Sunday, August 29, 2010

Founding Mothers of New France

On our recent vacation to Canada, we learned a lot about the history of the settlement of "New France" in the 1600s, when French colonies were established in Québec in 1608 and Montréal in 1642. As with most cities, the great figures in their history, the founders of their civic institutions, are memorialized in statues and stained glass windows, and in the names of streets and squares. Such was certainly the case in Montréal, but as we wandered through the charming cobblestone streets of the old town, one thing slowly dawned on me as being rather unique. A number of those founders memorialized in statues and streets were women. And I'm not talking about some post-feminist politically-correct honoring of honorable women recently excavated from "herstory". I'm talking about women in leadership roles who founded major civic institutions from the very establishment of the colony, and were recognized from their time onward as founders.

The first one that caught my attention was in the Notre-Dame Basilica, where a series of stained glass windows depict scenes from the history of the city, and one shows Jeanne Mance, founder of the city's first hospital. We came across the name again in a street name, rue Jeanne-Mance, which runs "north-south" from the convention center, past the Guy-Favreau and Desjardins shopping centers, past the Contemporary Art Museum and the Place des Arts, and up to the Hôtel-Dieu, the hospital that she founded, and which still exists (though not in its original location). Today the Hôtel-Dieu is one of Montréal's major hospitals, and is part of the Université de Montréal. There is a monument to Jeanne Mance in front of the hospital. And had the Place d'Armes (a central square in old town) not been under reconstruction, we would have seen a statue of Jeanne Mance as one of the five leading Montréal historical figures memorialized there. We learned that she was one of the original settlers on Montréal in 1642, along with Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the first governor. Maisonneuve and Mance were both recruited by the Societé de Notre-Dame de Montréal, an organization incorporated to fund the establishment of a missionary colony in New France. As we visited Montréal's historical sites, we learned of the great hardships faced in its establishment, the often-dangerous voyages across the Atlantic, the attacks on the settlement by the Iroquois, occasional threats from the English, as well as natural threats from floods and disease. It clearly took great fortitude and courage to be a pioneer in such a place.

Another prominent figure we learned of was Marguerite de Bourgeoys. If you visit the charming Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours church, you can't help but learn about her. Governor Maisonneuve returned to France to recruit someone to establish a school in Montréal, and he returned with Marguerite de Bourgeoys. Shortly after her arrival in 1653, she initiated construction of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, and established Montréal's first school. She made a number of trips back to France in subsequent decades to recruit additional teachers and funding, and the women she brought back formed the Congregation de Notre-Dame, a unique community of uncloistered women who established and operated a number of schools for colonists and for native children. She was truly a courageous and remarkable leader.

In another part of town, we came across a couple of streets and a square all named for Marguerite d'Youville. Though she lived in the 1700s, nearly a century after the establishment of the colony, she too played a leading role in Montréal's civic life. After becoming a young widow when her drunkard bootlegger husband died, she answered a religious calling, and established the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montréal, a group that operated a home for the poor, and also took over operations of a bankrupt hospital outside the city walls, bringing it back to financial stability. The "Grey Nuns" (the common nickname for the order) carry on her legacy to this day, continuing to operate numerous women's shelters, food dispensaries, and other services for the poor.

We also saw an obelisk in old town, erected in 1892, with a plaque listing the founders of the city, both those including Jeanne Mance who actively worked on site to establish the colony, but also those back in France who backed and funded the venture, such as one Angélique Fauré de Bullion, a wealthy widow who played an ongoing active investment role in the development of the colony. (She insisted on being identified only as "an unidentified benefactress" in records of her donations, and her role only came out after her death.) Several other female names appeared on this plaque, including the intriguing Madame La Chanceliere Louise Fabry, of whom I've not been able to find out more.

I'm just intrigued by this whole women pioneer thing, and wonder what unique combination of things made this happen in New France? Obviously, the whole pioneer thing is one factor. When founding a colony in a new world, obviously you need all hands on deck, and certainly the women who were among the original settlers in America (the settlement of "the West" as well as the English colonies) were strong and courageous. But I'm not aware of any of our American pioneer women having such leadership roles and establishing civic institutions in the same way. Generally, our streets are all named Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, and our statues are of men. (The nearest exception I can think of was Anne Hutchinson in Rhode Island.) And here in "New Spain" where I grew up, I don't even think the Spanish missionaries (and certainly not the soldiers who supported them) included women at all. So while establishing a new colony created a natural demand for leadership, most social structures of the time didn't enable women to rise to fill that demand. What then was different about New France? Another factor is the Catholic church, which distinguishes New France from New England (our Protestants didn't have the same tradition of nuns and orders that the Catholics had, cloistered or otherwise). And perhaps we have to distinguish the French Catholic church, since Spain too was Catholic. These French women pioneers certainly worked within the context of the church: Marguerite Bourgeoys started her own order of sorts (though an unconventional one that only finally received full church authorization near the end of her long life), and Marguerite d'Youville worked with the church to start her order. (Both of these women were eventually canonized a couple centuries later.) Jeanne Mance, though devout and religiously motivated, was and remained a laywoman, though her hospital was staffed with women of orders. What was it about 17th century Catholic France that enabled such women (and the wealthy widows who funded them) to take on such leadership roles?