- Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Congregation of Notre Dame, 1665-1700
In Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1665 (Montreal, 1997), Patricia Simpson chronicled her subject's participation in the founding of the colony of Ville-Marie (Montreal) as an experiment in Christian living. This follow-up volume focuses on the efforts of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys to establish what became the first uncloistered community of women in North America.
Simpson's narrative of the years 1665 to 1680 focuses on Bourgeoys's two trips to France to obtain letters patent and advice about securing ecclesiastical recognition for the fledgling community. During this period, several women from France and Canada joined the original four French women, and [End Page 848] the group established missions in the Montreal area, Trois Rivières, and Champlain. They provided elementary education for the children of settlers and native peoples, training in homemaking skills for young women, and religious instruction for children and women. Serving initially through missions ambulantes, they lived with local families in more distant areas until the Congregation was able to purchase property.
The last two decades of the seventeenth century saw geographic expansion as far as Île d'Orléans and Quebec city, as well as an increase in the number of Canadians, along with some native women and two English-speaking former captives who had converted to Catholicism. Those years also were marked by three major crises for the Congregation: a fire that destroyed their main house; an ultimately unsuccessful movement to establish a single "spiritual" community replacing the Congregation, Hotel Dieu, and Sulpicians; and controversy with Bishop Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier over their rule and possible incorporation into the cloistered Ursulines of Quebec. In Simpson's view, de Saint-Valler and his predecessor, François de Montmorency Laval, understood the Congregation's uncloistered way of life to be simply a temporary expedient, whereas the sisters believed it to be the way God had called them to live.t The intervention of Louis Tronson, the Sulpician superior general, caused the bishop to mitigate some provisions of the rule and remove all direct reference to cloister, and thirty Congregation sisters agreed to the rules and pronounced vows in 1698, less than two years before the death of Bourgeoys at age seventy-nine.
The fact that most Congregation records from the seventeenth century have been destroyed by fire presents a major challenge to historians. Simpson supplements the fragmentary writings of Bourgeoys with such contemporary sources as the letters of Tronson and the Sulpician Dollier de Casson and the annals of the Quebec and Montreal Hôtel-Dieu communities. She draws on the work of earlier biographers, including the eighteenth-century Sulpician Étienne Montgolfier, on the assumption that some of his material came from interviews with sisters who had lived and worked with their founder. Simpson carefully mines the information contained in parish, court, and other government records to provide details concerning several of the seventeenth-century Congregation sisters, notably Marie Barbier, the first Montrealer and second superior.
Where the sources disagree, Simpson usually presents the evidence for each perspective and leaves it to the reader to determine what most likely transpired. As a result, this work is more demanding than a simple narrative would have been, but the effort is well repaid for anyone who seeks a greater understanding of early Canadian history, early-modern religious history, or the evolution of religious life for women. [End Page 849]