A Founding Community
Marie de l’Incarnation, the founder of the Community of the Ursulines of Québec, played a key role during New France’s first decades. The original monastery, whose construction she oversaw, also housed the colony’s first school for young girls. Today this pioneering institution is an impressive teaching complex that has preserved the Ursuline’s original mission intact to this day.
A founding community
On August 1, 1639, three Ursuline nuns from France, including Marie de l’Incarnation, who spearheaded the missionary endeavour they had come to America to carry out, landed at Québec. Two years later a first monastery was completed, and the Ursulines opened the colony’s first school for young girls—at first a few Aboriginal girls, then students of French origin. Thirty years later, this school would be attended only by young girls of French background.
Embroidery, age-old know-how
The first Ursulines were quick to acquire a reputation in the art of embroidery, know-how they passed down for three centuries. Over time they produced a vast quantity of altar frontals and liturgical vestments in silk, wool, and gold thread. Much of this liturgical treasure has survived to the present day.
A fruitful compromise
During the siege of Québec, in 1759, the Ursuline monastery was partly destroyed by the shelling. After the city surrendered, the nuns agreed to provide British officers and soldiers with accommodations and medical care because the Hôtel-Dieu and Hôpital général were filled to capacity. In exchange, they were allowed to resume teaching. For a short time, this included English Protestants.
A renowned institution
In the 19th century, the institution enjoyed tremendous growth. Thanks to the talents of the teaching sisters and the use of modern instructional principles that stressed comprehension more than learning by rote, the school earned great acclaim.
Other than religious studies, students were taught grammar, French and English literature, arithmetic, geography, history, science, and the arts—music, drawing, painting, and of course embroidery. The Ursulines’ school attracted a mostly middle-class clientele.
A boarding school modeled on the monastic way of life
Many of the students were boarders. These young girls adopted a lifestyle similar to that of the cloistered nuns. They slept in dormitories and followed a strict daily schedule. They were imposed a rule of silence at dinnertime and bedtime. They were allowed to have visitors in the parlour so long as the conversation took place behind a screen, the same as for the nuns. The monastic way of life became laxer during the 20th century.
A precious historical heritage
The architectural complex of the Ursulines of Québec monastery was built in phases from the 17th to the 20th century. The main wings were laid out around an interior court, in the fashion of 17th century French convents. The oldest buildings preserved the style specific to the French Regime—stone walls with white plaster, tin roofs, and small-paned windows.
The sculpted decor inside the monastery is one of only a few remaining examples of church interiors during the New France period. Its oldest section is open to the public, as is the funerary chapel of the founder, Marie de l’Incarnation. A more recent lateral wing is reserved for the Ursuline nuns.
Preserving and presenting their heritage
In addition to their teaching vocation, exercised almost without interruption since the first school began operating, the Ursulines opened a museum to display a part of their collections. However, the institution parted with one of its core traditions recently—now the elementary school admits boys, too.
Today the Ursulines face the same problem as many other religious communities grappling with a shortage of vocations: conservation, development and transmission of their invaluable material and spiritual legacy. With assistance from various working groups, they are trying to find the best way of ensuring that the legacy lives on.
This is one of the most impressive religious complexes in Québec. From the schoolyard, visit the beautiful courtyard and garden, distinctive stone hallway, and attic where the sisters keep their personal lockers. You can also visit the marvellous chapel.
Anonymous, 17th century. Musée des Ursulines de Québec.
Seventeenth century. Monastère des Ursulines de Québec.
19th century. Musée des Ursulines de Québec.