society at that time, the Society was relatively inclusive, crossing divisions of social rank, gender, and ecclesiastical status. Furthermore, the associates' expressed intention was that the community of Ville-Marie be equally inclusive, crossing the barrier of race as well. …

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