Quebec – An Ursuline Epic Part Seven

St. Ursula is reverenced in the cloisters as a great patroness of learning. St. Angela founded the Ursulines as a teaching order in 1537. And La Mère Marie de l’Incarnation and her successors have always looked upon their school as the prime object of all their work in Canada. Ursuline teachers and boarders are always drawn from the best social classes in their respective communities and these female Etons exert considerable influence in different parts of the Roman Catholic world, with their 500 convents, their 12,000 nuns, and their 100,000 pupils.

Quebec society offered a fair field and much favour to the Ursuline teachers in the eighteenth century. Charlevoix found it very much to his taste in 1720. “. . . a little world where all is select. . . . A Governor-General with his staff, nobles, and troops an Intendant, with a Superior Council . . . a Commissary of Marine, a Grand Prévôt, a Grand Voyer ; a Superintendent of Streams and Forests, whose jurisdiction is certainly the most extensive in the world ; merchants in easy circumstances, or at least living as if they were ; a bishop and a large staff of clergy Récollets and Jesuits ; three old-established communities of nuns ; and other circles almost as brilliant as those surrounding the Governor and Intendant. . . There are abundant means of passing the time agreeably.. . Current news is confined to a few topics. News from Europe comes all at one time ; but then it lasts a whole year… The arts and sciences have their turn, so that conversation never languishes. The Canadians breathe, from their earliest years, an air of good will which makes them very agreeable in social intercourse. Nowhere else is our language spoken with greater purity. . . There are no really rich people here. . . . Very few trouble themselves about laying up riches. They live well ; that is, if they can also afford to dress well. But they will stint themselves at table in order to dress the better for it ; and it must be admitted that dress is becoming to our Canadians. They are a fine-looking people, and the best blood of France runs in their veins. Good humour and refined manners are common to all ; and even in the remoter country places the slightest approach to boorishness is quite unknown.” In 1757, Montcalm found the ladies “spirituelles, galantes, dévotes,” and notes in his journal that “Quebec is a town of distinctly good society. . . . At two splendid balls I saw more than eighty charming ladies, all beautifully dressed.” So, perhaps, the “good old times ” which form the theme of a lament written from the convent in 1785 were not so very different from the new as the writer would have her Parisian Sisters believe. There is liberty to profess our holy religion ; but there is little care for living piously, young girls are not brought up so well as they used to be. Some of our pupils are taken from us and allowed to go to the theatre before the age of fourteen. We hear many complaints of the vanity and luxury which are becoming prevalent in society ; yet there are many good people who persevere faithfully in the path of duty.” Society was probably getting more complex in Quebec, and throwing off its froth and depositing its dregs as it always has since social complexities began. But the fair field and much favour were there, for all that. Very few convent schools have ever enjoyed such opportunities, and none have used them better.

Yet in one important respect the Ursulines were at a very serious disadvantage. All communication with France was cut off by the British conquest in 1759, by the War of the American Revolution in 1778, and again by the long wars of the First Republic and Empire; while no French book was printed in Canada till 1765, and very few of any general educational value appeared there during the next fifty years. The only source of supply was from a French bookseller in Paris whose London correspondent managed to forward a few text-books, from time to time, as occasion served.

This separation from many forms of French life in those troublous times of universal questionings, and the difficulty of getting secular text-books, combined to throw the whole soul of the teaching more than ever into the religious sphere. But this overwhelming preponderance of one aspect of instruction did not crush out all other aptitudes, as some might think. Literature was certainly not taught on modern comparative lines but there are many books in use to-day which are of an altogether lower world of literature than the Roman liturgy, with its profoundly intimate adaptability to so much human yearning, and its perennial grandeur of expression. How those Ursulines would have rejoiced exceedingly to see the fulness of knowledge uniting with the charm of the best French prose in praise of the æsthetics of the liturgy, in Dom Cabrol’s Conférences at the Institut Catholique de Paris on Les Origines Liturgiques ! “Ainsi l’Eglise s’est servie des sens, des cérémonies extérieures, pour vous élever vers Dieu , c’est le premier degré de l’oraison. Elle s’adresse ensuite a votre intelligence et â votre coeur par ses formules ; et si vous vous laissez pénétrer par cette influence, elle vous conduira jusqu’au plus haut degré de la prière, le ravissement et l’extase.” This is an opinion of to-day, calmly given forth while France was in the thick of the debates on the Associations Bill in a Radical Chamber of Deputies. Châteaubriand was nearer their own day so near, in fact, that he was among the pioneers of the renaissance of wonder in literature—a renaissance which his Génie du Christianisme applied to the scriptures of the Church. We re-open the little livre d’offices, read with him a few hymns and prayers, and are fain to confess “qu’une langue antique et mystérieuse (celle de Virgile et de Cicéron) une langue qui ne varie plus avec les siècles, convenait assez bien au culte de l’être éternel, incompréhensible, immuable.”

But Chateaubriand is no longer an accepted expositor : he is not scientific enough for an evolutionary generation. Yet his famous book served its day well, revived a cultured interest in the liturgy, and preached a series of excellent lay sermons from a Christian reading of Keats’s text:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty ; that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,

Then, by the time the literary revival of the liturgy was waning the scientific began. This went straight to root-and-branch questions of evolution, environment, accretion, and the survival of the fittest. And now science and literature alike ac knowledge the supreme fitness of Bible and liturgies to fill a foremost place in the intellectual life. Yet it’s a far cry from the convent to the Modern Reader’s Bible, and it will be many a day before the Papal revision of the Vulgate supplies the half-way house.

