Marie de l’Incarnation 1599-1672 was an Ursuline nun and one of the first women to do missionary work in New France. She wrote extensively about pioneer life in what later became Quebec, Canada. She founded the first school and produced the first examples of life-writing by a woman in North America. Hundreds of her French letters were published in Europe during her life and for centuries later.
She was born Marie Guyart in Tours, France, the fourth child of a family of eight children. She was attracted to liturgy and prayer and recounted that she had a mystical experience when she was seven. At age fourteen she asked her parents to let her join the Benedictine nuns of Beaumont Abbey but they did not allow her to do so. Instead they had her marry Claude Martin, a master silk worker, when she was eighteen. Two years later they had a son whom they names Claude, but the husband died soon after leaving Marie a widow. She lived with her parents for a year and then when to live with her sister and bother-in-law, Paul Buisson to help them run their busy household. She continued to want to follow a religious life, but could not do so until she raised her young son, Claude. When he was 12 she left him in the care of her sister and entered the Ursuline convent in Tours in 1631. As a nun she had a religious vision which reinforced her spiritual devotion.
Marie was inspired by the life of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila and also read some early parts of the Jesuit Relations which were circulating in France. She began a correspondence with the Jesuits in New France and found that they were supportive of having religious women coming to help them with the missions and the Christianization of Huron women. Later she wrote about having a mystical experience about going to the missions in Canada. She could not get support or funding from her religious superiors or her family to make a trip to the New World.
In 1639 Marie met Madeline de la Peltrie, a devout aristocratic woman who planned to use her inheritance to fund the voyage to New France and the establishment of a convent and school there. Later that year the two women along with two other Ursuline nuns, Marie de St. Joseph, Cecile de sainte Croix, a lay helper, three nursing sister and two Jesuit fathers sailed for the colony of Quebec.
In 1642 the group of women moved from temporary shelter in lower town of Quebec to a permanent stone building in the upper part of town and established the first school in North America. Their work with the Indigenous people had many challenges not only because of the differences between the European methods and the customs of the local Native groups, but also because of smallpox outbreaks, and the battles between the French, the Huron and the Iroquois. The nuns quickly learn the different Indigenous languages (letter 56). After working in New France for 33 years Marie died of liver disease in 1672 at age 72.
In later centuries the Ursuline Monastery grew into a large complex of buildings and was designated a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada. The hundreds of letters that she wrote back to France and which were later published make her the most important eyewitnesses in the early history of Quebec and Canada. There are several editions of her letters translated into English.
In 2014 Pope Francis canonized her a saint.
Even before her voyage to New France she began writing letters to the Jesuit fathers in Quebec and once there she wrote letters to her superiors, acquaintances and often to her son, Claude back in France. Some of her letters were copied and circulated in France. Some letters were included in the Jesuit Realtions in 1653. Of the more than 8,000 letters she wrote, Claude, her son, published a selection of 81 letters after her death. These letters are an important source of information about the early history of the French colony from 1639 to 1671. This huge literary legacy is extraordinary given all the work she had to do as a pioneer in the new colony.
The Jesuit Relations is a 73-volume collection of the letters and reports of the Jesuit missions in New France from 1620 to 1690. They are all written from the point of view of the men working in the missions. Only the letters of Marie de l’Incarnation give us a woman’s point of view, particularly when she explains the Ursuline nuns work with the Indigenous women both young and old. We should note that in the French texts the common word that the Jesuits use for an Indigenous person is sauvage which is similar to savage, but has the meaning of a person in nature, not educated in European ways and in Christian religion. In English the best translation is Native or Indigenous.
The letters of Marie de l’Incarnation go into great detail about all their activities in New France. She established the first school in Canada designed for both French children and Indigenous children, but her focused was on the education of young women, a legacy which we still enjoy today. She learned the Indigenous languages of Huron, Algonquin and Montagnais and composed dictionaries and catechisms in each as well as in French (Letter 235). Along with the other Ursuline nuns she developed an open approach to interactions with Indigenous people which was different from the methods used by Jesuits in the colony. The Indigenous students were treated the same as the French students at the school. This made an impression on the parents.
In her letters Marie writes in some detail about her own mystical experiences and those of the other nuns, but this spiritual dimension is balance by a hands-on approach to all the demanding physical labour required in the convent and school.
Even though she was the Superior of the convent she often did much physical work of designing, building, decorating and fixing the convent structures. This hard work also made an impression on the French and the Hurons in and around the colony. One of several crises she records in her letters is the fire that destroyed their convent building in 1650. They were urged to return to France, but they stayed. The Convent was reconstructed with great speed.
