Early Modern Period: Nonfiction, Jesuit Relations
This excerpt comes from a 1639 letter written by Mother Marie de Saint Joseph, a French Ursuline nun in Canada. The letter is part of the Jesuit Relations, a collection of official yearly reports on the progress of Catholic missionary efforts based on the first-hand accounts of field missionaries. Published for 41 years beginning in 1632, the Relations offer a glimpse into European-Native American encounters in Canada, and reveal the active official role European women played in spreading Christianity throughout the globe during the Early Modern period.
The Jesuits were but one of several orders engaged in Christianizing the peoples of America. Female orders such as the Ursulines also played an integral, although complicated, role in this process. Believing in the need for greater control over nuns, as part of Church reforms in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Popes urged that convents be closed to the outside world. However, in practice, the isolation of nuns was never made absolute. In fact, in the New World nuns interacted openly with the outside world, bringing native girls into their monastery in order to educate and convert them. As we learn, Mother Marie believed these efforts, and her role in them, to be necessary—and ultimately successful.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
“I have never seen Mothers so solicitous for their children as are Madame de la Pelletrie and the Ursulines for their little seminarists. The love that finds its source in God is more generous and more constant than the tenderness of nature. These good sisters seem to have neither arms nor hearts except to cultivate these young plants, and to render them worthy of the garden of the Church, that they may be some day transplanted into the holy gardens of Paradise. . . .
“Mother Cecile de la Croix and Mother Marie de Saint Joseph have sometimes entertained me with the good qualities of their children. See how the latter speaks of them: there is nothing so docile as these children. One can bend them as he will; they have no reply to anything one may desire from them. If they are to pray to God, recite their catechism, or perform some little piece of work or task, they are ready at once, without murmurs and without excuses.
“They have a special inclination to pray to God outside the hours specified for doing so and for their instruction. They urge us a hundred times a day to have them pray, and to teach them how it should be done, never wearying of this act. You will see them clasping their little hands, and giving their hearts to our Lord. They attend holy Mass every day, and are so attentive—not playing and talking, like the little children in France—that we are delighted . . .
“They do not fail to recite their rosary every day. If they notice some Nun going aside to say hers, they present themselves to say it with her…They sometimes slip into our choir, and placing themselves on opposite sides, each holding a book in her hand, they act as we do during our service. They sing the Ave Maris stella and the Gloria Patri, making the same inclinations that they see us make; they sing it twenty and thirty times without tiring of it, thinking that they are offering a prayer very acceptable to God. This innocence is enchanting . . .
“Their favorite recreation is to dance, after the fashion of their country; they do not do this, however, without permission. Having come one Friday to ask this, they were told that Jesus had died on Friday, and that it was a day of sadness. Nothing more was needed to stop them. ‘We will dance no more on the day,’ they said; ‘we will be sad, since Jesus died on such a day.’”
Thwaites, Ruben, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Vol. 19, Quebec: Hurons, 1640. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2005.