On August 1, 1639, a ship sailed up the Saint Lawrence River and dropped anchor before Quebec City. The vessel held some special passengers. On board, four Ursuline missionary nuns looked eagerly upon this new land to which they were bringing the light of the Catholic Faith.
Coming ashore, the leader of this band of missionaries, Mother Marie of the Incarnation, later wrote of their arrival: “The first thing we did was to kiss the earth of this new land to which we had come in order to spend our lives there in the service of God.”1
Mother Marie of the Incarnation was a native of France. Born on October 28, 1599, in the city of Tours, she was the daughter of a devout Catholic baker, Florent Guyart, and his wife Jeanne.
While still young, Marie planned to join the Benedictine nuns. However, her parents wished her to marry. She married Claude Martin, a silk manufacturer, and later gave birth to a son they named Claude.
Tragedy struck when Mr. Martin died. Marie returned to her parent’s house. There, she gave her son to the care of a nurse to divide her time between earning a living and praying.
Marie chose to make a vow of chastity, even though her family wanted her to remarry. She wrote that “Our Lord granted me great graces through this sacrifice, powerfully strengthening me to withstand the pressure put on me to remarry.”2
Her Mystical Experiences
Throughout her life, Marie had mystical experiences, which she later wrote down in her autobiography. She would be completely immersed in these mystical experiences.
She records in one episode how “One Lent, when a good Capuchin father had preached a sermon on our Lord’s Passion, my spirit was so strongly plunged into this mystery that day and night I found it impossible to listen to anything else.”3
A New Life
After ten years of work and prayer, Marie Guyart entered the convent of the Ursuline nuns. In 1633, she made her final vows, taking the name of Marie of the Incarnation.
It was a few years into her new life in the convent that she began having visions in which she saw herself in Canada, bringing souls to the Faith.
Led by the grace of God, Mother Marie secured permission to go to the Canadian missions. In 1639, her dream became a reality when she set sail with some companions for New France.
Later, she wrote of this voyage: “The entire trip across the ocean was a time of ardent and constant sacrifice for me.”4 The ship narrowly escaped ramming a massive iceberg while in a thick fog. They finally arrived at the beginning of August.
Living on the Edge of the Wild
Mother Marie and her sisters lived a rugged pioneer life, fraught with the perils of living on the edge of the wilderness. Despite the danger of attacks by hostile natives, the threat of wild beasts and the harsh winters, this intrepid missionary was full of courage.
Shortly after arriving, the nuns established a convent and a school for the French and native girls of the colony. They instructed the girls in a tiny room that was used for eating, sleeping and entertaining people.
The habits of the native girls left much to be desired. Sometimes the nuns found items like hair or charcoal mixed with the daily soup. However, with true Christian charity, the nuns taught the young native girls the Faith with its civilizing influence.
Challenges of the Apostolate
God tests those He loves, and Mother Marie was no exception. Over the years, she experienced many trials. A decade after their arrival, a raging fire destroyed the Ursuline convent and all the hard years of work.
Among her many achievements, Mother Marie succeeded in writing a catechism and two dictionaries in native languages. She was actively involved in teaching the native girls all her life.
Most importantly, Mother Marie was a fearless missionary who answered God’s call to go to the New World and bring the Catholic Faith to its peoples.
On April 30, 1672, Mother Marie went to her eternal reward. Nearly 350 years after her death, Mother Marie was declared a saint on April 3, 2014.