Marie Guyart was born in Tours in 1599 and died in Quebec in 1672. She was canonized in 2014, an extraordinary destiny for a remarkable woman. She founded the first convent that educated women in North America, and was a key witness of colonial life.
After the ravages of the wars of religion, France was rebuilding just as “new Frances" were being founded overseas. A genuine religious feminism spread to the French-speaking world, inviting women from all backgrounds and social statuses to build or renew the foundations of civil society, through acts of charity, as teachers, or as healers.
Marie Guyart was born on 28th October 1599, in a wounded and deeply divided country, in which Catholics and Protestants continued their battles through controversies, preaching, education, charity and missions. Daughter to a baker and a noblewoman, she grew up in an intense spiritual atmosphere, nourished by currents of national reconciliation, a spirit of reparation, and an urgent need for individual and collective redemption. For Guyart, such a context favoured a precocious religious vocation. From the age of seven to her death, she experienced mystical states that convinced her that what she knew came directly from God. They helped persuade others to accept her unconventional decisions.
In 1617, her parents married her to Claude Martin, a master silk-maker. With him, she acquired the skills of a craft embroiderer. In April 1619, their son Claude was born. Seven months later, her husband died, leaving her bankrupt. As was customary, she returned to her father’s home, where she earned a living for herself and her son, through needlework, and by managing her brother-in-law’s transport company across France. So far, nothing so extraordinary in this simple woman’s life, with its work, pleasures, and family bereavements. But in 1631, there was a sudden change. She abandoned her son to join the Ursuline Convent in Tours. Eight years later, another transformation followed. She set off for Canada where she was to die thirty-three years later. What was her aim? To found an Ursuline convent in Quebec. There, she hoped to evangelize Indigenous women and instruct them in the French language. In turn, they were expected to marry French colonists, and help form “a single, united people.” This mission had unexpected results.
The multifaceted work of an extraordinary woman
Described as the “St Theresa of the New World,” this nun was a businesswoman at the centre of a powerful network which, right up to Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother herself, supported her teaching mission. She was also an accomplished artist: at once a musician, skilled embroiderer, and architect. Above all, she wrote some 8,000 letters, two autobiographies, several spiritual tracts, bilingual dictionaries, as well as translations of sacred history into Indigenous languages. She turned out to be a talented linguist mastering Latin as well as several Algonquian and Iroquoian languages. She sprinkled her sentences with Indigenous phrases and, with a perfect mastery of French, invented words or gave older ones back their lustre, capturing new concepts, such as capitainesse, to describe the power of women in Indigenous societies. A close observer of relations between French and Indigenous peoples, she noted how the former seemed quickly to assume the customs and habits of Indigenous peoples while the latter showed greater cultural resistance. In 1668, she expressed pessimism about mission work: Indigenous students, she thought, could not be turned into French women. As a letter-writer, she stood out for the breadth of her correspondence, the number and variety of her correspondents, and the intimate character of the letters she sent to her son, Claude Martin, who contributed to her fame by posthumously publishing her letters and biography. These 277 extant letters, often as long as short books, were not meant to be published. As such, they offer a rare, inner vision of the colonial world. By reproducing conversations occurring in the convent parlor, a vital information hub, and by recording Jesuit Relations before they were edited inQuebec or Paris, Marie Guyart delivered candid views of the state of mind of Indigenous peoples, colonists, and missionaries. Occasionally, she provides a precious, independent source: her letter of October 1655 compensates for the Relation which was lost in transit; that of November 1660 contained a Wendat version of the Battle of Long Sault which can be found nowhere else. In other words, her unique observations about Indigenous peoples, colonists, the slave trade, the country’s natural resources and even colonial geopolitics make her letters an indispensable source for Canadian colonial and even continental history.
Published in may 2021