MORIN, MARIE, first Canadian nun, Hospitaller of St Joseph, superior of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal (1693–96, 1708–11), annalist; b. 19 March 1649 at Quebec; daughter of Noël Morin, seigneur of Saint-Luc, and of Hélène Desportes*, god-daughter of Louis d’Ailleboust* de Coulonge; d. and buried 8 April 1730 at Montreal.
Marie Morin was one of a family of 12 children, the eldest of whom, Germain, whose godmother was the mother of the famous explorer Louis Jolliet*, became the first Canadian priest.
Marie Morin was educated at the convent of the Ursulines in Quebec. She was a boarder there when in 1659 the monastery welcomed, on their arrival from France, Jeanne Mance* and the first three Religious Hospitallers chosen by Jérôme Le Royer to found the Hôtel-Dieu of Ville-Marie. The meeting with these missionaries must have made a deep impression on the little girl. What is certain is that at the age of 11 she decided to enter the order of the Religious Hospitallers of Ville-Marie. Her parents were opposed to the idea, stating that she could achieve her object just as well by joining the Hospitallers of St Augustin, who were established at Quebec. The young girl pleaded her case so well that after two years’ resistance she obtained the authorization of Bishop Laval, although he disapproved of the founding of a new community of Hospitallers at Montreal. At the age of 13, Marie Morin therefore entered the noviciate of the Religious Hospitallers of Ville-Marie.
When she pronounced her solemn vows on 27 Oct. 1671, Sister Morin became the first Canadian-born cloistered nun in Montreal. Her talents as a business woman were soon recognized, since in 1672 she was appointed depositary. She was to be appointed to this office again in 1676, 1681, 1689, and 1696. Sister Morin explained this appointment modestly: she knew the country better than the Frenchwomen who were her companions, and she could obtain materials of better quality and more cheaply. In 1693 she became the first Canadian superior of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal. She was to be elected superior again in 1708.
By these titles and functions, Sister Morin was intimately connected with the expansion of the Hôtel-Dieu, begun in 1689. She experienced the incredible worries involved in the construction of an edifice 200 feet long by 31 wide, 3 storeys high, and with 2 pavilions each 25 feet by 31 added to it in the form of a T. The new hospital was blessed on 21 Nov. 1694, and on Thursday 24 Feb. 1695, three months after its opening, it was destroyed by fire from top to bottom. Marie Morin was the superior at that time, and the following year she was appointed depositary to look after the rebuilding.
It was at this period of her life, in 1697 to be precise, that she began to write the annals of the Hôtel-Dieu, and she continued to do so until 1725. She died on 8 April 1730 as a result of a long illness.
Marie Morin wrote her memoirs at the request of the Nuns Hospitallers of St Joseph in France, who wanted to learn about the life and work of their companions who had gone to New France. “. . . I have more knowledge of these things than many others, without speaking rashly, and being the first girl that they received into their company in the third year after their arrival in Canada, I have had the good fortune to be an eye witness of almost everything that they have done and suffered, and do not think, my Sisters, that I exaggerate, but be assured, as is the case, that this is only the smallest part [of what could be told], and that it is for your recreation that I take pleasure in writing this.”
In the preface she apologizes for all her faults of style, for at that time she was the depositary and had to see to the expenses and construction work connected with the house: “The carpenters, masons, stone-cutters, and joiners needed to speak to me often, and that distracted me from my subject and caused me to make untimely repetitions and cut too short an account I had already begun. . . .” Then she reviewed the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, first the founders, who had come from France, then the Canadian nuns. She outlined the sometimes picturesque circumstances of their entry into religion, since some came in “by night” to escape their parents’ opposition. The preface ends with a description of Montreal Island.
Sister Morin then divided her narrative into 46 chapters of unequal length to which she gave titles describing the contents. In these pages is a detailed account of the founding of the community of Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph in France and of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal; biographers of Jérôme Le Royer de La Dauversière, Paul Chomedey* de Maisonneuve, and Jeanne Mance can draw abundant material from it, although it must be borne in mind that a concern for moral edification shapes Sister Morin’s judgements on people and events. To these pages, which have been published by the Société historique de Montréal, are added 108 more, in which Marie Morin recounts the fire of 1695, that of 1721, the siege of Quebec in 1690, and the wreck of Sir Hovenden Walker’s fleet at Île-aux-Oeufs in 1711.
