[expanded from a recent Monday talk by Fr. Ken]
Marguerite Bourgeoys may well be one of the most unknown saints (and an official one at that) in the worldwide Church. The remarkable French pioneer moved from France to the wilds of ‘New France’ in 1653 on a mission to serve in whatever way she could. She helped bring Christianity to the local population, initiated the building of the colony’s first permanent church, and founded the first public school in what would later be known as Canada. Public education would not widely exist for another 150 years.
The saintly Marguerite survived many threats during her years in the new colony. She lived through Iroquois attacks, a fire that destroyed her small village, plagues on the ships that she took back and forth to France. But nothing threatened her dreams and hopes more than what her own bishop said to her in 1679. He told her she had to join her teaching sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame (that she had established in Ville Marie, later to be Montreal) to a cloistered religious order of Ursulines. This was not the first time she'd been given such a command. Whether from a misplaced desire to protect the sisters, or from discomfort in dealing with an active religious order of women, bishops had long wanted to fit her into the usual mold of cloistered orders.
An educator at heart, she firmly believed faith should not be shut away, so refused all efforts by the French religious hierarchy to sequester her and the women who had joined her. The bishop finally gave in, saying, "I cannot doubt, Mother Bourgeoys, that you will succeed in moving heaven and earth as you have moved me!" And so began one of one of the first uncloistered religious communities in the Catholic Church.
Yes, living in the Canadian wilderness meant hardship and danger, but the challenges only inspired Marguerite. Yet another prime obstacle existed in that there were no children to teach! High infant mortality rates meant few survived to an age old enough for school. So Marguerite went to work in the hospital. She aided Jeanne Mance, who ran the hospital, in helping children survive in the harsh New World.
As conditions for natives and settlers began improving, Marguerite went to the governor of Ville Marie, Paul de Chomeday de Maisonneuve, and convinced him to let her open a school. He provided her with a vacant stone stable in April 1658 which became a schoolhouse for her students, both native and settlers.
As one unknown writer puts it, Saint Marguerite “is rightly considered co-foundress of Montreal, with the nurse, Jeanne Mance, and the master designer, Monsieur de Maisonneuve.”
The school system and network of social services she initiated gradually extended through the whole country, leading to her also being referred to as ‘Mother of the Colony’.
Marvelling on how well Marguerite connected the life of the mind to the life of God, Fr. Ken engaged in a bit of ‘what-if-ism’. “If we had followed more of these wise woman instead of arrogant men, we would be in a far different place,” he mused.
Monday 1:00 p.m. services at St. George's are well-worth attending: full communion, prayer, and an always-fascinating short talk by Fr. Ken on relevant biblical or ecclesiastical history.