We sometimes think that the saints had it easy – that they just stepped onto that path of holiness and sailed down it.
Marie Guyart’s (1599–1672) path to sainthood had many twists and turns. Although she felt called to devote herself completely to God at age seven, and at fourteen wished to become a Benedictine nun, her parents wanted her to marry. She therefore was married at age seventeen and was widowed two years later. Her son, Claude, was six months old. For ten years, she helped her sister and brother-in-law manage their transportation business. Marie then made the difficult decision to leave Claude with her sister and join the Ursulines, a cloistered order, in Tours, France. She took the name “Marie de l’Incarnation.”
A mystical experience led her to become a missionary to Canada. (She had read the Jesuit Relations describing life in Canada at the time.) Marie arrived in Quebec City in 1639, where she founded a convent and started a girls’ school. Like many missionaries of the time, she hoped to convert Indigenous girls so they would abandon their culture and traditions and marry French men. This endeavour was not successful; over time, the focus shifted to educating only the daughters of French colonists.
Although Marie lived a cloistered life, it was a busy one: in addition to her congregational and school duties, she wrote Algonquin and Iroquois dictionaries and, in 1646, co-wrote (with Jesuit Jérôme Lalemant) a constitution for the Ursulines of New France. Nearly 300 of her letters still exist today, including her letters to her son, who became a Benedictine monk. The letters offer a fascinating view of life in the 17th-century colony.
As founder of the Ursulines in North America, Marie left a rich legacy. The order and its schools spread across North America and beyond, educating many generations of girls and young women and praising God as part of their charism. One of their students was Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns (Sisters of Charity of Montréal).
To explore this legacy from your home, you can do a virtual tour of the Monastery of the Ursulines of Quebec, visit the Museum’s online collections or virtual gallery, or listen to a concert of 17th-century music performed in the chapel.
Marie of the Incarnation died at age 72; her tomb is located in the chapel of the Ursulines of Quebec. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Pope Francis declared Marie a saint on April 3, 2014, making her one of only six Canadian saints.
St. Marie of the Incarnation, pray for us!
Anne Louise Mahoney is Managing Editor of English books at Novalis. As a lifelong bookworm, she loves working with authors on books and other resources that help readers of all ages to learn about and grow in their faith in today’s world.