Marguerite Bourgeoys born in Troyes, in the province of Champagne (France), on Good Friday, April 17, 1620, during a period of both colonial expansion and religious strife for Europe. She was the sixth of twelve children born into the middle-class household of Abraham Bourgeoys, a merchant, and Guillemette Gamier, in the northeastern province of Champagne in France.
By her own account, Marguerite had been “very light-hearted and well-liked by the other girls” while growing up. Her turn toward God’s calling began in 1640, not long after her mother’s death. On Oct. 7 of that year, during a procession honoring Our Lady of the Rosary, Marguerite had a mystical experience involving a statue of the Virgin Mary at Notre-Dame Abbey.
“We passed again in front of the portal of Notre-Dame, where there was a stone image above the door,” Marguerite later recounted. “When I looked up and saw it I thought it was very beautiful, and at the same time I found myself so touched and so changed that I no longer knew myself, and on my return to the house everybody noticed the change.”
After her siblings were older and could care for themselves, she became involved in charitable work. The governor of Montreal, Canada, traveled to France looking for teachers willing to come to the New World. Marguerite decided to go to New France.
Once there, she oversaw the construction of a chapel. Living in the Canadian wilderness meant hardship and danger. These challenges inspired Marguerite. She chose to serve the Native Americans and the settlers. Marguerite went to the governor of Ville Marie (Montreal) and convinced him to let her open a school. When Marguerite first arrived in Ville Marie, there were no children to teach, and she realized that children did not live to an age old enough for school. So she went to work in the hospital. She aided Jeanne Mance, who ran the hospital, in helping children to survive in the harsh New World.
She made several trips back to France to recruit more teachers, and these women joined her in the Congregation of Notre Dame. Eventually some Canadian women joined the new religious order.
In 1655, she rallied the inhabitants of the town to help realize her dream of building a chapel of pilgrimage within easy walking distance of the settlement. After delays and some uncertainty, in 1675 Montreal’s first stone chapel was erected.
In the stable-school opened in 1658, the children of the colony learned the basics of their faith, as well as counting, reading and writing. The older girls learned household skills to prepare for their responsibilities as wives and mothers. And traditionally, on the feast of Saint Catherine in November, they all made taffy!
Once the school had opened, Marguerite returned to France to find companions who shared her vision. Together they formed the nucleus of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, a community of uncloistered women.
In 1679, the Bishop of Quebec told Marguerite she and the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame had to join with a cloistered order of Ursulines. The bishop’s order would put an end to all the good work the Congregation was doing. Marguerite would not give up. She explained to the bishop that the Sisters could not do their good work in a cloister. Eventually the bishop replied, “I cannot doubt, Mother Bourgeoys, that you will succeed in moving heaven and earth as you have moved me!”
The Congregation of Notre Dame remains an active teaching order. It was one of the very first of its kind for women. During the last two years of her life, the foundress – known by then as Sister Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament – retired to pray in solitude. On the last day of 1699, after a young member of the community became sick, Sister Marguerite prayed to God to suffer in her place. Ecclesiastical approval for such a radical lifestyle for women, unheard of at the time, was not granted until just two years before Marguerite’s death in 1700.
Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys was canonized in 1982. A pioneer woman who worked in an outpost of the French empire, she built houses and established a farm, and opened schools for native children as well as for children of the colony. She was deterred by neither bishop nor king in the pursuit of her mission. The Church presents her to us now as a model for modern times. In a moving ceremony in May 2005, the sisters of her community and the people of Montreal brought her mortal remains in procession to Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours through the neighbourhood where she had lived and worked and died, back to her chapel. A woman of courage, vision, compassion and deep spiritual strength remains with us today, part of the fabric of our lives.