In 1968 Lise Gauthier, a 21-year-old Quebec woman, was told by her doctor that she was dying of inoperable cancer of the colon. Her father, caretaker at the Congregation of Notre Dame convent in Montmagny, Que., asked the order to pray to its 17th-century founder, Blessed Marguérite Bourgeoys, on his daughter’s behalf. Shortly after, Gauthier—now 36 and a controller at a local radio station in Montmagny—reported a miraculous recovery. “It has been 15 years, and I have never had that problem again,” she said recently. And last week an excited Gauthier was in Rome with hundreds of Canadian pilgrims for the canonization on Sunday of Marguérite Bourgeoys, Canada’s first woman saint and only the second saint in this country’s history.
The miracle that Gauthier believes saved her life was the last step in the century-long struggle of the Notre Dame sisters to prove that their patron was a saint. “She was not a saint with many miracles and cures like Brother André,” says Toronto Notre Dame Sister Mary Farrell, “but holy in an ordinary, daily way.” Indeed, it was widely expected that Brother André, who died in 1937 with a reputation for performing hundreds of miracles, would be the first Canadian to be sanctified since Father Brébeuf and the Jesuit martyrs were canonized in 1930.
Instead, the honor went to Marguérite Bourgeoys, daughter of a middle-class family from Troyes, France. Bourgeoys went to Montreal in 1653 to minister to the young women sent out by King Louis XIV to populate the new colony—teaching them homemaking skills as well as piety. Over strenuous objections from church authorities, she started the first noncloistered order of nuns in North America—an order that still has deep roots in the small villages of south-shore Quebec and northern New Brunswick.
Bourgeoys was declared venerable by church authorities a century ago. In 1950 she was beatified, after two miracles ascribed to her passed official church scrutiny. Since then, the 2,600-member order has redoubled its efforts in order to prove the additional two miracles normally required for sainthood. Investigations faltered when a young Quebec woman, alleged to have been cured of a potentially fatal congenital heart defect in 1948, died in a 1970 car accident. But, in 1977, the order asked Bishop Edouard Gagnon—a Quebecker working on a pontifical committee in Rome—to press the Gauthier case with the Vatican. After clerical trials in Quebec and Rome and prolonged study of medical testimony and theological argument, Gagnon convinced Rome that Bourgeoys was a saint and not, according to the bishop, “a person with queer ideas or a taste for the fantastic.” And, in the Bourgeoys case—as with the recent canonization of the Polish Franciscan Maximilian Kolbe—papal authorities waived the necessity of proving a second miracle.
In a devoutly secular age the idea of miracles strikes an anachronistic note—even among many Catholics. Bishop Gagnon says that 15 years ago the Gauthier miracle cure would have provoked widespread skepticism in Quebec. But since then many Quebeckers have been disillusioned by the failures of the more secular miracles of the Quiet Revolution and, according to Gagnon, “are looking more to the founders of the colony for inspiration.”
Whatever the accuracy of that claim, Toronto theologian Father Dan Donovan agrees that the church is looking anew at the phenomenon of miracles. In modern times saints are less likely to be exalted for dramatic cures and visions than for the moral and political example they set in their daily lives. But what sort of model was Marguérite Bourgeoys? Some Catholics stress her devotion to family life, her domesticity and humility. Others focus on the radical example set by a 33-year-old woman who came to Canada to serve the poor rather than the comfortable.
Whichever interpretation finds more favor, the canonization has exhumed an intriguing figure from Canada’s past. And, so far, there has been little sign of the development of a booming cottage industry in religious trinkets like the one that surrounds the legend of Brother André. According to Sister Farrell, Saint Marguérite’s life proves that “everyone is called to holiness.” Indeed, Saint Marguérite may soon be joined by other little-known early missionaries. Bishop Gagnon says that the recent streamlining of the canonization process in Rome means that a number of other Canadians—including Marie-Rose Durocher, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and Mother Elizabeth Bruyère, involved in the founding of the Grey Nuns of Ottawa—may soon be called upon to join the growing community of saints.
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