Quebec – An Ursuline Epic Part Two

When Louis XI lay on his death-bed, in his château of Plessis-les-Tours, he wished to send the holiest man he could find to bring the greatest saint of Christendom to console his last days on earth. Courtiers and populace all agreed on the same individual, the great-great-grandfather of La Mère Marie, who was accordingly sent to Rome and on to the wildest part of the Calabrian coast, whence he brought back the famous ascetic, St. François de Paule. No members of the family prized this signal honour more than the parents of Marie Guyard. Her father, who was a silk merchant, had such a reputation for piety and justice that his decisions carried more weight than those of the courts of law ; while her mother was his equal in devotion and his helpmeet in good works.

Marie was born on the 18th of October, 1599, in the old royal city of Tours, amid ce doux pays de la Touraine, which Belleforest has called le jardin de France et le plaisir des Roys. ” Do not ask me why I love Touraine ! ” exclaims Balzac, when describing the valley of the Indre from Azay to Mont baton. Here, and along the Loire, are all the finest chateaux : Amboise, with its terraces and chapel ; Chenonceaux,with its gardens, its white walls, its towers rising sheer from the water, and its romantic memories of Diane de Poictiers and Catherine de Medici Azay-le-Rideau, a vision of beauty, set in the woods beside the winding river , Loches, with its ancient towers and ramparts massively rooted into its steep hill ; and Chinon, where the statue of Rabelais looks down on the market-place and over the quiet quays beside the Loire, where Henry II breathed his last, and where Charles VII was called to the relief of Orleans by Joan of Arc. And the heart of Touraine is Tours, calm and beautiful on the southern bank of the Loire, which lingers past in slow meanderings. Here stood an archbishop’s palace, here soared a great cathedral ; and here was set that exquisite little gem of Gothic architecture, La Psalette, all aglow with the sacred music which so took the ear of the young Marie and wrought her heart to ecstasy.

But her deepest and most thrilling form of ecstasy came to her in visions of divinity. She had always been a religious child, and every pre-disposing influence carried her on toward the fulness of self-surrender and devotion. The piety of her family was a Touraine tradition ; the first words she could articulate were Marie and Jesus , she had hardly learnt to read before she showed a marked preference for books of edification ; her favourite work was succouring the poor ; her favourite amusement was “playing nun”; and her favourite holiday was paying a visit to the Benedictine abbey of Beaumont, where the abbess was her mother’s cousin. Her first vision was in a dream, when, as she afterwards wrote, she saw Heaven open and Christ come toward her in human form : Ce plus beau des enfants des hommes, avec un visage plein d’une douceur et d’un attrait indicibles, m’embrassa, et, me baisant amoureusement, me dit,. ” Voulez-vous être à moi ? ” Je lui répondis ” oui” ; et, ayant eu mon consentement, nous le vîmes remonter au ciel.

No wonder that a child like this longed for the life of the Benedictines whom she saw so often and who were so kind to her ; nor that her cousin willingly promised to intercede with Madame de Beaumont for her future admission to the order. She then confided in her mother, who also encouraged her. But there the matter stopped. She was meditative, timid and reserved ; and it never occurred to her to open her mind in the confessional beyond what she thought a penitent should say there. She knew nothing of private spiritual directors, who would certainly have led her on. So the Benedictines lost a nun, to Canada’s great advantage:

When she was seventeen her parents wished her to marry a silk manufacturer, almost as pious as her father. Her answer was idiosyncratic to the last degree : Ma mère, puisque c’est une résolution prise et que mon père le veut absolument, je me crois obligée d’obéir à sa volonté et â la vôtre. Mais si Dieu me fait la grâce de me donner un fils, je lui promets, dès â présent, de le consacrer à son service ; et si, ensuite, il me rend la liberté que je vais perdre, je lui promets de m’y consacrer moi-même. Both vows were afterwards fulfilled.

Nevertheless, her marriage was a happy one.

Madame Martin, as she had now become, was a very practical mystic, and a most capable partner in her husband’s business. At the same time she lost no opportunity of shepherding his employees into the one true fold and making them her daily congregation. Doubtless, her pilgrim soul was often grieved by their stay-at-home contentment with the good green earth of rich Touraine, where many a Mimnermus probably went to church, even in those ardent days, when religion was a casus belli for the whole of Europe.

