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Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make French America’s Cosmopolitan Cloisters Jan Noel P+++++++p Sister Juchereau Saint-Ignace, daughter of a prominent bourgeois family, sat down and recorded an improbable incident in the annals of her convent, the Québec Hôtel-Dieu, in 1703. English forces attacking the port of Cadiz had deliberately dragged an image of the blessed Virgin through the mud in the filthiest parts of town. Longing to repair the insult, Sister Juchereau and the other nuns in her convent “resolved to make honourable amends, and in the refectory each Religious took a day according to her rank in the order. The chosen one . . . fasted that day, took discipline, dined on the ground at the feet of the most blessed Virgin exposed on the Superior’s table, approaching barefoot, with a rope around her neck and a taper in her hand, kneeling and praying aloud: ‘Holy Virgin, we know not how to express the sorrow which seized us when we learned the evil treatment the English heretics gave to one of your images at . . . Cadiz . . . offer you the best reparation we can for the outrage.’”1 War was again raging in Europe when Brother Albert Jamet published an edition of the Hôtel-Dieu annals in 1939, and the sisters were still making their ritual atonement for the Cadiz travesty 236 years later. The incident illustrates the peculiar way in which French transatlantic convents situated themselves in the cosmos, an alignment that might be seen as the triumph of imagination over distance. The far reaches of eternity, which seem distant to many and nonexistent to others, were quite near for them. Vandalizing an image of God’s Mother represented a deep injury to a bosom companion that required reparation. The little cells and choirs where “brides of Christ” prayed and meditated at night were in a sense roofless, for they opened directly onto that place where their prayers could salve Mary’s pain. Traversing the distance required a leap of faith but no physical travel. This imaginative life and the material basis on which it rested characterized what Teresa of Avila called the “Interior Castle,”2 the cloister. The distances covered were not entirely spiritual or imaginative ones. There was a triumph over physical distance too. One scholar characterized French Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make 181 overseas missions as “floating” cloisters.3 They maintained ties with institutions in France, with neighboring colonies, and with the continental interior. They interacted with indigenous people as well as with migrants from Latin America and Africa. They recruited sisters from diverse places and forged trade links across great distances. All this meant that a nun could spend her life behind the grille and yet reach thousands. She did not need to go out into the world because the world came to her. These connections allowed cloisters to maintain their distinctive way of life when they faced loss of the mother country and Protestant takeover. In short, cloistered nuns surmounted those stone walls in many and astonishing ways—spiritual, social, economic, and political. This study encompasses five colonial convents in Canada and Louisiana. The Ursulines (who schooled girls in both Québec and New Orleans) and the Augustinian nuns (who administered Québec’s Hôtel-Dieu and its General Hospice ) were cloistered when they came to the new world, while the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who staffed Montreal’s Hôtel-Dieu hospital, embraced cloister not long after their arrival.4 Cloister required nuns to take permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They were, in the general course of things, required to remain in the convent behind barred windows and locked gates and—apart from carefully defined hours and spaces for teaching and nursing—to interact with the public through grilles.5 Those committed to this way of life arrived in the tiny embattled outposts of Québec and Montreal in the seventeenth century. As the colony grew, they encountered both support and opposition from French authorities . The strength of their foundation was tried when Canada was conquered by a Protestant power in 1759–60. In a similar vein, the Ursulines who arrived in New Orleans in 1727 faced initial growing pains and successes, then underwent regime changes to Spanish rule in 1767 and American rule in 1803. They later weathered a militant wave of evangelical Protestantism (and subsequent secularizing forces). All five convents remain in existence today. Their buoyancy distinguishes them from their motherhouses...


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