One of the sad events that occurred after the fire was the death of Mother Marie de St. Joseph in Quebec, a well loved member of the Ursulines. In order to console her sisters over the death, Marie de l’Incarnation wrote a detailed account of Marie de St. Joseph’s life story, entering the convent in Tours, her mystical vision of the new world, the decision to go to New France as a missionary, her many virtues and hard work, her singing voice and work leading the choir in Quebec, and her religious devotion. The account goes into detail about her sickness and painful death. In her 40s she suffered from asthma, a lung disease, coughed incessantly, a fever and often spit up blood. She received the sacrament of extreme unction in 1652 and later died in peace at age 46.
One of the reasons we have this account is that it was included in the Jesuit Relations. Jesuit Father Gabriel Druillettes, or the Paris editor, reproduced the greater part of it in Chapter X of Volume 38 of the Jesuit Relations of 1651-52 and published in France in 1653, with or without the consent of Marie de l’Incarnation. In chapter X it occupies 95 pages in the English translation. We quote two brief passages here to give readers a sense of her, sometimes colourful, writing style:
About that time (1639), Madame de la Peltrie—having read in the same Relations that it was desired in New France that some Amazon should undertake a voyage, longer that that of Aeneas, in order to provide for the instruction of little Native girls—resolved to found a Seminary in that country of Crosses, and to conduct thither in person some Ursuline Nuns to govern it. In pursuance of this plan, she repaired to Tours, to obtain some from Monseigneur the Archbishop and from Mother Françoise de St. Bernard, Superior of the Convent. Monsieur the Archbishop approved this enterprise, contrary to the expectations of those who knew how much he was naturally opposed to things so new and unprecedented. He ordered the Superior to give Madame de la Peltrie, Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, whom she asked for expressly, and to choose, by the advice of some persons whom he named, a companion for her.
* * *
She (Mother Marie de St. Joseph) always had, in the inmost depts of her heart, and in her soul’s highest chambers, a secret esteem for a calling so exalted. Hence it was that, upon unbosoming herself to her dear companion, Mother de l’Incarnation, these phantoms vanished, the curtain was withdrawn, and the day appeared to her, more beautiful than ever. She hastened to throw herself at her Superior’s feet, in order to obtain a share of this good fortune; but she received for an answer only an order to take the chamber and assume the Duties of her who was to depart, and to remain in quiet. Those who knew her talents, and who had a love for this great work, believed that matters must not rest there; they urged Mother de l’Incarnation to ask for her as a companion.
Volume 38, chapter X, pp 96-99.
Mother Marie de l’Incarnation appears again in the Jesuit Relations, Volume 56, Part Third, “The Holy Death of Madame de la Peltrie, Foundress of the Ursuline Nuns in New France; and that of Reverend Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, first Superior of that Convent.”
This section is preceded by Part Second, the account of an important trip north to discover the land route to Hudson Bay, and the northern ocean (1671-72). The trip is taken by a French officer, Paul Denis de St. Simon and the Jesuit Fr. Charles Albanel and on the orders of Jean Talon, the Intendant of Quebec. The Jesuit father is necessary because he is familiar with the Indigenous people of the north and some of their languages. The account is based on his travel journal.
Father Claude Dablon, added the accounts of the lives and deaths of Madame de la Peltrie and Marie de l’Incranation because they occurred in 1672 and were important events to record for the whole of the French world. In his 26-page account of Madame de la Peltrie he has Marie de l’Incarnation contribute an 8-page testimonial about how they met, travelled to New France and worked together to establish the Ursuline Convent and school in the colony of Quebec. She explains that after arranging for herself and Mother Marie St. Joseph to accompany Madame de la Peltrie to New France they were unable to get other Ursuline nuns to join them because of the resistance of convent superiors. Only in the port of Dieppe did they find, Mother Cecile de sainte Croix from the Ursuline convent in Dieppe, who happily joined them on the mission to New France. She writes:
Finally, after surmounting a thousand difficulties, by the special aid of Heaven, we embarked on the 4th of May, our party numbering five--not including the Reverend Jesuit Fathers, who helped us in every way, and never left us, or the Reverend Hospital Mothers, whom the holy Ghost had inspired to ask for the same Mission, in order to perform deeds of mercy to the sick among the French and the Natives.
