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The Founders of the Ursuline Convent

It is not alone on the bloody field of battle or in the besieged fortress that we are to look for the heroines of our country. Many a hero's fame has been won in a day or an hour when, inspired by his surroundings and enthused by the acclamations of his friends and companions, he took advantage of the supreme opportunity and performed some feat that won for him a place among our nation's heroes. Deeds of valor performed under such circum-stances are not to be belittled, even though it may be said the opportunity suggested the deed and the favorable surroundings prompted its execution. All honor to him who seized the opportunity! How many battles have been lost and kingdoms overthrown through the neglect to grasp the situation and act at the proper time!

But what shall we say of the originality, bravery, self-sacrifice and devotion of those who, as it were, create the opportunity and spend years, yes, a lifetime, in carrying out the design? Such is the history of the founders of the great Ursuline Convent at Quebec. That historic pile stands to-day a fitting and everlasting monument to the hero-ism and Christian devotion of Madame de la Peltrie, its founder, and Marie del' Incarnation, the first Mother Superior. The former was a wealthy widow much sought after in the social world. In her home at Paris she was surrounded with all the comforts and luxuries the age could produce. She had learned of the settlements of her fellow-countrymen in the New World and of the numerous tribes of Indians to whom the faithful priests were carrying for the first time the glad tidings of the Prince of Peace. The thought occurred to her, what could she do to alleviate their condition? The more she considered the problem the stronger became her conviction that it was her duty to sacrifice her fortune and her life in an effort to give a Christian education to the young women of the New World. She did not act upon the impulse of the moment, but after prayerful consideration she formed her plan. Her old associates endeavored to dissuade her from such a mad act, for the mere thought of a voyage across the ocean in those days suggested weeks, and sometimes months, of sore discomfort. The ships were slow, of small tonnage, and had none of the luxurious appointments of the sea-going palaces of the twentieth century.

To Madame de la Peltrie's friends there appeared every reason for her abandoning the idea she had conceived. Wealth, beauty, youth and popularity seemed to them all that was necessary to secure a happy and contented life. But deep down in her heart there was a voice summoning her to action, the voice of duty, which her more worldly-minded friends could not hear. She bravely, yes, gladly, responded to that call; she sacrificed her rich estates and worldly possessions and devoted them all to her pious undertaking. She se-cured Marie de 1'Incarnation to take charge of the institution she was about to establish. The rest of their staff consisted of three hospital nuns, three Ursulines, and Pere Vimond. They sailed on the 4th of May, 1639, and in eight weeks from that day landed at Quebec, where they were received with great rejoicing. We are told that "the Governor received the heroines on the river's bank at the head of his troops with a discharge of cannon, and after the first compliments he led them, amid the acclamations of the people, to church, where te deums were chanted as a thanksgiving."

The devoted women immediately entered upon their duties. Within two years from their arrival the convent was completed. It was a rather pretentious building, being 92 feet in length by 28 broad. The chapel, occupying one end of the structure, was 17 x 28 ft. The building had four huge chimneys, and the historians inform us that they consumed 175 cords of fuel a year. For thirty-two years Madame de la Peltrie devoted her life, fortune and talents to the spiritual welfare of the maidens of New France, and her work was established on so firm a basis that it has continued for nearly three hundred years, and no institution of its kind on the continent today has a record to compare with the Ursuline Convent at Quebec. The Mother Superior, lovingly remembered to this day as the St. Theresa of New France, worked hand in hand with Madame de la Peltrie, and survived her by one year. These two pious women, who voluntarily renounced the comforts of home and civilization and devoted their entire lives to the good of others, who had no other claim upon them than the silent appeal of the heathen of today has upon each of us, certainly deserve a place among the heroines of our country.

Frederick George Scott must have had in his mind Marie de 1'Incarnation when he penned the following lines:

A Sister of Charity

She made a nunnery of her life,
Plain duties hedged it round,
No echoes of the outer strife
Could reach its hallowed ground.

Her rule was simple as her creed,
She tried to do each day
Some act of kindness that might speed
A sad soul on its way.

That cheery smile, that gentle touch,
That heart so free from stain,
Could have no other source but such
As lies in conquered pain.

All living creatures loved her well,
And blessed the ground she trod ;
The pencillings in her Bible tell
Her communing with God.

And when the call came suddenly
And sleep preceded death,
There was no struggle we could see,
No hard and labored breath.

Gently as dawn the end drew nigh;
Her life had been so sweet,
I think she did not need to die
To reach the Master's feet.


Heroines of Canadian History, By W. S. Herrington, 1910

 

Canadian Heroines


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