QUEBEC CITY — Thirty-one years after Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608, three Ursuline Sisters arrived in New France packing little more than their simple possessions and their faith. Today the sisters who inherited that founding legacy are set to leave their grand motherhouse in much the same way.
Time has finally caught up with North America’s oldest order of sisters and, too few and too old to maintain their convent, they will soon be gone from the home in the heart of the historic walled city they have occupied with dignity for 340 years.
“It’s sad, but we have to consider the future,” says the community’s superior, Sister Lise Munro, who at 75 is the youngest in the convent.
Most of the 40 Ursulines will move soon into a seniors’ residence in nearby Beauport, but a tiny community will stay in the old city for as long as possible.
“If Marie de l’Incarnation was able to leave France and come to the new world with nothing in front of her, we’ll surely be able to leave our beloved convent and to go into a modern, comfortable home a few minutes away,” said Sister Helen Hayes, who joined the order 60 years ago.
The sisters, resigned to the move, remain cheerfully dignified under the circumstances. They pray in a routine that hasn’t changed much in four centuries. A visit with them is like being in the company of a loving grandmother or a cheerful aunt.
Hayes and Munro guide this reporter through the convent’s sanctuary, cloisters and tomb. The scent of incense is everywhere. That and furniture polish. The place is as clean as a whistle.
All the sisters are retired, but they still project a radiant embrace of the spiritual world they have encountered within the walls. They also retain their sense of humour.
Munro tells me to be sure to spell her name properly. “It’s Munro without an e,” she says with a giggle, suggesting she wouldn’t want to be mistaken for Marilyn Monroe.
The first three Ursulines who arrived in 1639 were led by Marie de l’Incarnation to heed what she believed was Christ’s call to “build a house for Jesus and Mary” in Canada. She was joined by an aristocratic widow, Marie Madeleine de la Peltrie, who financed the endeavour, and a novice, Charlotte Barre. Almost immediately they opened the first school in North America for girls, serving First Nations and French children.
Their original monastery, in the lower town along the St. Lawrence River, burned down 11 years later. They moved to the upper town and the foundations for the present building, set out around a courtyard in the manner of a French chateau, were laid in 1686. Much of that 331-year-old convent is still intact.
Today the complex covers a city block. The focal point is its chapel and magnificent 287-year-old altarpiece. With a trumpeting angel and ornate gilded pulpit carved by the Levasseur brothers, Pierre and Noel, the altar is regarded as one of the finest examples of wood sculpture from the New France era. It is a masterpiece, although Hayes is unmoved.
“Too much gold for my own taste,” she says.
The convent houses the remains of St. Marie de l’Incarnation, who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2014, as well as an oratory within the chapel, an archives and a museum. What used to be the cloistered chapel is now a vast room of highly lemon-polished wooden stalls. During a visit, the silence exploded with the sound of the sisters’ laughter.
Following the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, in which the British led by General James Wolfe defeated the French under General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the Ursulines cared for the wounded.
“We took care of both sides,” Munro says dryly. “We still have things here from the British side.”
The monastery was badly damaged during the British bombardment and, following the surrender, British General James Murray and his staff used a wing as military headquarters. The chapel was used by both Catholic and Protestants for about five years after the conquest.
Wolfe and Montcalm both died in the battle and Montcalm was buried beneath the Ursuline chapel. For centuries the nuns kept his skull in their chapel until it was buried in 2001 in a nearby military cemetery.
The Ursulines will continue to own the building and run their private school, which has about 400 students. There are plans to develop the vast property, designated as a national historic site in 1972, as a heritage centre that will also house municipal government offices.
At its peak the convent was home to some 300 sisters, but the last two postulants left the order before making their final vows. Still, Hayes doesn’t believe women today are any less spiritual.
“Young women still have a yearning for spirituality and depth, but they have other ways to be empowered,” Hayes said. “There will always be a desire for a consecrated life, but I don’t think we can go back to the days of robes and habits and wimples. If I were 17 today I know I would searching for a greater gift in my spiritual life.”
The Ursulines are teaming up with another order, the Soeurs Servantes du Saint-Coeur de Marie, to share an annex in a seniors residence. Their partners are relative newcomers to Canada, having arrived in the 1890s to care for the poor and orphans.
Hustak writes from Montreal for The Catholic Register.