The Ursuline order of Catholic nuns was founded in 1553 in Brescia, Italy. Ursuline nuns were dedicated to the education of young girls and providing care for the sick and needy.
The first Ursuline convent in New France was founded in Quebec City in 1639. It supported the Jesuit mission of converting and colonizing the Native people who already lived in the lands France had claimed as a colony. The nuns took in and taught Native girls, converted them to Catholicism, and then allowed them to return to their homes. The nuns believed that their young women converts would teach Catholic doctrine and French culture to their communities, speeding up the process of converting Native communities. Some Native parents sent their daughters to the convents to protect them from the years of war, famine, and disease that accompanied the arrival of the French colonizers.
Under Ursuline care, Native girls lived with the daughters of French colonists. All the girls learned to read, write, and do basic math. They also practiced needlework, embroidery, drawing, and other French domestic skills.
Marie de l’Incarnation, founder of the Ursuline convent in Quebec, wrote frequently to her son back in France. Her letters provide an intimate glimpse into Marie’s life and beliefs, as well as a more general impression of life in the early years of New France. In these excerpts, Marie describes the work of educating the Native girls of New France.
Marie’s letter is full of contradictions. For example, she says that the Native girls she instructs are free to come and go, but also describes them climbing the walls to escape. The girl “given to” the governor of Trois-Rivieres became his wife, which Marie clearly believes was a great honor. But Marie’s word choice does not make it sound like the girl had much say in the matter. It is clear from this document that for all their education, the Native girls were still viewed as lesser in the convent and the colony.