At nineteen she was left a penniless widow by her husband’s sudden death and failure. Tall, handsome and of commanding presence, capable in management and pious in every thought and deed, she had no Iack of eligible suitors. But she would never consider re-marriage for a moment and she only remained outside the cloister for the next twelve years in order that her son should be old enough to be left with the Jesuits before she made her vows. Never for a moment did she relax her self-imposed ascetic rules for the mortification of the flesh. She literally clothed herself in sack-cloth, and practised so many other physical discomforts that her spiritual directors always had great difficulty in keeping her penitential macerations within due bounds. During four years she lived in utter self-abasement, as the servant of the servants at her brother-in-law’s. This relative, who was at the head of a great forwarding business, was only too glad to prornote her at the suggestion of her director ; and she suddenly passed from below the menials to the local superintendence of sixty horses and a hundred men.

For eight years the business prospered exceedingly ; and she completed an apprenticeship in practical affairs which served her well during her pioneering life in Canada.

But none of these alien years of successful business management saw any worldling interlude in her religious life. They were, indeed, only. more steps up the Scala Sancta of her soul. Her visions were no longer childlike dreams, but such as led her Spanish prototype, St. Theresa, through the seven abodes of the spiritual castle—el Castillo Interior o las Moradas-and so toward divine espousal with the Son of Man. On the eve of the Incarnation, in 1620, she had recommended herself to God’s providence in her usual formula—In te Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum—and had set out for her daily work. Then, as she walked beside the city moat, came the flash of apparition. Her whole being stood at gaze ; while the panorama of her past was unrolled before her, with all her sins standing out in the shamed dark, against the accusing whiteness of the light of truth ; and with the life-blood of her crucified Saviour pulsing to her feet.

The vision over, she entered the nearest church and begged the first priest she met to hear her full confession. Returning next day for absolution she determined that her true conversion was to be counted from this anniversary of the Incarnation ; a circumstance which suggested her name in religion, La Mere Marie de l’Incarnation.

Some years after, in a re-birth of unquestioning hope, she was at last caught up again within the highest rapture of heavenly delight ; as once before, in her first dream-vision when a child. Je conversais familièrement avec Notre-Seigneur, et mon coeur s’elancait par un mouvement extraordinaire vers ce bonheur que je ne pouvais comprendre. Jésus-Christ me dit distincte-men: ces paroles : Sponsabo to mihi in fide, sponsabo to mihi in perpetuum-Je dans la foi, je t’épouserai pour jamais.

Divine espousals are so essentially characteristic of convent visions that they are always the favourite point attacked by those who sit in the seat of the scornful outside the cloisters. The adverse formulary says that the devotion of all celibates is only the parental instinct of self-sacrifice gone astray, and that a Divine Spouse is only a nun’s hysterical substitute for a more carnal object of affection. But this contemptuous view shuts out one obviously common-sense point of refutation, which is almost too profanely worldly-wise for mention here. It simply is that no woman would make it the object of her life to bring in as many other brides as possible for her own beloved spouse, unless her affections were truly spiritual and the object of them divinely infinite.

Opinions will always differ about the signs which mark the calling of a life apart. But all the world agrees that the essential fitness of such a life for the higher aspirations of mankind can only be tested by its resultant actions. So we, who are bent merely on estimating the good influence that La Mere Marie exerted on Canadian history, might judge her by her works alone, if it were not that her visions, faith and works together made a triune all-in-all. This being so, we cannot hope to under-stand any one part of her life if we wrest it from the whole. We must reckon with faith and vision as practical determinants at every turn. And, to gain a still further insight into her peculiar case, we must call such a supremely competent witness of the beatific state as St. Theresa, whose evidence goes far to prove, by sympathetic analogy at least, how close the psychic correlations are, even if the visions are only subjectively existent. In the 28th chapter of her autobiography she gives her conclusion of the whole matter : ” Like imperfect sleep, which, instead of giving more strength to the head, leaves it only the more exhausted, mere imaginings only weaken the soul. . . . A genuine heavenly vision yields her a harvest of ineffable spiritual riches, and an admirable renewal of bodily strength. I gave these reasons to those people who so often accused my visions of being the work of the enemy of mankind and the sport of my imagination.

