The French religious Blessed Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700) was the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame, the first religious community for women established in Canada.
Marguerite Bourgeoys was born on April 17, 1620, in Troyes, France, the sixth of 12 children in a pious, middle-class family of comfortable circumstances. She received an elementary education in the neighboring "little schools." In 1640 she came into contact with the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine of the Congregation of Notre Dame, which later inspired her own foundation. This institute required solemn vows, conformed to the customary stringent regulations that confined nuns within cloister, and educated girls in boarding schools. Bourgeoys joined a pious confraternity of laywomen attached to the convent in Troyes, known as the Extern Congregation, and soon became its president.
Bourgeoys learned about Canada and its religious needs in 1653 when she met the governor of Montreal, Paul de Chomedey de Maisoneuve, during his visit to his sister who was the superior of the Troyes convent. He accepted Bourgeoys' offer of help rather than that of the nuns, whose organization and special apostolate seemed to him unsuited to rough frontier conditions and needs.
Arriving in Montreal on Nov. 16, 1653, Bourgeoys began a varied and laborious, but gratuitous social apostolate among the small French colony. In 1658 she became Montreal's first schoolmistress when she converted an abandoned stable into an elementary school. Later she started schools in and near the island of Montreal, including the city of Quebec. Several of these mission schools— eventually restricted to girls—trained Indian children; she opened a school to train older girls in household arts in 1665. She also trained and arranged marriages for the "daughters of the king, " poor orphans mostly, who had been sent to the predominantly male colony by Louis XIV. Mainly to enlist collaborators in her labors, she returned to France in 1658, 1670, and 1679.
On her second trip Bourgeoys obtained permission from Louis XIV to establish a group of laywomen, without vows and without cloister obligations, dedicated to educational work and subject to the local bishop. She composed a religious rule for her fledgling congregation, but because of doubts about the permanence of the group and misgivings concerning novel features such as the substitution of simple for solemn vows and the permission to work outside cloister, Bishop Laval of Quebec withheld his formal approval. His successor, Bishop Saint-Vallier, also denied permission but relented in 1698, two years before the founder's death. With this formal acceptance, the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal became the first religious institute founded in Canada.
Among the 24 sisters who pronounced the three vows of religion on this occasion was Bourgeoys, who was henceforth known as Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. Pope Pius XII beatified Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1950. In 1982 she was canonized.
A biography of Marguerite Bourgeoys is by Simpson, Patricia CND, co-director of the Marguerite Bourgeoys Centre, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1665 (McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion. Series Two (1997). □