One of the priests who attended the funeral of Marguerite Bourgeoys on 13 January 1700 remarked that if saints were then canonized as they had been in former times by the voice of the clergy and of the people, “tomorrow we would celebrate the Mass of Saint Marguerite of Canada”. Almost three centuries would pass before that celebration would be possible. Bishop Bourget took the first steps in that direction during his visit to Rome in 1869. In December, 1878, Pope Leo XIII signed the decree by which Marguerite received the title “Venerable”, the first step toward canonization. On 12 November 1950, she became Blessed Marguerite Bourgeoys when she was beatified in Rome by Pope Pius XII who asked if without Marguerite Bourgeoys “would Canada be what it is today?” It finally became possible to celebrate the Mass of Saint Marguerite of Canada when she was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 31 October 1982. The event caused great joy in Canada, Marguerite’s country of adoption, of which she became the first female saint, and in all the areas where her Congregation was established. It brought very special happiness to Troyes in France, the city and country of Marguerite’s birth where, since the previous year, there had been a mission of the Congregation.
1962-2000 - A World Transformed
Saint Marguerite of Canada
To Latin America and Africa
As the part of the world in which the Congregation had its roots became increasingly secularized the sisters were called upon to respond to the needs of the Church in areas very different from the prosperous West. In June, 1962, five sisters left for a period of study at the Formation Centre in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In October of that year, they founded the first Latin American mission of the Congregation in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Missions would follow in other countries: Guatamala (1964), Chile (1965-73) and El Salvador (1988). In these areas the sisters have endured and continue to face danger and hardship that are at least the equal of those faced by Marguerite Bourgeoys and the first sisters of the Congregation in the 17th century.
The sisters in these countries are engaged in pastoral ministry, sometimes among the urban poor, sometimes in the countryside where the presence of a priest is a rare occasion. They work especially toward the enablement of the local population and the building of base communities, training catechists, establishing literacy programs. They are especially active in promoting the advancement of women and ministry to the young. From 1986 on, young women from these countries have become sisters of the Congregation in whose work several Associates of the Congregation also participate.
In 1970, the Congregation reached still another continent when the sisters arrived in Cameroon, in Africa, where they would eventually work in Kumbo, Makak, Maroua, Méri, Ngaoundéré and Yaoundé. There, the sisters are engaged in the work of formal education, both religious and secular, in pedagogical training, in operating a boarding school, in parish and diocesan ministry, in spiritual direction and in efforts for the advancement of women and of the working class. African sisters and Associates now participate with the North American sisters in this work.
Responding to the Challenge of Vatican II
One of the first actions in the movement to modernize Quebec known as “The Quiet Revolution” was the establishment of a royal commission to study the educational system of the province. The multi-volume report of what is known as the Parent Commission appeared between 1963 and 1966. In response to its findings and suggestions, to fill the educational needs of a greatly increased school population and to extend public access to post-secondary education, the government undertook a radical reform of the educational system. Among its provisions was the elimination of the classical colleges and the establishment of the CEGEPS, the acronym by which community colleges are known in Quebec. The state now increasingly assumed the responsibilities previously filled by religious communities.
At the same time the Congregation, like other communities, was called upon to return to the inspiration that had led to its original foundation and to reach out to the world around it. Marguerite Bourgeoys had urged her first companions to go out wherever they were needed to carry the message of God’s love. The plaque that marked her original place of burial stressed the fact that her sisters went out to teach in the countryside as well as in the town. While some sisters continued to teach in established schools and colleges, others, both in Canada and the United States, reached out to places in need of educational and pastoral services, sometimes in the cities but also in more remote areas. Others support refugees and collaborate with groups working for social justice and in the assistance of families. Like Marguerite, the sisters have assumed a form of dress similar to that of the people of their time and begun to live in smaller groups close to the people that they serve.
Although the number of sisters has diminished, the Congregation has been enriched since 1980 by the existence of the Associates of the Congregation, women and men, married and single, who are inspired by the charism and actions of Marguerite Bourgeoys and try to carry that inspiration into their homes and places of work as well as supporting and participating in the work of the Congregation. There are now almost 900 Associates of the Congregation on four continents.
An Era of Rapid Change
The middle and late 1960s were a time of great unrest as the generation born at the close of the Second World War came of age and women assumed an ever expanding public role in society. They were also years that brought many exciting hopes to the Congregation, to Montreal, to Canada and to the world. The Second Vatican Council closed at the end of 1965 with a promise of renewal and fresh life for the Catholic Church. In 1967, Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of Confederation with an immensely successful international exhibition that brought the world to Montreal. In July 1969, the world watched in wonder as man landed and walked on the moon. However, old problems had not disappeared and new ones were also on the horizon.
The industrial revolution wrought huge changes in 19th century western society. The technological revolution of the second half of the 20th century brought even more far-reaching and rapid change to the whole world. Ease and speed of travel, the creation of evermore effective, sophisticated and rapid means of communication created the phenomenon known as “the global village”. The Cold War between the West and what had been the communist bloc came to an end but new areas of conflict appeared and new fears made their appearance, among them, climate change and terrorism. In Canada, tensions continued among the founding peoples with the emergence of a strong separatist movement in Quebec, where the secularization observable in many parts of western society advanced at its most rapid rate. At the same time, immigration from many different parts of the world made Canadian and Quebec society more diverse than ever before, both ethnically and religiously. The approach of a new century, a new millennium, might offer unprecedented opportunities but would certainly bring unprecedented challenges.