CHAUVIGNY, MARIE-MADELEINE DE (Gruel de la Peltrie), secular foundress of the Ursulines of Quebec; b. 1603 at Alençon (France), a daughter of Guillaume de Chauvigny, Sieur d’Alençon et de Vaubougon, and of Lady Jeanne Du Bouchet; d. 18 Nov. 1671 at Quebec.
Since Guillaume de Chauvigny had no son to succeed him, he tried to arrange aristocratic matches for his daughters. Marie-Madeleine, the youngest, despite her inclination for the cloistered life, found herself obliged to marry the Chevalier de Gruel, Seigneur de La Peltrie. From this marriage, which lasted only five years, there was born one daughter who died in infancy. Widowed at the age of 22, Mme de La Peltrie devoted herself with singular zeal to the practice of virtue. She even went into solitary retirement in order to avoid her father’s solicitous attempts to find her a second husband.
At this time the Relation des Jésuites for 1635 came to her attention, and Father Paul Le Jeune’s appeal on behalf of the missions in New France seemed to be directed to her in particular: “Alas, my God!” he had written, “if the waste, if the superabundance of some of the Ladies of France were employed in this so holy work [the founding at Quebec of a convent of teaching nuns], what great blessings would it bring down upon their families!” From this moment forward, Mme de La Peltrie conceived the idea of devoting herself and her fortune to the conversion of the Indians.
But a serious illness interfered with her plans and brought her to death’s door. While the doctors thought her doomed and continued to visit her only as a formality, she made a vow to St. Joseph, promising, in return for her recovery, to go to Canada, to build a house there under his patronage, and to devote herself to the service of little Indian girls. The next day, contrary to everyone’s expectations, she had no fever and was determined to carry out her promises. Her father, more intent than ever upon her remarriage, launched a new onslaught. Several persons urged her to yield to her father’s desires, but she hit upon an ingenious device for allaying M. de Vaubougon’s anxieties: a sham marriage with M. Jean de Bernières de Louvigny, a treasurer of France at Caen, who subsequently became procurator of the Ursulines at Quebec. This gentleman agreed to go through with the make-believe. In the meantime, M. de Vaubougon died and Mme de La Peltrie’s affairs became complicated: her relations, thinking her unable to administer her fortune, sought to have her deprived of control over her estate. She appealed to the judicial court of Rouen, won her suit and, as a result, became mistress of her inheritance.
Eager to leave for New France, Mme de La Peltrie went to Paris and consulted M. Vincent [de Paul] and Father de Condren, the arbitrators of apostolic ventures. She was introduced to Father Joseph-Antoine Poncet de La Rivière, a Jesuit who told her about Marie de l’Incarnation [see Guyart], who likewise was filled with a longing to go to Canada. Mme de La Peltrie and M. de Bernières de Louvigny went to Tours and arrangements for the foundation were soon settled. In Mme de La Peltrie, Marie de l’Incarnation recognized the companion who had been revealed to her in a dream. In Paris the foundress signed the document that assured to the foundation the property called Haranvilliers, near Alençon, a bequest that represented an annual revenue of about 900 livres. When she was unable to find space for her baggage on the ships leaving for America, Mme de La Peltrie chartered a vessel at her own expense and loaded it with provisions and furnishings at a cost of 8,000 livres. To her party of three Ursulines she added a girl of 19, Charlotte Barré, who was to become the first professed nun in the Quebec convent, taking the name of Mother Saint-Ignace.
Upon her arrival at Quebec, 1 Aug. 1639, Mme de La Peltrie began to show her zeal for the conversion of the Indians. She was everywhere, exerting herself to multiply works of mercy, both on the physical and on the spiritual plane. As a result, the little Indian girls followed her with greater affection than children follow their own mother. Although she was of a frail constitution, she undertook the most menial duties in her desire to have a part in every charitable work. This yearning for absolute perfection explains her sudden departure for Montreal with Jeanne Mance and Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve in the spring of 1642. Deprived of the financial resources, the furnishings, and especially the presence of their foundress, the Ursulines were hard pressed to hold out. After an 18-month absence that might well have destroyed the Ursuline mission, Mme de La Peltrie returned to her nuns. When the noviciate was opened (1646), she sought the privilege of being admitted to the Compagnie de Sainte-Ursule, but the experiment did not last long. She resumed her secular dress, although continuing to live in the cloister and to observe all the rules of convent life.
On several occasions Marie de l’Incarnation paid tribute to Mme de La Peltrie, whom she called “a saint.” On 12 Nov. 1671, the foundress contracted pleurisy, which caused her death six days later. The day after her death, her body was placed in a lead casket and buried in the Ursuline Chapel. In accordance with her last wishes, her heart was deposited with the Jesuits as a token of the respect and affection she had always felt for their Society.
For a full biography and details of Mme de La Peltrie’s romantic and apostolic adventures, consult: Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, Écrits (Jamet). JR (Thwaites), XI, 277; LXI. Les Ursulines de Québec, I.
Revisions based on:
Arch. du Monastère des Ursulines (Québec), 1/E,12,1,0,0,1 (Annales, 1639–1822).