Saturday 24th March 2018

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Catholic Heroes… St. Marguerite Bourgeoys

January 9, 2018 saints No Comments


Our Lord has no limits and conditions for persons whom He calls to sainthood. They may be the richest, such as St. Francis of Assisi, or the poorest such, as the children of Fatima. They may be powerful, such as St. Louis, king of France, or humble, such as our Lady. They may be the most brilliant, such as St. Augustine of Hippo, or the simplest, such as St. Joseph of Cupertino. They can also be very normal, average persons. Marguerite Bourgeoys was not outstandingly brilliant, poor, smart, or simple. Her greatest trait was her love of God and her eagerness to serve.
Marguerite was born into unusual times in France. King Louis XIII of France, with the support of Cardinal Richelieu, was creating an autocratic and uncompromising governance. These developments played a role in Marguerite’s life, but so did the French mystics, such as Jean-Jacques Olier and Charles de Condren. Thus Marguerite, while being sincere and practical, also became a great woman of prayer and intimacy with God.
The sixth of twelve children of Abraham Bourgeoys and Guillemette Garnier, Marguerite was born on April 17, 1620 in Champagne, France. Her father was the coiner for Troyes as well as a candle maker supplying candles to the king’s court. Thus the family enjoyed some notoriety because of their connection to royalty. A listing of her mother’s jewels and social engagements indicates that they were upper middle class.
Around 1630, Abraham died, and ten years later Marguerite lost her mother as well, leaving the care of the children to her and her older sister, Anne. The following year, in 1640, the direction of Marguerite’s life became clear. In Troyes there was a group of cloistered nuns belonging to the Congregation of Notre-Dame. This order was founded in 1598, and the members were not allowed to leave the monastery grounds to exercise their mission. A compromise was reached so that there could be an external congregation of young women who would meet at the monastery for religious instruction and the art of teaching.
Early on, Marguerite exhibited no interest in the congregation.
One day, however, while Marguerite was participating in a rosary procession, she passed by the entrance of the congregation and had a change of heart. As she described in her own words, “We passed again in front of the portal of Notre-Dame, where was a stone image above the door. When I looked up and saw it [the Blessed Virgin statue], I thought it was very beautiful, and at the same time I found myself so touched and so changed that I no longer knew myself, and on my return to the house everyone noticed the change, for I had been very light-hearted and well-liked by the other girls.”
Unlike her previous disregard for the nuns of Notre-Dame, Marguerite quickly entered the external congregation which was under the leadership of Mother Louise Chomedey de Sainte-Marie, sister of the governor of Montreal in Canada, Monsieur de Maisonneuve.
Thus Marguerite learned from a very reliable source what was happening in Quebec, Canada. In 1652 the governor visited France and came to visit his sister in Troyes. Marguerite met him, eagerly listening to his stories of colonial life. Mother Louise and a few other women pleaded with the governor to take them to Montreal, but he firmly refused. There was no way to support such a community in Montreal given the current conditions there, he reasoned.
In the meantime, Marguerite had applied to various congregations including the Carmelites, but had been rejected. Providentially, she was unencumbered by any rules of the religious life. At the age of 33, she also pleaded with the governor to go to serve the colonists, and, surprisingly, he agreed to let her accompany him to the New World.
In February, 1653, she embarked on her journey. After a challenging and difficult crossing, they finally landed on September 22 — seven long months after their departure.
By the end of the voyage, her example of holiness, cheerfulness, and charity worked a significant change in the other passengers. Upon arrival in Ville-Marie, she found no children to raise or educate, because of the high rate of infant mortality.
Hence Marguerite found an outlet for her burning love of Christ’s children by serving them any way she could. Slowly, her work and fame grew and funds were donated to her and her friends. In 1657 she convinced the settlers to help her build a chapel — Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. It was the first stone church built in Montreal and still stands today.
The following year, Marguerite finally realized her goal of teaching, receiving students in a stable that had been given to her by Maisonneuve. Restless to expand this ministry, she returned to France in 1658 to bring back more girls to help — three returned with her.
She then became the mentor for orphan girls who were sent to Montreal by King Louis XIV. The shortage of marriageable women would be alleviated by these young ladies who would be trained in the domestic sciences.
Marguerite would also be their protector by carefully and thoroughly screening any man who came to her for a wife. So highly respected were the sisters who taught and nurtured the ladies that the settlers came together to petition the king to formally establish the sisters’ congregation in 1667. Bishop Francois de Laval, the apostolic vicar of New France, gave his approval in 1669 for all of Canada.
Marguerite made another trip to France by which she received the king’s order to establish her organization. He formally recognized the great contribution she made to the colony by training women, clearing land, constructing buildings, and establishing farms. Returning to Montreal, Marguerite brought three of her nieces with her. Two joined the sisters of the congregation while one married a settler.
From 1672 to 1682 the congregation grew quickly. In 1676 an elite family who sent their daughters to Quebec sought a good education for them, thus endowing a girls’ boarding school. Still Marguerite’s heart longed to help the more unfortunate girls and she began a school for them. Both the boarding school and the training school were firsts in the colony.
Even then they still did not have ecclesiastical approval. Thus, Marguerite went to France again to obtain it, but failed in her mission. She did learn more about religious life and the requirements for approval which prepared her for the trials ahead.
In 1683 an election for a new superior was held and Marguerite looked forward to settling down to a life of prayer. However, a fire destroyed the motherhouse, killing the two nuns running for election.
The bishop called on the sisters to open more schools and help the poor and neglected. He heard their solemn vows on July 1, 1698.
For the last two years of her life Marguerite lived in solitude and prayer.
Her sacrifice knew no limits as she offered her frail and failing body in return if our Lord would let a younger dying nun live. God accepted her generous offer, curing the nun and taking his beloved Marguerite to himself on January 12, 1700.
January 12 is now her feast day.

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