St. Sebastian
Feast of St. Sebastian

Biography of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys

Birth: 1620
Death: 1700
Feast Day: January 12

St. Marguerite  BourgeoysMarguerite Bourgeoys was born April 17, 1620 in Troyes, in the Province of Champagne, France. Her father, Abraham Bourgeoys was a candle maker and coiner for the royal mint in the town. Her mother was Guillemette Garnier. Marguerite was the sixth of twelve children in the middle-class family. Abraham died when she was very young, and her mother also died when Marguerite was 19.

As a young woman, Marguerite was not interested in joining the confraternity of the canonesses regular of the Congregation of Notre-Dame, which was located nearby. They were dedicated to the education and assistance of the poor, but they remained cloistered and did not have the right to teach outside of the cloister. The members of the confraternity reached poor young girls who could not afford to be boarded within the cloister as students. She had a change of heart after participating in a procession honoring Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October 1640. After this, she dedicated herself to God and imitated the Virgin Mary.

By the time she was 32 years old, Marguerite was the director of the confraternity, and was invited to travel to the New World to educate children of the French settlers. In February 1653, she set sail from France with about 100 other colonists, most of whom were men on working contracts. When she arrived, the Ursuline nuns offered to give her lodging there while waiting for transportation, but she declined, choosing instead to live with the poor settlers. She arrived in Ville-Marie on November 16.

When she arrived at the colony, she found that there were no children to teach due to the high levels of infant mortality. She was greatly disappointed by this, but did not despair, helping the community by working with the settlers.

In 1657 she organized the building of Ville-Marie's first permanent church - the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel. In April of 1658, she was given a stable to serve as a schoolhouse for her students. This was the first public school in Montreal. Shortly thereafter, she traveled back to France to recruit and bring back more women to teacher the children of the colony. She was successful in that, which allowed her to be able to house and to care for the "King's Daughters," which was a name given to orphan girls that were sent by the king to start families in the colony. The small group of women educators began to live in a religious community, with periods of common prayer and meals eaten together. They also spent time apart from each other traveling throughout the colony teaching the children in each town. Over the next three years, Marguerite attempted to gain official recognition for the community both in the Catholic Church, and by civil authorities. In 1669, the Apostolic Vicar of New France created an ordinance that gave permission to the congregation Notre-Dame to teach anywhere in the colony that that they were invited. He later wanted to consolidate them with a cloistered community, which would have prohibited them from traveling around the colony to teach, confining them and requiring the children to come to them for education, which was not practical. He ultimately changed his mind and allowed them to continue their work.

In 1670 Marguerite again visited France to gaining an audience with the King to ensure that her community could continue their work without being cloistered. By 1671, she had met with Louis XIV and impressed him so much with her work, that he authorized them to continue as "secular Sisters" and wrote about her: "Not only has (Marguerite Bourgeoys) performed the office of schoolmistress by giving free instruction to the young girls in all occupations (...), far from being a liability to the country, she had built permanent buildings."

After 1672, Marguerite's vocation as an educator flourished as the colony grew and more children were in need of schooling. Marguerite was dedicated to helping the poor, but also established a boarding school for the more affluent families to send their girls so that they did not have to travel all the way to Quebec for schooling. She also established a school which taught needle-work and other disciplines for women in Pointe-Saint-Charles. The congregation also started smaller schools in places such as Lachine, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Batiscan and Champlain. In 1678, Marguerite also set up a small school in the Iroquois village of "la Montagne" (Montreal).

Marguerite made a third trip to France in 1680 to again protect her congregation from attempts to impose cloister on them and to seek additional members. Bishop Laval, who was also visiting France, would not allow her to bring back any new recruits. She was allowed to recruit Canadian-born women into the congregation, which allowed the group to meet the demands of the colony.

During the 1680s, the congregation grew significantly and was finally established in the city of Québec. The new bishop in the colony, Jean-Baptiste De La Croix de Saint-Vallier, was impressed with the vocational school that Marguerite established in Ville-Marie and asked her to begin a similar school in Québec. In 1692, the congregation opened a school in Québec that served girls from poor families.

In 1683, Marguerite wanted to hand off her duties as the head of the congregation, but was convinced to change her mind and keep the position for another 10 years. Marguerite was able to keep their secular character despite the wishes of Bishop Saint-Vallier to consolidate them with the Ursulines which would have meant a cloistered existence. On July 1, 1698, the congregation was "canonically constituted a community".

During the last two years of her life, Marguerite was dedicated to prayer and writing an autobiography. On January 12, 1700, she died in Montreal. She had lived such a life that she was widely considered a saint long before official recognition was given. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII declared her venerable. Pope Pius XII beatified her in November 1950, and she was canonized by Pope John Paul II as the first female saint of Canada in 1982.