On Tuesday, January 12, the church will celebrate the feast of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, a young French woman who first traveled to Canada as a lay teacher. Her endeavors led to the establishment of the Congregation of Notre Dame, a pioneering order of teaching nuns.
Marguerite was born in France on Good Friday in 1620 and was the sixth of 12 children. When she was 19, her mother died. The following year she was inspired to consecrate herself to serving God.
She joined a lay group of young girls dedicated to teaching the poor children. Then she met Monsieur de Maisonneuve, a French priest who was working in Montreal, Canada. He convinced her to move to Montreal, where she began to teach the French and Indian children there.
Life in the colony was physically very difficult. When Marguerite arrived, she found that children were not likely to survive to an age suitable for attending school. Nevertheless, she began to work with the nurse in charge of Montreal’s hospital and eventually established her first school in a stable.
Marguerite made three trips across the Atlantic, returning to France to recruit more teachers for her mission and fledgling order. The Congregation of Notre Dame was unique in that the sisters were teachers and were not cloistered. In the face of much pressure for her order to join another cloistered one, Marguerite had to fight to keep her mission independent and to convince a bishop to let her sisters travel as teachers in the wild ranges of the Canadian wilderness. Though the teaching sisters often lived in huts and suffered other hardships, the order grew. They did not dedicate themselves to teaching solely children, but also set up schools where they taught new immigrants how to survive in their new environments.
As the order expanded, Marguerite passed leadership on to one of the sisters. She spent her last few years praying and writing her autobiography. On the last day of 1699, one of the young members of her congregation lay dying. Mother Marguerite asked the Lord to take her own life in exchange. By the morning of January 1, 1700, the young sister had recovered and Mother Marguerite had a raging fever.
She suffered 12 days, and died on January 12, 1700.
Pope John Paul II canonized her on October 31, 1982 whence she became Canada’s first female saint.