Quebec City: The Ursulines Museum
The history of the Ursulines in Canada:
Four Ursuline sisters arrived in New France – now Canada – in 1639. They established a school for girls that lasted more than three centuries. Nowadays, visitors can learn about the order’s history in the Ursulines Museum, located in Quebec City’s old walled city.
About the Ursuline Museum:
This is a museum done well. It’s clean, bright, has a wonderful balance of text, photos, artifacts and audio, and occupies a spacious three floors. Audio stations allow visitors to hear actors reading real quotes from nuns and students who lived in the monastery, which really brings the exhibits alive.
The thing that’s probably most striking to a modern visitor is the fact that Ursulines were a cloistered order. In addition to the three standard vows of nuns –poverty, chastity and obedience – they took a fourth: to educate young women. This enabled them to be teachers within the cloister. Which meant that girls as young as six years old could leave home and suddenly find themselves confined behind walls. Except for long holidays when they went home to their families, the girls lived cloistered lives, only talking to visitors from behind gates.
Upon entering the museum, the visitor first encounters a timeline showing key events in the Ursulines’ history in Quebec: arrival, building of the original monastery, death of foundress Marie de l’Incarnation, fires, regional events that affected the sisters. The ground floor also houses four large pieces demonstrating the embroidery prowess of the early sisters. When Parisian nun and artist Marie Lemaire des Anges (1641-1717) came over to New France in 1671, she taught the other nuns and their pupils her embroidery techniques. For almost 50 years, her workshop provided embroidery for their monastery’s chapel and other churches and chapels in the area.
The second floor houses two large rooms of classroom items, including pianos, huge golden harps, chemistry lab equipment, and a collection of taxidermied birds used to teach natural sciences.
The sisters first came to educate Native girls about Christ. But this mission evolved into teaching the children of Francophone and, later, Anglophone, settlers. By the 1800s, the Ursulines focused on preparing young girls to become good Christian wives and mothers, and to take their place in upper class society. Since people of the time believed that drawing, painting and music made young girls refined, the Ursulines taught these subjects. Girls learned to play piano, sing, draw, and even to make artificial fruits and flowers, which were considered fitting past-times for young ladies.
The sisters had to deal with how people of the 18th and 19th centuries thought about women’s education. Many worried that if women lacked education, they could fall into idleness. However, too much education could provoke vanity and pride. Since the goals of women’s education were to prepare them to manage a home, to honor a husband, to raise kids and have good moral judgment, the Ursuline sisters geared lessons in chemistry, botany and accounting toward their home economics applications.
On the third floor, visitors encounter the museum’s most emotionally moving display. A speaker fills the room with somber hymns while exhibits describe how young women became Ursuline nuns. Especially mesmerizing were two screens showing footage of a “taking the veil” ceremony in 1954. The postulants enter in white satin bridal gowns and leave as novices in monastic black.
The third floor also houses a less solemn but also moving exhibit on the daily lives of boarders, including artifacts like a student’s bed and washbasin, a refectory table, the bell used to mark all the day’s activities, an old checkers set, and even a pair of wooden dumbbells with diagrams of exercises. It also addressed the emotional distress of some young girls separated from their family, and their relationship with the nuns. The girls called nuns “Mother,” but the lay sisters who cooked and cleaned were referred to as aunts. They often played a more loving, less disciplinarian role in the girls’ emotional lives.
The museum is a must-see for visitors to Quebec who are interested in Catholic history. Allow one to two hours to see everything. They are closed on Mondays.
Finding the Ursuline Museum:
Address: 12, rue Donnacona, Quebec, G1R 3Y7
GPS coordinates: 46° 48′ 42.9912” N, 71° 12′ 28.8252” W
Tel.: +1 (418) 694-0694 Fax.: +1 (418) 694-2136
Click here for the official website of the Museum of the Ursulines in Quebec City
Article by travel writer Teresa Bergen