Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

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





[This article was written by Sister Mary of Jesus in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Ursulines ( Quebec ). The Ursulines are a religious order founded in the sixteenth century by Ste. Angela Mericia at Brescia, Italy, for the education of young girls. It was the first teaching order of women established in the church, and has adhered strictly to the work of the Institute. The approbation of Paul III was confirmed by Gregory XIII in 1572. St. Charles Borromeo was a zealous protector of the new society. The Milan foundation was the first outside of Brescia . Thence it spread to France. The first cloistered convent was founded in Paris in 1612 by Madame de St. Beuve. Nine congregations of Ursulines with three hundred convents existed before the French Revolution. The congregation of Paris was, with that of Bordeaux, the most flourishing.


In the early part of the seventeenth century an urgent appeal came from Canada for religious women to undertake the arduous task of training its Indian girls to Christian habits of life. Madame de la Peltrie, an opulent French widow, offered herself and all that she had to found a mission in Canada. In May, 1639, she sailed from Dieppe in company with three Ursulines and three hospital nuns. At Quebec, the latter founded the Hôtel-Dieu, and the former the first institution of learning on the American continent. At their head was Mother Marie de l'Incarnation, a remarkable and saintly woman, who after ten years of widowhood had joined the Ursulines of Tours.


Henceforth the history of the Ursulines became one with that of New France . Its dangers, its joys, and its sorrows were theirs. When they began their first work at the foot of the mountain, Quebec was but a name. Hardly six houses stood on the site chosen by Champlain thirty-one years previously. At the death of Marie de l'Incarnation, in 1672, there was an upper town and a lower town-her convent, one of the finest buildings, having been destroyed by fire in 1650, and rebuilt. After the Indians were finally subjugated in 1665, the little colony was able to expand and survive even after the conquest of 1759.


The royal charter sanctioning the foundation, signed by Louis XIII, is dated 1639. Three years later, in 1642, the nuns entered the convent built on the ground they still occupy, and granted to them in 1639 by the Company of New France.


The first pupils were Indians; the nuns were soon able to teach in the Huron, Algonkian, Montagnais, and Iroquois tongues. The courageous Marie de l'Incarnation found time in the midst of her laborious days to compose a dictionary, grammars, and books of Christian doctrine in the Indian tongues, that rendered great service, even in the last century, to missionaries carrying the Gospel into the far North.


From the first years the children of the French colonists flocked to the Ursuline Seminary of New France.


There they found cultured women who taught the arts as well as the sciences of the time.


The years following the death of Mother Marie were years of hardship. The community suffered from the vicissitudes and fears caused by war and disasters. The Sisters remained at their post even during the siege of 1759. They devoted themselves to the care of the wounded soldiers of Wolfe, lodged in a room of the convent, which remains to-day as it was then. Several bombs that fell on the convent during that terrible siege, are still kept in that room. Theirs was the only church that resisted the bombardment. Repaired by General Murray, it served five years for both the Catholic and the Protestant services. This chapel, built in 1722, was demolished and rebuilt in 1902. The retable, pulpit and ornamentation are those of the former shrine. Not the least among its treasures is the grave of the Marquis de Montcalm. The valuable paintings were sent from France in 1821.


The room assigned to General Murray and his staff and the legendary round table, on which many important documents were signed, may still be seen, with numbers of other historic treasures.


The first superioress after the Conquest was Esther Wheelwright, a New England captive rescued from the Abnaki by the Jesuit Bigot, and a protégée of the first Governor Vaudreuil. Not only the French, but also the English, Irish, and Scotch have given distinguished members to the convent. Education has been bilingual since 1830.


The heartening assertion of Marie de l'Incarnation, " Canada is a country especially protected by Divine Providence," lessened the anxiety of these troubled times and inspired hope. For 176 years these words have been verified, and the development of education has kept pace with the progress of the country. The first impetus after the Conquest was given in 1800. Halfboarders were then received for the first time. From 1820 and 1824 dates the advancement of modern art and music in all branches. Buildings have been added, especially since 1831, in every direction around the walls of 1651, and to-day central heating and the modern conveniences afforded by steam and electricity, enable the community to receive a large number of boarders and day-scholars.


The Free School is lodged in the house of Madame de la Peltrie, remodeled and enlarged in 1836. In 1822, the Rev. J. Signay applied to the Ursulines to obtain instruction for the Irish Catholics of the city. The Irish class was definitely organized in 1824.


As early as 1836, the Ursulines opened their convent to the first normal school, and continued to receive young ladies at the expense of the government until normal schools were abolished by law in 1842. They were finally re-established in 1857, and for seventy-three years the Laval Normal School for girls was part of the Quebec Convent. It was transferred in 1930 to the fine modern building at the entrance of the Merici property, and is frequented by some two hundred resident pupils and externs.


The Merici Convent was at first a simple branch house. It was opened in 1902 on the magnificent property given in exchange for the Plains of Abraham (now the Battlefields Park), and adjoins this historic field.


The convent at Three Rivers was founded in 1697 at the request of Mgr. de St. Valier. He joined to the boarding school an hospital that lasted until 1866, and did much good work. This convent became in turn a mother-house, and founded convents at Grand'Mère, Shawinigan, and Waterville (Maine).


The Ursuline convent of Roberval, on the beautiful lake St. John, was founded in 1882 at the request of Mgr. D. Racine, first bishop of Chicoutimi. The School of Domestic Science connected with the boarding school was the first of the kind in the country, and the venerable foundress, Mother St. Raphael, who took the initiative, was frequently praised and decorated by the government, and encouraged by the support of the clergy. The institution, affiliated to Laval University, renders important services to the region by a superior education given at the boarding school and by the training of excellent housekeepers.


The Ursuline convent of Stanstead was founded in 1884 at the request of Mgr. Antoine Racine, first bishop of Sherbrooke. It is ideally situated near the frontier of Vermont, in the midst of an English-speaking population. Pupils from far and near follow the course of studies and receive the diplomas given by the institution, affiliated to Laval University . The commercial course is on a high footing, and is greatly appreciated. In 1921 this convent sent subjects to open the first Ursuline convent in Swatow, China .


The Ursuline convent of Rimouski , perched on the heights and overlooking the Gulf, owes its existence to Mgr. Blais, second bishop of Rimouski, who chose the Ursulines for the direction of a normal school opened in 1906. It soon gained an enviable reputation for the intellectual and moral training of its pupils.


In 1924 Mgr. F. X. Ross and the Ursulines of Rimouski established the convent of Gaspé. Its normal school and domestic science course have already attracted attention for educational proficiency.


At different times during its existence, the Quebec convent has sent missionaries elsewhere to help the cause of education - to New Orleans in 1822, to Charlestown Heights (near Boston) in 1825, to Galveston (Texas) in 1849, to Springfield (Illinois) in 1884, and to Montana in 1893.


Bibliography. See Glimpses of the monastery (Quebec, 1897); Chapot, Histoire de Marie de l'Incarnation (Paris, 1892) ; Ursulines de Québec (Quebec, 1863); Lettres de la Ven. M. de l'Incarnation (Tournai, 1876) ; and Dom A. Jamet, Marie de l'Incarnation (Paris, 1929).


Source : Sister Mary of Jesus, "Ursulines", W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. VI, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 398p., pp.221-224.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College