GUENET, MARIE, dite de Saint-Ignace, Hospitaller of the Augustine order; b. 28 Oct. 1610 at Rouen, daughter of Roger Guenet, counsellor in the Parlement, and of Anne Desloges; d. at the age of 36 at the Hôtel-Dieu in Québec.
It is told of Marie Guenet that even when she was very young she could not bear to see a poor person without being inconsolable if he were not helped. If her parents were willing she would “run and give everything she can lay hands on, however valuable it may be.” Intending to devote her life to the service of God and of her fellow-man, she turned her thoughts before the age of 14 to the Hôtel-Dieu of Dieppe. After a long wait, she secured her father’s consent and entered the noviciate at Dieppe in 1626. She was to make her solemn religious vows there on 19 March 1628.
In 1633 the plague broke out at Dieppe. The hospital was full. Turning a deaf ear to all remonstrances, Marie saw in the pestilence an urgent invitation to sacrifice herself. But the hardships of this era, combined with the demands of hospital service in these periods of epidemics, overcame the strength of the young nun. Struck down by a disease thought to be fatal, she recovered after making a vow to devote her life to the assistance and the conversion of the Indians of the New World, if her superiors gave their approval.
Already, the secular foundress of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, had assured herself at Dieppe of the support of the Hospitallers. She obtained from the Cent-Associés the necessary site in the centre of Quebec, and a fief on the outskirts. The founding agreement was signed in Paris on 16 Aug. 1637. The enterprise, endowed by the generosity of its benefactress, was launched at Quebec by three Hospitallers: Anne Le Cointre, dite de Saint-Bernard, Marie Forestier, dite de Saint-Bonaventure-de-Jésus, and Marie Guenet, dite de Saint-Ignace, selected by an elective mandate at the Dieppe monastery on 2 Feb. 1639. They were all in their 20s.
Mother de Saint-Ignace was elected and proclaimed first superior of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec. The queen, Anne of Austria, at once honoured her by a mark of her extreme benevolence. She wrote to her, promising her protection and asking to be included in her prayers. At the same time the king granted letters patent for “the establishment of the Religious Hospitallers of Dieppe at the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec.” The Duchesse d’Aiguillon, in a letter to the new superior, praised God for the holy resolve she and her companions had taken.
The departing travellers, delayed for two weeks in the roadstead of Dieppe by frightful weather, set sail 4 May 1639 on the flagship Saint-Joseph, commanded by Captain Bontemps. They encouraged each other as they bade farewell to the shores of France. “Farewells are the more painful the more they are prolonged,” Mother de Saint-Ignace was to say to her sister nuns, “but already our thoughts are winging their way towards those whom we are going to aid.” The crossing, made in the company of the first Ursulines, was a most perilous one and lasted three months.
Early in the morning of 1 Aug. 1639, “several rounds fired from swivel-guns and muskets, and a . . . fire in the woods” on the Île d’Orléans alerted Quebec. A scout brought the news. The governor immediately dispatched a specially decorated sloop to meet the nuns. They were greeted by M. de Montmagny [see Huault], by Father Paul Le Jeune, and by an enthusiastic following; after kissing the ground of Quebec, they stopped at the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Recouvrance to place their apostolate under the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
An epidemic broke out among the Indians. For six whole months the Hospitallers were attending so many smallpox victims that huge bark lodges were set up around the nuns’ shelter to receive them.
This rigorous introduction was followed by expulsion from their quarters. In a few hours one night, the church, the governor’s chapel, and the Jesuit house were consumed by flames. “This fiery wreck,” sighed Father Le Jeune, “reduced us to the hospital.” It was pointless to search elsewhere; there was nothing left.
The duchess thought well of a plan to erect the hospital at Sillery, the village favoured by the Indians. It had been the Jesuits’ first wish to settle the nomadic tribes there; nothing more was needed in the present situation to persuade Marie de Saint-Ignace to decide upon an immediate transfer and the starting of a building at Sillery: a large stone house, two storeys high, which was still far from finished in December 1640 when the little community, supplemented by two recruits from France, moved in. The fact that the death of the latest arrival, Jeanne de Sainte-Marie (aged 28), occurred in less than eight months is sufficient to indicate the rigours of this initial period.
Furthermore, a wave of Iroquois raids sowed terror and threatened Sillery first of all. Fear was felt for the safety of the Hospitallers. The latter, according to the 1641 Relation, nevertheless opened a seminary for little Indian girls who were too far away from that of the Ursulines at Quebec. They were also to take in French girls as boarders, among them two little daughters of Robert Giffard. The elder of these, Marie-Françoise, was to become, at the Hôtel-Dieu a few years later, the first Canadian nun.
The Iroquois peril forced the nuns to return to Quebec. “Remove to their house in Kebec,” the Relation of 1644 points out, “not without great inconvenience, because the building had as yet but the four walls and the roof.” While waiting for their new quarters, the Hospitallers contributed to the progress of construction, helping out as labourers until the ships arrived with additional workmen. An enclosure fenced with stakes allowed the Indians to set up their lodges there, where the sisters carried their meals to them; fear of the Iroquois kept them from going hunting.
After five years this appeared to be the only gain in return for such labour. The achievement may seem slight; it was at best an introduction, a prelude. Marie de Saint-Ignace was to see nothing of the results of the undertaking, but she clearly believed firmly in it.
The last great exertions were too much for the Hospitaller. “Fear that she would die threw us into a state of great affliction, which she readily detected. She herself consoled us in such tender fashion and with such submissiveness to the commandments of God that she charmed us. We asked her for her blessing, and we dissolved into tears as we received it . . . after recommending several very practical things to us, she died saying: ‘My God, Thy will be done; I am Thine.’” This was on 5 Nov. 1646. One incident added to the emotions experienced by her daughters in religion: “The very day . . . we were to move into our house . . . She was the first to be carried in, for . . . the burial service.”
The Relations devoted a chapter each year to the hospital. Mother de Saint-Ignace’s accounts furnished the information for it. Father Vimont, in 1647, expressed his appreciation freely and reported, with respect to the last moments of this faithful soul, her “incredible satisfaction to die in Canada, in the service of these poor Barbarians” whom she loved. “She has been,” he added, “equally regretted by the French and by the Savages, her charity having won all hearts.”
Mother de Saint-Ignace furnished the bulk of the information offered to historians of New France by Les Annales. Her “notes or memoirs,” compiled by the annalist, constituted their source.
Archives des Hospitalières de Dieppe, “Précis de ce qui s’est passé depuis l’an 800, jusqu’à l’an 1645, où il est parlé de quelle manière nous avons été établies dans cette ville de Dieppe au commencement de ce siècle. Tiré de nos Annales de la Maison de Dieppe, première de notre institut.” AHDQ, Parchemin, T.2, C.50, “Lettre patente du roy Louis XIII pour la fondation de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, 15 avril 1639,” T.21, C.500, “Notices biographiques des premières Mères.” Constitutions de la congrégation des religieuses hospitalières de la miséricorde de Jésus de l’ordre de saint Augustin, précédées de la bulle du pape Alexandre VII et d’une préface de 1666 (Québec, 1923). JR (Thwaites). Juchereau, Annales (Jamet). René Piacentini, Origines et évolution de l’hospitalisation: les chanoinesses augustines de la miséricorde de Jésus (Les grands ordres monastiques et instituts religieux, XLVIII, Paris, 1957).