However, the essential point is the full and frank recognition of the value of Bible and liturgy as source-books of science and art in the life-history of man. M. Loisy is hardly persona gratissima inside the cloisters ; but what Ursuline would not agree with this sentence from his L’Evangile et l’Eglise: “Le développement historique du culte accuse un effort persévérant du christianisme pour pénétrer de son esprit toute l’existence de l’homme. Or with Renan’s dictum : ” La religion d’un peuple, étant l’expression la plus complète de son individualité, est en un sens plus instructive que son histoire.” Or with Huysmans’ artistic sensibility to Gregorian chants, while he was en route towards Catholicism : “la paraphrase aérienne et mouvante de l’immobile structure des cathédrales.” For would she not triumphantly point to the great Tertullian as the archetype and prophet of all these latter-day cultivators of religion ? Look at this French version of his De Spec, c. xxxix, P.L., t, I, col. 735, and be convinced forever :—” Vous avez des spectacles saints, perpétuels, gratuits ; cherches-y les jeux du cirque, regarde le cours des siècles, les temps qui s’écoulent, compte les espaces, attends qu’ on touche la dernière borne, défends les sociétés des églises, ressuscite au signe de Dieu, lève-toi a la voix de l’ange, glorifie-toi de la palme du martyre.

Nous avons, nous aussi, cette littérature, nous avons de la poésie, des sentences, même des cantiques en grand nombre, des chants ;—pas de fables, par exemple, mais des vérités.. . .”

But how could there ever have been any place for English-speaking pupils, and, above all, for Protestants, in such an atmosphere ? The only answer is that there always has been room for both creeds and both races in all matters of secular instruction, and that the class room entente cordiale has remained unbroken from the appearance of the first English pupils to the present day. As English schools became established, however, fewer Protestants attended. Nowadays the boarding school is mainly French-speaking and almost entirely Roman Catholic ; while the Roman Catholic equivalent of Sunday-School work is carried on among the girls of the public schools, who attend the convent for that purpose only. Education moves within certain limits in all branches but, within those limits, it is thorough. The facilitative amenities of life are nowhere better understood ; and the feminine of “manners maketh man” is nowhere better put in practice.

Religion is very naturally made pervasively attractive to every Roman Catholic ; and the nuns and pupils are generally the best of friends. Many a girl leaves in tears : but these do not recruit the ranks of the novices nearly so much as those who leave less regretfully, “have their fling,” and then return for consolation from a hollow world.

A childish impression is sometimes fixed for life by the beautiful commemoration which marks the. fète-day of La Mère Marie, when every hand helps to strew her grave with roses. And what pupil ever forgets the end of her first Christmas term ?

Long before daylight, while the little girls in the junior dormitories are still asleep, soft, distant music floats through the open doorway, stealing over each warm coverlet, to take the ear between dream and waking. Noël ! Noël ! are the first words soaring on the wings of that glad melody. And, presently, the now expectant eyes discern the first tall, white, gliding form, with taper-lit blonde head, leading the undulant, long procession of the elder choir girls. Voices, violins and organ-a swelling tide of sound—flow on and in, until the very air of the whole vibrant room thrills with sympathetic harmonies. A few sweet, rapt moments of full ecstasia . . . and the choir is passing through the farther door . . . and the music, ebbing after it, lingers long on happier notes, before it dies away, down the dim corridors beyond, into the silence of remembered bliss.

The crowning glory of a convent education is, of course, the taking of the veil. The ceremonial used in Quebec is the one approved by the Theological Superiors of the Ursulines in Paris on Michaelmas Day, in the year 1625. The appointed Sacristine carefully divides all the garments of the Postulante into sacred and profane. The profane are the clothes which will be discarded during the ceremonial. The sacred are those which will be worn at the beginning of the life regenerate. Then the Postulante is dressed up as lay women dress for worldly ceremonies ; and the cross-bearer leads the way into the chapel, while all the nuns follow, two and two, holding their lighted tapers in the outer hand. The long-drawn procession is closed by three abreast : the Mother Superior on the right hand, the Mother Assistant on the left, and, in the centre, the Postulante, radiant in bridal white, with wreaths of orange blossom in her hair, and flashing delight to every worldly eye with the jewelled ornaments of the life she is renouncing. Attending her are three little bridesmaids, also in white and also wearing wreaths of flowers.

In the solemn middle of the Latin mass the whole sisterhood turns towards the altar, as the Archbishop begins to ask the momentous question of vocation in French prose. The change of language is an abrupt surprise. Suddenly, insensibly, your attention is teased with memories of Faust :—the Dom, Amt, Orgel and Gesang the Baser Geist, and Gretchen’s

. . . Weh! Weh! War’ ich der Gedanken los !

Dies irae, dies illa Solvet saeclum in favilla.

The Celebrant and Postulante are now alone, before the eyes of God and man.

Ma fille, que demandez-vous ?

La miséricorde de Dieu, le saint habit de la religion, la charité de l’ordre, et la société des mères.

Ma fille, est-ce de bonne volonté, et de votre propre mouvement ?

Oui, mon Père.

Ma fille, avez-vous ferme intention de persévérer jusqu’a la fin de votre vie ?

Appuyée sur la miséricorde de Dieu … j’espére le pouvoir faire.

The great renunciation made, the Postulante leaves the chapel, while the nuns remain in continual intercession. Presently she returns, robed as a sister ; and makes her vows of service. Then, like a living crucifix, she prostrates herself before the Throne of God. There, while her sisters chant thanksgiving to the Mercy Seat of faith, there—in a long, enraptured vision—she lies prone, all else shut out. . . . She is so still . . . so still in silent adoration . . you hardly know if she is drawing human breath.

At length she rises, turns toward the rest of her community, slowly passes down the waiting lines, where each nun greets her with the kiss of peace ; and then, as they file out, she follows, last of all, never again to leave the cloisters in either life or death.