Volume 56, Part Third, Chapter II, p. 257
Chapter IV deals with Marie de l’Incarnation, the last four months of he life, her patience and death at age 72. Despite all the difficulties over 33 years the convent had about 25 nuns and a large number of pupils in 1672. The population of the colony was about 6,700. By this time Marie de l’Incarnation was well known all over France and the French colonies because of the circulation of the hundreds of letters that she had written.
Life-Writing is part of the epistolary form. Marie’s letters to her son Claude are often quite personal as she confesses her life-long regret for having abandoned him as a boy in France. This topic is mentioned about eight times in the 81 letters that Claude published after her death.
After Claude became a Benedictine monk they wrote openly about their spiritual journeys. He often inquires about her spirituality and her mission to New France since these were the cause of her leaving him behind in Tours. Her answers imply that her abandoning him may have lead to his own religious vocation to the Benedictine order. It is a topic that is part of several studies on the life, vocation and writing of Marie de l’Incarnation.
One of the significant elements that comes through in many of Marie’s letters is her complex relationship with Indigenous women in New France and beyond. She gives us a different view of Indigenous women than we get from the thousands of pages in the Jesuit Relations. As an intelligent, educated French woman she was a keen observer of human behaviour. Among many Indigenous women she saw their freedom, independence and power and considered that these qualities might be obstacles to their becoming Christians. These women stood out as heroines with courage and strength, in contrast to European women who were expected to show humility and self-effacement. In some ways they acted like men (Letter 80). She shared her observations with her women readers back in France.
Marie de l’Incarnation observed that Indigenous women often had a favourable positions in their Native society. Iroquois women enjoyed moral and political power which was transmitted through the matriarchal line of a family. Their religion had a goddess who created the world. In a letter to her son Claude in 1654 she writes:
In the peace treaty we suggested to the Iroquois that they should bring some of their girls, and Reverend Father le Moine was to bring us five daughters of their female chieftans when he returned from the country, but the time was not right. These female chieftans are women of standing among the Natives, and they have a deciding vote in the councils. They make decisions there like men, and it is even they who delegated the first ambassadors to discuss peace.
Marie de l’Incarnation recounts incidents that she takes from the contemporary Jesuit Relations that deal with four different Algonquin women. They were captured by the Iroquois and managed to escape and reach safety because of their strength and will to survive. Marie focused on the story of the fourth woman’s escape because it demonstrated her resourcefulness and intelligence in using the natural world around her. After she escapes her captors she hides because if she were recaptured she would be killed. She finds an axe in an old campsite, she finds and eats little turtles. She happens upon a hunting party of Iroquois, but hides until they move on into the forest and then steals their canoe to make her escape down the river. She reaches the St. Lawrence River and finds an island with nesting birds so she lives off their eggs. She reached the French settlement after two months of hard travelling alone, not broken in health but well and with provisions in her canoe.
The original accounts of these stories in the Jesuit Relations are full of pejorative terms applied to these women such as ‘poor native woman’, ‘lost native woman’ and ‘weak woman.’ In Marie’s retelling of this, and the other stories, she omits these negative terms. Instead she focuses not on the woman’s gender or her Native origins but on her self-reliance, courage, strength, and success in using the natural resources around her.
In all her letters Marie often acknowledges the help of divine providence in their work in the convent and the school in New France, but we also see that she has a practical side and demonstrates that everyone needs to do the physical work and use their intelligence in planning ahead in order to achieve success. It is this realistic view of life, work and vocation that appeals to women and modern readers of Marie de l’Incarnation.
Dunn, Mary. From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin. New York: Oxford U.P., 2014. Dunn has translated and annotated 41 of the 81 letters that Claude Martin published in 1681.
Bruneau, Marie-Florine. Women Mystics Confront the Modern World: Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672) and Madame Guyon (1648-1717). Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Marie de l’Incarnation. Correspondance. Nouvelle edition par Dom Guy Oury. France: Solesmes, 1971. This edition includes 278 letters from 1626-1671.
Martin, Dom Claude. La Vie de la Vénérable Mère Marie de l’Incarnation. Ed. Dom Jacques Lonsagne. France: Solesmes, 1981.
_____. Lettres de la Vérérable Mère Marie de l’Incarnation. Paris: Louis Billaire, 1681. Microfiche National Library of Canada, Ottawa, 1985.
Smart, Patricia. Writing Herself into Being: Quebec Women’s Autobiographical Writing from Marie de l’Incarnation to Nelly Arcan. Monteeal: McGill-Queen’s U.P. 2014.
Thwaites, Ruben Gold. Ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Volumes 38 and 56. Cleveland: The Burrow Brothers, 1898.
Updated March 05 2021 by Student & Academic Services