I showed them the jewels which the divine hand left with me—they were my actual dispositions. All those that knew me saw that I was changed.

As for myself, it was impossible to believe that if the devil were the author of this change he could have used means so contrary to his own interests as the uprooting of my vices and the filling me with masculine courage ; for I saw clearly that a single vision was enough to enrich me with all that wealth.”

When she was thirty and her son twelve, La Mére Marie committed him to the Jesuits and entered the Ursuline convent of Tours. The nuns were eager to hear her expound her visions, especially one of the Trinity, which is strangely like Dante’s in the final canto of the Paradiso:

Nella profonda e chiara sussitenza Dell’ alto lume parvemi tre giri Di tre coIori e d’ana contenenza

In that abyss Of radiance, clear and lofty, seemed, methought, Three orbs of triple hue, clipt in one bound; And, from another, one reflected seemed, As rainbow is from rainbow : and the third Seemed fire, breathed equally from both.

She freely told all that she had seen beyond the veil of the flesh ; and by her human aptitudes, no less than by her other-worldliness, was soon in perfect harmony with the life around her.

The Ursulines were originally founded on St. Catherine’s Day in 1537 ; two years after Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Quebec ; a time when the full flood-stream of Renaissance and Reformation was beating against every bulwark of the Roman faith and government. Ignatius Loyola and Angela of Merici hurried to the defence of the dangerous breach made in Catholic education, and set to work to rebuild it under fire. In 1540 Loyola drew up the constitution of the Jesuits, in which the educa tion of boys stood first of all in relative importance. Four years later the Sovereign Pontiff approved the constitution of the Ursulines, in which the first place was given to the education of girls. ” I have just given you sisters,” said Paul III to St. Ignatius, after signing the document. How this Pope would have rejoiced to see his famous dictum so signally borne out a century later, in the distant mission field of Canada !

The novitiate over, La Mère Marie chose the conversion of St. Paul for her profession ; and accordingly, on the 25th of January, 1633, she made her final vows. At the time she seems to have chosen this day only because it reminded her of her own conversion, and not from any sense of missionary zeal. But two years later she dreamt of meeting a lady she had never seen before, and of taking her by the hand and going a long journey into a strange country, pointed out by an apostle who met them by the way. An idea that she was not to spend her life among the Ursulines of Tours kept on recurring ; but it seemed so impious that she kept on as continually repulsing it. The other nuns began to notice her obsession ; and one day she broached the subject to Father Dinet. This famous Jesuit, soon to become the King’s confessor, said he thought the hand of God was pointing her to Canada. She had never even heard of such a country before ; but it quickly filled her whole imagination. Je ne vis plus d’autre pays pour moi que le Canada et mes courses ordinaires étaient parmi les sauvages, avec les missionaires. A pilgrim’s staff from Notre Dame de Lorette and a copy of the Relations des Jésuites—both coming anonymously from an unknown Canadian missionary — still further inflamed her zeal. But the convent life went on around her as usual ; and she was at a loss to know whether or not she had been called elsewhere.

At this juncture another unknown friend was coming to her side. Madame de la Peltrie, née Marie Madeleine de Chauvigny, was of the haute noblesse of Normandy. She had been well married and left a widow, though her own inclinations had always been toward the cloister rather than the world. One day she read Father Le Jeune’s appeal for a devout woman to convert the Indian girls of Canada et depuis ce temps, says La Mère Marie, son esprit fut plus en Canada qu’en elle-même. But her road thither bristled with worldly obstacles. She had run away from home and taken refuge within a convent in a vain effort to escape her first marriage ; and now her family were bent on making her contract another. She was noble, rich, attractive, and much sought after ; and she was at her wits’ end what to do. In her extremity she asked a consummate Jesuit director, who advised her to tell her troubles to M. de Bernières, a man devoted to the cause of missions, and throw herself upon his protection as her husband. This pious layman, who also desired a life– long celibacy, was astounded at her proposal. But his own spiritual director was of the same mind as hers ; and many common friends were instant in proving how desirable it would be to take such means to reach so good an end for the sake of the missionary cause. Finally, as both parties were equally unwilling to marry, it was agreed that no marriage should take place, but that the world should be allowed to believe them man and wife, in order that M. de Bernières should manage Madame de la Peltrie’s large property in France, while she went out to Canada as the benefactress of the Ursulines. A visit to the holy man already known as ” the archangel of human charity” made her resolve irrevocable ; and so the great St. Vincent de Paul must be reckoned among the founders of the convent: in Quebec.

