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Heroic Early Catholic Women Who Shaped Montreal

By Teresa Bergen

As a travel writer, I’m fortunate to often have tourism professionals help me devise itineraries. My contacts at Tourism Montreal were especially helpful in routing me through a bunch of religious museums and churches in 2 ½ days. But I was a novelty to my tourism hostess, who said travel writers never ask to go the places I wanted. And I was the first to ask her to schedule Mass into my itinerary.

Quebec has a rich Catholic heritage, but centuries of Catholicism resulted in a backlash against the church. My informal research is based mostly on talking to museum guides, Uber drivers and tourism professionals, but here’s what I learned:

After a few hundred years of Catholicism dominating French-speaking Canadians while the Anglos got all the good titles, positions and money, the French were tired of such an invasive Church influence. Several people I talked to mentioned that priests pressured women to produce a baby per year, and would publicly shame those who didn’t.

This all led to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1950’s and ‘60s. “In the ‘60s, people started leaving the church because they said the religion is too severe,” said Nancy Prada, director of the Museum of the Sisters of Providence. In the 1960’s, some museums even tried to soften the artwork, to make early church figures seem friendlier and less intimidating. But it was too late. By the end of the ‘60s, Quebecers had abandoned the Church in droves.

I was surprised when one of my Uber drivers told me that many words from Catholicism are used as swear words. This was later confirmed by my tour guides and by Wikipedia.

Reclaiming Important Quebec Catholics

I quickly deduced that the non-religious locals considered me a bit of a freak to be so interested in their Catholic past, but in a friendly and tolerant way. So I quietly made the rounds of Catholic attractions, appreciating the rich history and art. I couldn’t get to all of Montreal’s museums and churches. But here are a few that I visited and found intriguing. I was especially interested in early women’s contributions to Quebec.

Musee des Hospitalieres

This museum records the history of the Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, an order founded in LaFleche, France. It’s a good place to get a feel for Jeanne Mance, one of Montreal’s founders. “She was very exceptional for the period,” my guide, museum volunteer Carolyn Grant, told me. Mance was a pious Catholic, but neither married nor a nun. Born in 1606, Mance served as a volunteer nurse during the Thirty Years’ War, honing her skills on the battlefield. In 1640, she heard a cousin speaking about Canada. “It awakened her vocation,” Grant said. Angelique Faure de Bullion, a rich French woman, gave Mance the money to establish a hospital in Canada.

Mance started dispensary inside Fort Ville-Marie (Montreal’s original name, after the BVM) in 1642. In 1645, she opened the first hospital outside the fort. It had five rooms, including one six-person sick ward. Mance had come to care for the “savages” indigenous to New France. Instead, she tended to colonists wounded by unhappy Iroquois.

After ten years, Mance was ready for some help. In 1658 she sailed to France to bring the first three Hospitaller sisters back with her.

This museum is fascinating if you’re interested in early Quebec, the lives of nuns, and/or medical history. My favorite part was the display of relic artwork. The nuns practiced a craft of rolling up gold-edged papers and making intricate 3-D art pieces with them. They’d insert relics into these paper rolls. The relics were displayed annually for the Feast of Relics. This was a double indulgence day. If you bought an indulgence, you got twice as much for your money. This practice lasted into the 1950s, Grant told me.

Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was canonized in 1982, founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal. This was one of the first uncloistered religious communities. As Bourgeoys wrote, “The Blessed Virgin was never cloistered. She did indeed withdraw to an interior solitude, but she never turned away from any journey where there was some good to be done.”

Bourgeoys is credited with being the first teacher in Montreal. She taught native children, white settlers’ children, and the famous filles du roi, or king’s daughters. These last were young women, mostly orphans, who Louis XIV sent from France to make wives for the white settlers.

The museum has a lot to see. The first room is full of doll dioramas depicting Bourgeoys’ life, made by nuns in the 1940’s. It’s almost like reading a 3-D comic book. I took a 20-minute guided archeological tour, where you can still see ashes from the fire that destroyed the old chapel in 1754. The rebuilt stone chapel is also called the Sailors Church. People came to the chapel to say prayers before crossing the sea. Visitors can climb many stairs up to the tower, where you get a close-up look at the pair of 1892 angels perched atop the chapel.

Maison Saint Gabriel

I visited the Maison Saint-Gabriel on a rainy afternoon and had the place almost to myself. This is a large house and farm that Marguerite Bourgeoys bought in 1668. She didn’t live there herself. Instead, a combination of nuns, male workers and filles du roi stayed there.

My tour guide, Charlotte Kelly, was dressed in period attire. She patiently answered my many questions about filles du roi. In the 1660s, there were only 3,000 inhabitants of the colony, mostly men. At the same time, Louis XIV had a bunch of orphaned girls on his hand. Most were from poor families. They could neither marry nor become a nun because they had no dowry. This came as a surprise to me, but Kelly said that the church required prospective nuns to provide a dowry. So Louis XIV solved two problems by buying these girls tickets, providing each with a trousseau and a dowry, and shipping them to New France.