What is most interesting in these annals is the information that Marie Morin gives concerning the daily life of her period and the intimate opinions that she expresses about her contemporaries. Herein lie the charm and the principal value of this “domestic” chronicle. Thus she tells of the arrival of Sisters Andrée de Ronceray, Renée Le Jumeau, and Renée Babonneau at Montreal in 1669: “M. Souart[*] our confessor took them to see the Indian mission at the place called La Montagne where they were received with shouts and cries of joy which were heard afar; for their part the Sisters gave them many marks of affection, and ate of the food that had been prepared, consisting of sagamité made of corn meal boiled in water, pumpkins baked in the ashes, and ripe Indian corn on the cob, which are delicious dishes.”
Speaking of the difficulties encountered in establishing the Hôtel-Dieu at Montreal, Sister Morin wrote: “Believe me, Sisters, much courage and strength were necessary to endure them, together with all the other troubles that accompanied them; the cold that they have suffered for more than 28 years is extreme; you must know that the cold of this country can be understood only by those who are subjected to it. Their house having holes in more than 200 places, the wind and snow easily passed through them . . . so that when there had been wind and snow during the night, one of the first things to be done in the morning was to take wooden shovels and the broom to throw out the snow around the doors and windows . . . and the water that was put on the table for drinking froze within a quarter of an hour.”
In the writings of the annalist occurs also the story of the pecuniary worries of the depositary, and there is interesting information on the financial resources available to the Religious Hospitallers of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal.
Sister Morin, appointed depositary in 1689, found herself at that time responsible for the reconstruction of the first Hôtel-Dieu, which was falling to pieces. A report by Brisay de Denonville and Bochart de Champigny addressed to the king on 3 Oct. 1687, in order to obtain help for the hospital in Montreal, gives an idea of the financial difficulties which the depositary had to face: “The 16,000 livres which remain from the foundation are in the hands of the Sieur Desbordes who pays us an annuity of 800 livres from it each year, which, with the 400 derived from the land where the Hôtel-Dieu stands, constitute all the revenue of this establishment. The nuns who spend it are still more to be pitied. When Madame de Bullion gave 20,000 livres for their maintenance, the Sieur de La Dauversière, the receiver of taxes at La Flèche, to whom this sum was handed over, undertook to use it for the purchase of an annuity of 1,000 francs. In the meantime, he took it to the royal treasurer to be credited to his receipts of royal tax funds, with the idea of replacing it when he had found reliable people with whom to invest it. But as he died soon afterwards, and owed the king more than he possessed in assets, the 20,000 livres which he had on deposit went into His Majesty’s coffers, and the nuns’ endowment was lost. From the accounts that the Abbé de Saint-Vallier has examined, it appears that the disbursements total 8,000 livres a year. In this way it can be seen that the expenditure exceeds the income, and that short of special assistance this house will inevitably perish.”
And Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix] wrote to France in 1688: “. . . It is surprising that their community and their hospital have not perished so far, and I attribute to their virtue the extraordinary resources that they have found from time to time in divine providence, which seems to have provided unexpected help for them in proportion to their needs and their sufferings.”
The hospital, which was built despite everything and thanks to “unexpected help,” was destroyed by fire on 24 Feb. 1695, barely three months after its opening. The very next day collections were begun for the reconstruction, which was undertaken immediately under the direction of the architect Gédéon de Catalogne. Sister Morin gives the names of the benefactors and the amounts of their donations, adding that there should also be named all those who gave wood, stone, grain, or days of work, whether it be that of men or of horses. But “towards the end of July, they began to question whether they should not abandon the work that had been started, the money from the collections being already exhausted.” Borrow? Impossible, said Sister Morin, for “the state in which we were did not prompt anyone to entrust large sums to us, added to which money is scarce in this country.”