Meanwhile M. de Bernières was writing to La Mère Marie about Madame de la Peltrie, and Father Poncet, who had sent the pilgrim’s staff, was writing to Madame de la Peltrie about La Mère Marie. The two women were thus brought together under the happiest auspices, and immediately became fast friends. A third now appeared, La Mère Marie de St. Joseph, an Ursuline who also had read the Relations des Jésuites with awakening devotion to the same cause. Her whole family de la Troche de Savonnières—rose in horrified protest against the idea of her going out to the dreadful heathen wilderness. But the three women stood together ; and presently arrived in Paris, where the wildest rumours about their pro-posed Canadian mission had preceded them. They became the vogue ; and when the Archbishop refused to let a Parisian Ursuline go with them he was besieged by great ladies, headed by the Duchesse d’Aiguillon ; and when he fled the capital to escape this importunity, the Queen herself pursued him with royal messengers, though in vain. La Mère Marie had a long audience of the Queen, who seemed much interested in this daring religious venture beyond the outer seas. Anne of Austria might well have sighed for some of the peace of mind which the Ursuline leader wore like a suit of living armour, for her own life was the unhappy sport of a king and two great worldly cardinals. The King treated her with cold neglect, Richelieu pressed her with unwelcome amorous advances, and Mazarin, whom she really loved, used her heart as a stepping-stone to power. Her harmless flirtation with Buckingham, told with such gusto in the immortal Trois Mousquetaires, was turned to malicious account by Richelieu when first presenting Mazarin at court : “Your Majesty will like him he has quite the air of a second Buckingham.”

Several troubles beset La Mère Marie while still in Paris. M. de Bernières fell seriously ill, and her son came to implore her not to leave for Canada. The young man had been leading la vie 4 vingt ans for a few months, though his wild oats would have made a very absurd little handful in the eyes of any genuine viveur. The mother’s influence soon prevailed ; and he afterwards became the Benedictine Dom Claude Martin, of pious memory. But new troubles followed M. de Bernières’ recovery and the arrival of the party at Dieppe. The de la Troche family sent post-haste to arrest the daughter they thought so mad. The trading company of New France said they had no more room left aboard their vessels. And the third Ursuline had not yet been found. But La Mère Marie persuaded the alarmed family to let La Mère de St. Joseph go, with their blessing on her undertaking. Madame de la Peltrie chartered a vessel of her own. And a most devoted third nun was found in La Mère de Ste. Croix, who joined from the convent at Dieppe.

On the 4th of May, 1639, the little flotilla set sail with ten passengers for the service of God in Canada : three Jesuits, three Hospitalières to found the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec, our three Ursulines, and Madame de la Peltrie. They had hardly cleared the harbour when a new danger appeared, in the form of a hostile Spanish fleet coming up the Channel. The French were only just in time to sheer off, stand over for the English coast and hug the shore there till the enemy got hull-down astern.

The voyage was long and stormy and just as the last verse of the office was being sung on Trinity Sunday an alarm of ‘Ware ice! brought all hands on deck to see a berg threatening the destruction of the ship. Father Vimont even gave the general absolution. But La Mère Marie never flinched for a moment. Her letters tell us how carefully she arranged her dress, ” so that it might befit her modesty when the end came ; ” and other witnesses relate how, with one arm round Madame de la Peltrie, she stood foremost to face apparent doom. At the last moment the vessel veered just enough to graze past the berg.

On the 1st of August the nuns were rowed up from the Island of Orleans in the Governor’s barge and landed in Quebec amid the acclamations of the whole assembled colony.