History Today: A Woman Jesuit and the Mother of the Church in Canada

For Women's History Month, let’s look at two examples of strong women who were close to the Jesuits and who were active in the success of their mission. These two women, Joan of Austria and Marie of the Incarnation, lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Under the spiritual guidance of Jesuits and others, these pious women strove to realize their visions. Both were connected to the people and involved in their local communities, despite their travels, and did not let themselves be deterred. Joan of Austria, regent of Spain for many years, managed to become a Jesuit, to found a convent, and to support the early stages of the Society of Jesus by the influence of her rank. In turn, Marie of the Incarnation succeeded in another impossible project: leaving France to establish the first convent in New France. She came to be at the heart of the colony’s Church and society. 

 Joan of Austria: the First and Only Woman Jesuit 

The Society of Jesus is a strictly male religious order. Some women were admitted in the early years of the Order, but they were released from their vows in 1547 by Ignatius Loyola. Loyola then learned from the Pope that the Jesuits did not need to create a female branch of their order. One woman, however, managed to become a Jesuit — in secret. 

Joan of Austria, daughter of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal, was born in 1535 to the Royal Court of Spain. She married Prince Jean Manuel of Portugal at age 17. Her husband died while she was pregnant, and she later claimed the regency in vain for her son. Joan had to go to Castille instead to become regent in the absence of her brother Philip II, leaving her son, the crown prince, in Portugal. When she was released from her position as regent, she wanted to enter a religious order. She considered joining the Franciscans, but she was especially interested in the Society of Jesus. 

Joan of Austria had long been in contact with François de Borgia, SJ, who organized spiritual retreat days for women and guided Joan of Austria in the practice of the Spiritual Exercises. But of course, the Jesuits did not accept women into their order. Likely because of her rank and her persistence, in 1554 Joan of Austria nevertheless was able to take vows as a scholastic under a male pseudonym: Mateo Sanchez. She had to keep this a secret, but she lived an austere life and held a strong apostolic commitment. She actively supported the Society of Jesus, defending it against detractors and allowing the Society, by her intervention, to settle in some Spanish cities. She also founded a royal convent, Las Descalzas Reales, where she eventually died in 1573. 

Although she was the first and only woman Jesuit, the Society of Jesus and Ignatian Spirituality have inspired many other women. For example, the Xavieres Sisters, under the leadership of their founder Claire Monestes, are an apostolic religious congregation rooted in Ignatian spirituality and they too are on a mission in the world. Also, embracing Ignatian Spirituality are the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a Congregation of consecrated life in the world founded by Jean-Pierre Medaille, SJ. These are just two examples. 

Marie of the Incarnation: Pioneer of New France 

Born in 1599, Marie Guyart wanted to enter religious life from a young age. She had to get married, but she was subsequently widowed by age 20. She worked for a time in the company of her sister and brother-in-law, quickly becoming acting manager. But despite her very active life, Marie always sought to deepen her spirituality. Nearly 10 years after becoming a widow, she entered the Ursulines of Tours under the name of Marie of the Incarnation, leaving her son Claude to be taken care of by her sister. While at the convent, her apostolic vocation was revealed. In a dream, God offered her a vision of a landscape and told her that “it was Canada that I made you see; you must go and make a house for Jesus and Mary.” When she announced her project, many insisted that it was impossible. 

[This project was] incongruent with the condition of nuns, to whom the sight of the world alone would cause fear, and who would not be particularly inclined to leave the safety of the convent to traverse land and sea in their quest to fulfill their apostolic functions in a wild country, where even not even men were safe. 

How could a woman cloistered in France, without fortune or a high rank, establish the first convent of New France? By challenging social traditions and the laws of enclosure, and through networking. First, the Jesuit Relations kept her informed about Canada. Through a Jesuit named Father Poncet, she then met Madame de la Peltrie who wished to evangelize the native girls of America, and who became the patron of the project. Marie of the Incarnation also managed to obtain land in the colony and made contact with Father Le Jeune, the Superior of the Jesuits of Quebec. 

Thus in 1639, Marie of the Incarnation embarked for New France. She was accompanied by Father Poncet, two Ursulines, three Hospitalières, and Madame de la Peltrie, among others. She then founded the convent of the Ursulines in Quebec, whose constitutions she developed with the Jesuits. There, she became a fountain of activity, corresponding with religious and laity (parents, local authorities, settlers, and Indigenous peoples) through the convent’s grate. Within the cloister walls, the nuns ensured the education of young French and Indigenous girls, understanding that trying to ‘Francize’ them was not the best direction to take. 

Marie of the Incarnation was in close contact with the Jesuits in the colony, having fathers Le Jeune and Lalemant as her spiritual directors and confidantes. She often quoted the Relations in her many letters, and herself was quoted in 1642. Like the Jesuits, she diligently studied Native languages, which she mentioned in a letter to her son dated 1650: 

These new inhabitants [the Wendat] compelled us to study the Huron language, to which I had not yet applied myself, being contented to know only that of the Algonquin and Montagnais who are still with us. You may laugh that at the age of fifty I begin to study a new language; but everything must be done for the service of God and the salvation of souls. I began this study eight days after the Octave of All Saints, in which the Reverend Father Bressani has been my master so far with complete charity. 

She produced educational works in Native languages (including dictionaries and catechisms), many of which later passed into the hands of missionaries. However, other linguistic works were burned in the devastating convent fire of 1650. 

The importance of Marie and her convent to the colony was revealed in the aftermath of this fire: residents and Aboriginals, fearing that the departure of the Ursulines would lead to the colony’s demise, did their best to help the nuns to survive while waiting for the construction of a new building, where Marie eventually died in 1672. 

Joan of Austria and Marie of the Incarnation are therefore strong examples of women close to the Society of Jesus who chose to follow Christ, cultivating the presence of the Church in their communities and beyond. The importance of Marie of the Incarnation for New France was also recognized during her beatification in 1980, when John Paul II proclaimed her as the Mother of the Church in Canada. 





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