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Book Reviews

Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640–1655

by Patricia Simpson

“The life of Marguerite Bourgeoys can tell us something about relationships between men and women in society and in the church, about contacts between North Americans of native and non-native origin, about the treatment of immigrants, and about the purposes of education,” declares Montreal educator Patricia Simpson in the introduction to her biography of one of the most important figures in Quebec’s religious and social history. Author of the first English-language book on her subject, Simpson far outclasses previous biographers by defining Bourgeoys’ contribution to Canadian society in a modern fashion.

A native of Troyes in France, Bourgeoys came to Quebec in 1653, her goal to help poor and struggling settlers to build a better life for themselves and their families in the New World. In the spring of 1658, she opened the first school in Montreal, in an abandoned stable. She founded a community of uncloistered women, the Congregation de Nôtre-Dame de Montréal, in order to foster the education of women and children in New France. Her work enabled women to take on key roles in the community, and historical evidence shows that her efforts were successful: the relationship between these women and their male counterparts “was co-operational rather than confrontational.” Simpson reveals Bourgeoys as a pioneer of education and religion, and feminism, too – the latter idea new to the common historical take on the Canadian saint.

Beatified in 1950 and canonized in 1982, Bourgeoys remains an icon in Quebec, still revered by many today. Simpson focuses on Bourgeoys’ long-term effect on the church and on society, but also entices the reader to assess Bourgeoys’ perspectives in an attempt to find solutions for today’s more complex problems. Simpson is convinced there are still lessons to be learned from this saint’s experience in young Montreal. Bourgeoys’ capacity for understanding and compassion is the key, according to Simpson, to future evolution.

Simpson’s account is hardly straight biography, in that it powerfully and convincingly states the author’s opinion about her subject. Far from being a negative quality, this is, in fact, one of the book’s strengths – it offers a new perspective on a figure about whom there is little biographical material. Simpson’s writing style is yet another strength. Easy to read, engrossing, and poignant, this book is much more than a history lesson. It is a window into the soul of a woman driven by the conviction of her beliefs.


Reviewer: Carolyne A. Van Der Meer

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 247 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7735-1641-7

Released: May

Issue Date: 1997-7

Categories: Memoir & Biography