Marguerite Bourgeoys, the foundress, was born at Troyes, France, 17 April, 1620. She was the third child of Abraham Bourgeois, a merchant, and Guillemette Garnier, his wife. In 1653 Paul Chomody de Maisonneuve, the founder of Ville Marie (Montreal), visited Troyes, and invited her to go to Canada to teach; she set out in June of that year, arrived at Ville Marie, and devoted herself to every form of works of mercy. She opened her first school on 30 April, 1657, but soon had to return to France for recruits, where four companions joined her. A boarding school and an industrial school were opened and sodalities were founded. In 1670 the foundress went back to France and returned in 1672 with letters from King Louis XIV and also with six new companions. In 1675 she built a chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de Bon Secours. To insure greater freedom of action Mother Bourgeoys founded an uncloistered community, its members bound only by simple vows. They had chosen 2 July, as their patronal feast-day. Modelling their lives on that of Our Lady after the Ascension of Our Lord, they aided the pastors in the various parishes where convents of the order had been established, by instructing children.
Although the community had received the approbation of the Bishop of Quebec, the foundress became very desirous of having the conditions of non-enclosure and simple vows embodied in a rule. To confer with the bishop, who was then in France, she undertook a third journey to Europe. She returned the next year, and resisted the many attempts made in the next few years to merge the new order in that of the Ursulines, or otherwise to change its original character. In 1683 a mission on Mount Royal was opened for the instruction of Indian girls. This mission, under the auspices of the priests of St. Sulpice, was removed in 1701 to Sault au Rocollet, and in 1720 to the Lake of Two Mountains. It still exists. The two towers still standing on the grounds of Montreal College were part of a stone fort built to protect the colony from the attacks of their enemies; they were expressly erected for the sisters of that mission: one for their residence, the other for their classes.
The sisters continued their labours in the schools of Ville Marie, and also prepared a number of young women as Christian teachers. Houses were opened at Pointe-aux-Trembles, near Montreal, at Lachine, at Champlain and Château Richer. In 1685 a mission was established at Sainte Famille on the Island of Orléans and was so successful that Mgr de St. Vallier, Bishop of Quebec, invited the sisters to open houses in that settlement, which was done. In 1689 he desired to confer with Mother Bourgeoys in regard to a project of foundation. Though sixty-nine years of age, she set out at once on the long and perilous journey on foot to Quebec, and had to suffer all the inconveniences of an April thaw. Acceding to the demands of the bishop for the new foundation, she had the double consolation of obedience to her superior, and of keeping her sisters in their true vocation when, only four years later, the bishop himself became convinced that such was necessary. Mother Bourgeoys asked repeatedly to be discharged from the superiorship, but not until 1693 did the bishop accede to her petition. Eventually on 24 June, 1698, the rule and constitution of the congregation, based upon those which the foundress had gathered from various sources, were formally accepted by the members. The next day they made their vows. The superior at the time was Mother of the Assumption (Barbier). Mother Bourgeoys devoted the remainder of her life to the preparation of points of advice for the guidance of her sisterhood. She died on 12 January 1700. On 7 Dec., 1878, she was declared venerable. The proclamation of the heroicity of the virtues of the Venerable Marguerite Bourgeoys was officially made in Rome, 19 June, 1910. In 1701 the community numbered fifty-four members. The nuns were self-supporting and, on this consideration, the number of subjects was not limited by the French Government, as was the case with all the other existing communities. The conflagration which ravaged Montreal in 1768 destroyed the mother-house, which had been erected eighty-five years before. The chapel of Bon Secours, built by Mother Bourgeoys, was destroyed by fire in 1754, and rebuilt by the Seminary of St. Sulpice in 1771.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, missions were established in various parishes of the Provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and in the United States ; also many academies and schools were opened in the city of Montreal. The normal school in Montreal, under the direction of the congregation, begun in 1899, has worthily realized the hopes founded upon it. Of its three hundred and eighteen graduates, authorized to teach in the schools of Quebec, one hundred and eighty-four are actually employed there. The house, built after the fire of 1768, was demolished in 1844 to give place to a larger building. A still more commodious one was erected in 1880. This was burned down in 1893, obliging the community to return to the house on St. Jean-Baptiste Street. A new building was erected on Sherbrooke Street, and here the Sisters have been installed since 1908. The Notre Dame Ladies College was inaugurated in 1908. Today the institute, whose rules have been definitively approved by the Holy See, counts 131 convents in 21 dioceses, 1479 professed sisters, over 200 novices, 36 postulants, and upwards of 35,000 pupils.
The school system of the Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal always comprised day-schools and boarding-schools. The pioneers of Canada had to clear the forest, to cultivate the land, and to prepare homes for their families. They were all of an intelligent class of farmers and artisans, who felt that a Christian education was the best legacy they could leave their children; therefore they seized the opportunity afforded them by the nascent Congregation of Notre Dame, to place their daughters in boarding-schools. The work inaugurated in Canada, led to demands for houses of the congregation in many totally English parishes of the United States.
The schools of the Congregation of Notre Dame everywhere give instruction in all fundamental branches. The real advantages developed by the systematic study of psychology and pedagogy have been fully turned to account. The system beings with the kindergarten, and the courses are afterwards graded as elementary, model, commercial, academic and collegiate. The first college opened was in Nova Scotia at Antigonish, affiliated with the university for young men in the same place: since the early years of its foundation it has annually seen a number of Bachelors of Arts among its graduating students. In 1909 the Notre Dame Ladies' College, in affiliation with Laval, was inaugurated in Montreal. The fine arts are taught in all the secondary schools and academies, while in the larger and more central houses these branches are carried to greater perfection by competent professors. The teaching from the very elements is in conformity with the best methods of the day.
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