Between 1663 and 1673, 800 filles du roi came to the province of Quebec. Most stopped in Quebec City or Trois Rivieres. Only about 100 came to Montreal. “It took two weeks to canoe from Quebec to Montreal,” Kelly said. “They had to be courageous to come here.”

About 40 of them resided in the Maison Saint Gabriel between 1668 and 1680. They usually stayed two to five months before marrying a settler. The program proved fruitful. After ten years, the population grew to 7,000. The women averaged seven children each, and the most prolific woman had 18.

I was very curious how the girls got matched up with settlers. Kelly explained that many suitors came to the Maison Saint-Gabriel to woo the girls. “It might look like a speed dating session from the 17thcentury,” she said. I asked if the girls would pick the guys who were handsome and funny, but Kelly looked at me like I was daft.  “Women would choose a man who had land or farm already,” she said. “They would want someone with a farm and house to survive for winter.”

Before marrying, the girls signed wedding contracts about the intention to marry. A few women hedged their bets by signing more than one. One woman signed three in the same week!

This is a very interesting historic house where you get a feel for the hard work of the time. It’s filled with artifacts like molds the nuns used to make pewter plates, molds to make Eucharistic wafers, early crow’s beak lamps (named for their shape) that burned smelly fish oil, and a butter churn that nuns used to occupy hyperactive children. It was a fabulous tour. Kelly knew so much about daily life on the farm.

Sisters of Providence Museum and Emilie Gamelin Center

I was especially moved by my trip to this museum. Nancy Prada, the museum director, gave me a personal tour and told me the sad yet inspiring story of Emilie Gamelin, one of the first Sisters of Providence.

Gamelin was born in Montreal in 1800. She was the fifteenth child. Her worn-out mother died when Emilie was only four, so she went to live with her aunt. The upside of this tragedy was that her aunt was wealthy enough to send Emilie to school. She was the only child in her family who got an education.

As a teen and young adult, Gamelin helped out in the households of various relatives. She was always devoted to the poor. While staying with her brother, she put a table in the kitchen to welcome beggars. She called it “the table of the king” because she thought poor people deserved to be treated like kings and queens.

In 1823, she surprised everybody by announcing her marriage to Jean Baptiste Gamelin. He was 50 and had twice jilted brides at the altar. “But they had the love of the poor in common,” Prada told me. He taught Emilie about business, which was very uncommon for women at the time. “This was a heritage he gave to Emilie which she later gave to the Sisters of Providence,” Prada said.

Within five years of marriage, Gamelin’s husband and three children all died. “At that moment she decided to become the mother of the poor in Montreal,” Prada said. Gamelin began a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, who was very present in every day of her life.

Gamelin’s husband had long supported a mentally handicapped boy named Dodais and his mother. His death bed wish was for Emilie to continue caring for them. She did. “For the Sisters of Providence, this is an important piece of history,” Prada pointed out. “Back in those days, mentally handicapped people were sent to jails.” Taking care of Dodais gave her the experience of caring for handicapped, which later would be part of the work the Sisters of Providence carried out.

The Sisters of Providence was founded in 1843. By that time, Gamelin was 43 and had realized that her life was very similar to that of a nun. So she became one of the first members, and was named Mother Superior in 1844. As Bishop Bourget put it, she’d made her novitiate in the streets of Montreal all those years. The bishop gave the new order a daunting mission: To take care of everything the other congregations didn’t already do.

Within their first eight years, they’d opened 19 Providence houses serving populations like elderly, orphans, old priests and the mentally handicapped. They took care of typhus victims, opened a school, a hospital and Montreal’s first deaf mute institution.

Then, in 1851, Gamelin contracted cholera. Twelve hours later, she was dead.

Prada showed me a reproduction of Gamelin’s coffin. More than a hundred years after her burial, the tomb and the Providence mother house were moved to their current site, to make way for Montreal’s new subway system. When they exhumed Gamelin’s body, they found that along with her Sisters of Providence cross and her nun ring, she’d been buried with her wedding ring and a little pouch containing hair from her three deceased children. These items were all laid out on her replica tomb.

That’s when I lost it. Her life was so sad, and she’d done so much good. And even though she was a devoted nun and was supposed to put away things from her past life, she’d always kept her wedding ring and her children’s hair. Obedience has a limit. I had no Kleenex, so I sniffled for about five minutes while continuing to ask Prada questions.

I guess what I really took away from these religious women of Quebec was their commitment and unflagging hard work in the face of such a hard, hard life. Nuns are strong, tough people. And they had to be even stronger and tougher in the early days of New France. Gamelin especially touched me. After all she lost, she didn’t give up or drown in self-pity. Instead, she picked herself up and spent the second half of her life helping every type of outcast in the Province. If any one of us could find just one-hundredth of her goodness inside ourselves, we’d make the world such a better place.

This article written by travel blogger Teresa Bergen

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