Blessed Marie of the Incarnation (Ursuline)

The Blessed Marie of the Incarnation, O.S.U., was an Ursuline nun who was the leader of the group of nuns sent to establish the Ursuline Order in New France, which founded the oldest educational institution for females in North America. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

She was born Marie Guyart in Tours, France, the fourth of the eight children of Florent Guyart, a master baker, and his wife, Jeanne Michelet, a member of the minor aristocracy. At her father's direction, she married Claude Martin, a silk merchant, with whom she had a son, also named Claude, before her husband died, leaving her a widow at the age of 19. Martin left behind a struggling business that Marie was able to make profitable before selling it, and returning to her family home. Free to pursue her religious inclinations, she then took a vow of celibacy, while living with her parents and supporting herself and her son with embroidery. She experienced a mystical vision on 24 March 1620, that set her on a new path of devotional intensity.

After a year with her parents, Guyart acceded to a request by her sister and brother-in-law, Paul Buisson, in the running of a major transport company for the colony. This work had her nursing the employees who were sick and injured, as well as running the large stables and warehouse.

In 1631, after working with a spiritual director for many years, Guyart decided to enter the Ursuline monastery in Tours to try her religious vocation, at which time she received the religious name by which she is now known. Distraught, young Claude tried to storm the monastery with a band of schoolboys. She left him in the care of the Buisson family, but the emotional pain of the separation would remain with them both. Later, when her son had become a Benedictine monk, they corresponded candidly about their spiritual and emotional trials.

Marie professed solemn vows as a full member of the Ursuline Order in 1633. From her reading of The Jesuit Relations and her visions, she concluded that her vocation was in Canada. During Christmastide of 1634, Marie was guided by a vision to go to New France in order to help establish the Catholic faith in the New World, in which vision she saw herself accompanied by a woman unknown to her. While her son continued his schooling with the Jesuits in Rennes, Marie rose to become the assistant mistress of novices and an instructor in Christian doctrine.

On 19 February 1639 she was introduced to Marie-Madeline de Chauvigny de la Peltrie. She was a widow who was also drawn to serve in the new colony and had heard of Marie's interest in this, being financially able to support such an endeavor. Marie immediately recognized her as the woman from the vision she had experience five years earlier.

Marie, along with another Ursuline, Sister Marie-de-Saint-Joseph, aged 22, received the necessary permissions to undertake this mission. Then they accompanied de la Peltrie to Paris, where they had to sign a contract with the Company of One Hundred Associates who were responsible for the running of the colony, and with the Jesuit Fathers, responsible for its spiritual life. Despite the strong opposition of her family, de la Peltrie signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order for the maintenance of the mission in New France. They then traveled to Dieppe, the port of departure for New France, where a member of the local Ursuline community, Sister Cécile de Sainte-Croix, volunteered to join their mission.

The royal charter sanctioning the foundation, signed by Louis XIII, is dated 1639. The group set sail on 4 May 1639 and landed in Quebec City the following August and established a convent in the lower town. When they began their first work at the foot of the mountain, Quebec was but a name. Hardly six houses stood on the site chosen by Champlain thirty-one years previously.In 1642 they moved to a permanent stone building in the upper town. The group managed to found the first school in what would become Canada, as well as the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec, which has been designated one of the National Historic Sites of Canada.

Both the French colonists and the local people of the First Nations sought the education of their daughters by the nuns, and a monastery was soon opened, with a boarding school.  The nuns were soon able to teach in the Huron, Algonkian, Montagnais, and Iroquois tongues. Marie’s letters overflow with picturesque stories describing the “children of the woods,” whom she regaled with sagamité (a dish of corn meal and meat).

In 1645 Mother Marie developed liver disease which was to trouble her the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she led the school, taught the students, guided the other nuns and worked to find the funds needed to keep the community functioning.

Marie died at the monastery she had built, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 22 June 1980. Her feast day is celebrated in both the Roman Catholic Church in Canada and the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada on 30 April. There has been as-yet unofficial speculation, in a Catholic News Service (CNS) article featuring an interview with a priest postulator, that Pope Francis may use his right to waive the requirement of a second miracle in her case, and certain others, at some point in 2014.

Marie soon mastered the local languages and composed dictionaries in Algonquin and Iroquois, a sacred history in Algonquin, and a catechism in Iroquois.

Sister Marie's detailed accounts of the religious calling that led her to the New World and of her experiences as an immigrant span a time period of nearly fifty years, from 1625 to 1671. "Des Lettres" (Paris, 1677-1681) contains in its second part an account of the events which took place in Canada during her time, and constitute one of the sources for the history of the French colony from 1639 to 1671. Her voluminous and wide-ranging body of writing has long been treated as a valuable source of Catholic, French, and Canadian history.


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