Date of this Version
Quebec Studies 47 (Spring/Summer 2009), pp. 3–23.
Most writing by women that has survived from before the fall of New France—perhaps most writing by women during that period—was done by nuns in the seven communities founded before 1763: the Ursulines, the Hôtel-Dieu, and the Hôpital-Général in Québec; the Ursulines of Trois-Rivières; the Hôtel-Dieu and two uncloistered institutes, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame and Sisters of Charity of Marguerite d’Youville in Montreal.
While the nuns wrote above all to promote the spiritual vitality of their communities, they also provide a unique female perspective on the colonial milieu. Marie Guyart, Catherine Simon de Longpré, and Marguerite Bourgeoys are the best known women religious from the era that began with the arrival of the French foundresses in 1639 and lasted into the 1670s when they were replaced by Canadian-born nuns; but, as we will see, numerous other nuns in this first group wrote about their efforts to establish a beachhead of the Gallican Church in Canada. The second period from about 1680 to 1725 was dominated by the first generation born in the New World—Marie Morin of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal or Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau of the Québec Hôtel-Dieu—who sought to consolidate the work of the foundresses by writing annals of communities that had become thoroughly Canadian. The third period, exemplified by Marie-André Regnard Duplessis of the Hôtel-Dieu of Québec, had to cope with the discouraging realization that Canada was on the periphery of France’s colonial interests.
Thus, instead of examining Canadian convent writing as spiritual discourse, this article focuses on how it embodied the rhetoric of colonization by which the settlers explicitly or implicitly justified France’s enterprise in the New World. The intersection of convent writing and this colonialist rhetoric is particularly revealing because the two share multiple features. First, both subordinate the individual entity, whether a nun or a colony, to some larger whole. When a nun writes she invariably promotes the vitality, present and future, of her monastery and order. The rhetoric of the colonizers justifies the introduction of metropolitan culture into the colonized territory. Second, the most famous of these texts, such as those of Marie Guyart or Samuel de Champlain, gain from being read in light of more routine examples. Thus the need for the kind of extensive inventory of published convent writing attempted in the bibliography. Finally, just as Canadian nuns accepted their subordinate position in the Church, while simultaneously extending the frontiers of what was permitted to women, so the settlers seldom called into question their dependency on France, even though they constantly maneuvered to make a system designed for the benefit of the mother country work for them.