Most fortunately, Governor Louis de Buade* de Frontenac, who foresaw an expedition against the Iroquois and the fact that he would need the Hôtel-Dieu for wounded soldiers, intervened personally to have the work of reconstruction resumed. Sister Morin, who was then the superior, received him: “The Comte de Frontenac walked through our humble buildings, and having examined everything he appeared quite satisfied with the diligence of the workers. He then asked for the superior, to tell her that it was absolutely necessary to have the work of rebuilding her convent continue, and as she offered as her excuse the lack of means to meet the expense of it, he told her that he would make us a present of 100 écus, but on condition that we should not become discouraged.”
The nuns occupied their new house on 21 Nov. 1695, but the construction work was far from completed. Sister Morin, who was again the depositary in 1696 and who remained so until 1702, was once more to experience great financial worries and encounter unforeseen obstacles: “The second year after our fire we lost a whole year’s income that was ours in France and that had been spent on supplies for us, such as cut cloth, wine, liquor, and ironwork necessary for the country; the ship on which these things were loaded was captured by the English, which to my knowledge has happened several other times when we lost everything that was coming to us from France. . . . It is the English who have gained from our losses at sea.”
Marie Morin devoted the last 25 pages of her Annales to an account of the second fire, which destroyed the Hôtel-Dieu in 1721. She was 72 years old at that time, and with her companions she experienced the distress of seeing the survival of their work endangered for lack of financial resources.
As the fire ravaged “all the Lower Town . . . no general collections were made throughout the town as on the first occasion when we burned down, because those who might have given us something are almost ruined by the fire. . . .”
The Religious Hospitallers, lodged in the hospice of the Charon Brothers, had to wait for two years before beginning the work of reconstruction. To help themselves to survive, they worked their farm: “The most vigorous of our nuns have many times been to help them to gather hay, in the middle of the day, and to thrash the grain during the harvests, in the blazing sun, because there was not the wherewithal to pay men.” Bishop Saint-Vallier asked the superior to “do her utmost to see that they pushed on with the rebuilding despite the shortage of resources,” but “as he gave no money, we did not hurry. . . . What can be done without money?” The king, for his part, after allowing them a gratuity of 2,000 livres, sent to the intendant “an order to stop the construction work.” Rigaud de Vaudreuil and Bégon* offered only 800 livres, and even then this was in the form of an advance payment of the pension of the sick soldiers, a pension which was “11 sous a day, with which we had to be content and manage as best we could.”
Finally, on 11 Nov. 1724, thanks to a substantial gift of 5,000 livres made by Bishop Saint-Vallier, to the generosity of the Sulpician seminary in Paris, and to the initiative of Louis Normant* Du Faradon, the nuns’ chaplain, who undertook “a collection which lasted a week” and with which “he seemed quite pleased,” the Hôtel-Dieu was again able to open its doors.
The following year the building was completed, thanks above all to a loan from the merchant Lespérance. The former depositary could not help but worry about the debts: “Let whoever can pay them do so. I greatly fear that we shall have cause to regret them.” But she closed her Annales with a serene prayer and these simple words: “I am writing this on 16 Sept. 1725.”
The Annales – a manuscript saved from all the fires that devastated the Hôtel-Dieu – constitute today, by their authenticity and interest, a very precious treasure for the history of Montreal and of Canada. Through these pages, we rediscover the remarkable personality of Sister Morin, a type of heroic woman produced by the early days of New France.
AHDM, Annales de sœur Véronique Cuillerie, 1725–1747; Lettre de sœur Morin aux sœurs de France relatant le tremblement de terre de 1663; Marie Morin, Histoire simple et véritable de l’établissement des Religieuses Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph en l’Île de Montréal, dite à présent Ville-Marie, en Canada, de l’année 1659 . . . [this manuscript has been published under the title Annales de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, éd. A. Fauteux, É.-Z. Massicotte et C. Bertrand (Société historique de Montréal, Mémoires, XII, 1921)]. Bibliothèque municipale de Montréal, Fonds Gagnon, Lettres autographes de Sœur Morin à Monsieur de Villeray, 23 sept. 1693.
Mandements des évêques de Québec (Têtu et Gagnon), I. Esther Lefebvre, Marie Morin, premier historien canadien de Villemarie (Montréal, Paris, 1959). Mondoux, L’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Le premier écrivain né en Canada,” BRH, XXXVII (1931), 202. Léo Pariseau, “Pages inédites du premier écrivain canadien,” Le Journal de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, 1937.