Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2008

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame


[This article was first published in 1948. For the precise source, see the end of the document.]

Sisters of the Congregation de Notre-Dame. This community was the first religions institute founded in North America for the Christian education of youth and for the work of retreats. It grew and developed at the very origin of New France and of Ville Marie (Montreal). Marguerite Bourgeoys, under the direction of the Sulpicians, modeled it after that of the Canonesses of Mattaincourt, to whose extern sodality she had belonged at Troyes. The Congregation may be said to have begun in a stone stable, where she opened her first school, on April 30. 1657.

Unable to continue the work alone, she crossed over to France, and re­turned with four companions. In spite of untold poverty, uninterrupted toil, and continual danger of attack from the Indians, her heroic task was successfully carried on. Children were received at a very early age. The first of Mother Bourgeoys's charges was not yet five years old. A few little Indian girls were adopted, baptized, and educated by the Sisters. Two of them became nuns, and spent several years instructing their fellow-Indians. Both boys and girls were taught in the school until the Sulpicians took over the former. In order to provide for the instruction of the well-to-do colonists, a boarding­school was opened, where for many years nearly all the girls of Ville-Marie and the surrounding country were taught. Great attention was given not only to religious and secular education, but also to manual training. What is known as domestic economy was a favourite item of Mother Bourgeoys's curriculum. The poorer children were gathered into an industrial school, where they taught how to work and to sanctif y manual labour by prayer.

In 1670, the foundress went back to France, and returned in 1672 with six companions and bringing letters patent, signed by Louis XIV. In 1675, she built a stone chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de Bon Secours, a little outside of the settlement, as a place of pilgrimage and to receive the young girls of her sodality.

The Sulpicians, in 1676, opened an Indian mission on the slope of mount Royal. They undertook to teach boys, and asked Sister Bourgeoys to take charge of the girls. Two Sisters were lodged in wigwams, until M. de Belmont, superior of the seminary, gave them the two stone towers which may still be seen in the garden of the Grand Sémin­aire. In 1676, Mgr. de Laval allowed the Congregation, now canonically recog­nized, to admit subjects to religions profession. Its members were to take simple vows and to be uncloistered. They were among the first to adopt a mode of life which is now the most customary among religious women.

In 1683, the Congregation's convent, with all it contained was burned to the ground. The community seemed in danger of dissolution. Mgr. de Laval (q.v.) decided to unite it with the Ursuline order, but Mother Bourgeoys firmly rejected this proposition as being utterly opposed to the specific mission of her little community. The bishop yielded to her wishes, and Providence interposed to save it from destruction. New members came in such numbers that within two years forty had been received. This facilitated the foundation of schools far and near. At first, the Sisters lived with the settlers, and travelled about from village to village, of ten on horseback, teaching the cate­chism, till their convents were built. Houses were begun at Pointe-aux­Trembles near Montreal, at Lachine, Champlain, Château Richer, and Ste. Famille, on the island of Orleans.

In 1693, Jeanne Le Ber, daughter of a rich merchant, offered a generous sum of money for the erection of a chapel. One condition was laid down, that a little cell be built behind the altar where she might spend the rest of her life in prayer and retirement. On August 6, two years later, mass was offered for the first time in the Congre­gation church. From that period dates the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which still continues in the chapel of the mother-house.

The rule, however, was not yet approved. After being modified by the superior of St. Sulpice, it was finally approved and given to the Sisters, on June 24, 1698, when Sister of the As­sumption (Barbier) was superior. Mother Bourgeoys had spent six years as an ordinary member of the com munity in heroic obedience to her rule, when her conscience and her superiors imposed on her the obligation of writing an account of the graces she had re­ceived during her long lifetime. The book she thus composed at the age of seventy-eight, besides autobiographical notes of rare charm, contains a treasury of the maxims which had guided her.

In 1701 the Community numbered fifty-four members. The nuns were self­supporting, and, in consideration of this fact, the number of members was not limited by the French government, as was the case with all the other religious communities.

The convent at Louisbourg, in Cape Breton, fell into the hands of the English. The Sisters were twice exiled to France, where they suffered many hardships. After the conquest, the house at Point St. Charles was directly in the path of the advancing army. Two Sisters walked down the road to meet the van-guard, and asked for the commanding officer. They placed them­selves and their house under his pro­tection, and invited him and his men to corne in for refreshments. Consequently, the Sisters there and in Montreal were unmolested. Though the increase of the community was much impeded by the conquest, in, the latter half of the nine­teenth century many foundations were made, not only near Montreal, but also in Ontario, the Maritime provinces, and the United States.

The conflagration which ravaged Montreal in 1768 destroyed the mother­house, built eighty-five years before. The convent erected after this fire, with money furnished by one of the Sulpician priests, was demolished in 1844 to give place to a larger building. A still more commodious one was built, at the foot of the mountain, in 1880. This was burned in 1893, obliging the community to return to the old house on St. John Baptist street. Since 1908 the Sisters have occupied a new building on Sherbrooke street.

The schools of the Congregation of Notre Dame give instruction in all the fundamental branches. Their educational system begins with the kindergarten. The courses are afterwards graded as elementary, model, commercial, and academic. The first college was opened in 1899 at Antigonish, in Nova Scotia, and is affiliated with St. Francis Xavier University. In 1909, the Notre Dame Ladies' College (now Marguerite Bourgeoys), in affiliation with Laval, was opened in Montreal. [Notre Dame Ladies' College had a french section which became the Collège Marguerite Bourgeoys. This institution closed its doors in the 1990's. Its english section - named Marianopolis College - moved to its own campus in the 1940's, and is still a leading educational institution in Montreal today.] Colleges have since been founded in Ottawa and Staten island, New York.

At the present time [1948], the Institute includes 202 houses, and 3,085 nuns. (1) In the diocese of Montreal are the mother-house and novitiate for the whole Institute, with the Tabernacle Society, Sodality of Children of Mary and Chief Centre for the Alumnæ; the Jacques Cartier Normal School (1899); the Teacher-Training College (1926); and Marguerite Bourgeoys College (1909), a bilingual institute affiliated to the University of Montreal; 32 city schools, including high schools, board­ing-schools, academies, and graded schools; 9 in the outskirts, 14 in the country; 4 farms, 2 sanatoriums. (2) In the diocese of Quebec are 18 houses, of the same standing as those in Mont­real. (3) In the diocese of Sherbrooke are 14 houses, including a normal school. (4) In the diocese of Ottawa are a bi­lingual college, a boarding-school, and 4 graded schools. (5) In the diocese of Charlottetown are 8 houses, boarding­schools, high schools, and graded schools. (6) In the dioceses of Alexandria, Chat­ham, Chicoutimi, Joliette, Kingston, Nicolet, St. Hyacinthe, Three Rivers, Toronto, and Valleyfield, are from one to five houses. Joliette and St. Pascal have normal schools. There are seven­teen teaching institutions in the United States.


[On Marguerite Bourgeoys, consult the works of Patricia Simpson: Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Congregation of Notre Dame, 1665-1700, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1665. Ces ouvrages sont aussi disponibles en français sous les titres Marguerite Bourgeoys et Montréal, 1640 -1665 et Marguerite Bourgeoys et la Congrégation de Notre-Dame, 1665-1700. As well, follow the link to the Congrégation de Notre-Dame website.]


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Volume VI, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 398p., pp. 19-21.


© 2008 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College