LESAULNIER, AURÉLIE, first superior in Quebec of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary; b. 16 Jan. 1834 in Paris; d. 2 Feb. 1922 in Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), Que.
Little is known about the life of Aurélie Lesaulnier before 1870, when at the age of 36 she entered the Daughters of the Heart of Mary as a postulant. She took her vows in Paris in 1877. This late decision was typical of postulants in this very special congregation, which had been founded in 1790, during the French revolution, by the Jesuit Pierre-Joseph Picot de Clorivière and Marie-Adélaïde Champion de Cicé to fill the void left by the banning of religious congregations at that time. Its members had no habit, religious name, or convent. It was a kind of underground congregation whose spiritual gifts were not “devoted to a particular work of charity . . . , no other purpose being in their minds than the spiritual and temporal welfare of neighbours.” Each community group formed a “meeting” in which a few “friends” worked, often without the knowledge of their families, because of the secrecy surrounding the very existence of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. (This secrecy was not lifted until 1957.) The congregation almost always acted within the sphere of influence of the Jesuits and it began to develop internationally towards the mid 1840s. Having spread to Great Britain and Ireland by 1846, it had members in the United States in 1851, Italy in 1858, the Great Lakes region of Canada in 1862, and Belgium in 1866. It engaged in a variety of charitable works: schools, sewing workrooms, orphanages, youth clubs, catechism classes, libraries, workshops, safe houses for girls, retreat houses, missions, women’s associations, home visits to the sick, and hospitals. From 1877 Aurélie Lesaulnier held various jobs in France, including positions of responsibility. She was mistress of novices in Lyons in 1888 and assistant in Dijon in 1889; two years later she replaced the superior in Orléans. In 1894, at the age of 60, she was sent to Buffalo, in the United States, as a teacher; the assistant general of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary observed, however, that “her English is poor and she would probably do better in a country where French is spoken.”
During this period, Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain*, who was visiting Paris, was asked by the congregation’s leaders to write its history. One of its members, Anne de Tanquerel, was assigned to him as a secretary, first in Paris during the winter of 1897–98, and then at Quebec from 24 April 1899. The congregation, along with Archbishop Louis-Nazaire Bégin of Quebec, was considering opening a meeting in that city. Anne de Tanquerel brought together some ten postulants there. It was the provincial of North America, Adèle Senil (the widow Perronno), who decided to send Lesaulnier as superior in 1899. No preparations had been made in this new location, and she devoted “all her income” and her motherly personality to the task. The new superior quickly organized a number of charitable works: visits to the sick, a sewing workroom, an employment office, and most important of all, in 1906, a safe house at 6 Côte du Palais. Founded to take in girls from the countryside who came to find work as domestic servants, the Œuvre de la Protection de la Jeune Fille would place more than 5,000 of them over the next three decades. Lesaulnier also looked after the religious instruction of the new recruits. The women who supported the charity came from the highest ranks of society.
Despite her advanced age, Lesaulnier was sent to Montreal in 1907 to open a new meeting. Archbishop Paul Bruchési* of Montreal was opposed at first to having the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. At the beginning of the century many French congregations had asked to settle in his archdiocese. There were numerous discussions about whom the Canadian houses would be responsible to – the superior general of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary wanted them under the authority of the province of New York, but Bruchési preferred the province of Paris. In the end, the archbishop accepted the proposal, probably because of the financial and canonical independence of the congregation, which was under papal authority.
The meeting led by Aurélie Lesaulnier in Montreal had only two or three members at first, but by 1909 there were 19 novices. It devoted itself to various charitable works in the parish of L’Immaculée-Conception, which was under the direction of the Jesuits. These included catechism for mentally retarded children, adult education, visits to hospital patients, closed retreat houses, and attendance at courts where young offenders were tried. The church officials with whom she dealt were delighted with her intelligence and education. Archbishop Bégin would declare that “one rarely met a woman as spiritual and as well-informed.”
In 1912 Aurélie Lesaulnier was finally relieved of her responsibilities. The Daughters of the Heart of Mary now had about 40 members in the province of Quebec. She chose to retire to the hospital in Caughnawaga, which had been founded in 1905 by Adèle Perronno. For ten years she continued to make herself useful by visiting the sick, copying manuscripts for the province’s two meetings, and carrying on an extensive correspondence. Blind and ill, she lived quietly until her death on 2 Feb. 1922, the anniversary of her profession as a religious.
Arch. de la Soc. des Filles du Cœur de Marie (Montréal), Albums de photographies; Annales de Montréal, 1907–13; Dossiers de correspondance; Lettres annuelles, 1898–1914; Montréal-historique; Notice nécrologique d’Aurélie Lesaulnier; Procès-verbaux des conseils, 1904–16; Renouvellement des vœux. L’Action catholique (Québec), 3 févr. 1922. H.-R. Casgrain et les Filles du Cœur de Marie, La Société des Filles du cœur de Marie . . . (5v., Paris, 1899–1964). Guy Laperrière, Les congrégations religieuses: de la France au Québec, 1880–1914 (2v. parus, Sainte-Foy, Qué., 1996– ), 1: 143–45. “L’Œuvre de la protection de la jeune fille, no 6, côte du Palais, Québec,” Almanach de l’Action sociale catholique (Québec), 2 (1918): 98–99. “La Société des Filles du cœur immaculé de Marie: le foyer de l’Œuvre de protection des jeunes filles,” La Semaine religieuse de Québec, 7 déc. 1960: 233–36.