LABRECQUE, PHILOMÈNE, named Marie de la Charité, domestic servant, tertiary Dominican, and founder of the Dominicaines de l’Enfant-Jésus; b. 1 April 1852 in Saint-Raphaël, Lower Canada, eighth of the ten children of Augustin Labrecque and Sophie Gagnon; d. 1 July 1920 in Sillery, Que.
Philomène Labrecque spent her childhood in the village where she was born. After the seigneurial regime ended in 1854, her father, who had been a farmer, worked more and more as a day labourer, mainly transporting travellers and carrying the mail. The family’s meagre income was supplemented by Philomène’s mother, a former teacher who, having a flair for business, had set up a little store in their home, near the parish church. Another room was used as a classroom for the first school in the village, which opened in 1854.
Motherless from the age of three, Philomème spent four to six years at school. When her father died in 1865, she was taken in by her godmother and then had to go to work as a domestic servant, at first for a local merchant and later, in 1868, for a family at Quebec. She earned her living in this way for ten years.
During the winter of 1877–78, a young man from a good family asked Philomène for her hand in marriage. Unsure of what to do, she went into retreat at the basilica of Notre-Dame in Quebec and, against the advice of her spiritual director, chose religious life. On 8 June 1878 she entered the order of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of Quebec [see Marie Fisbach*] as a tertiary Dominican. The tertiaries lived in the community, and they took the vows of chastity and of stability, thereby committing themselves to help the sisters in their charitable work. On 9 December she donned the religious habit and took the name of Sister Catherine-Philomène. Four years later, dissatisfied with her situation, she considered going back into the world, possibly because neither the habit nor the rules reflected those of the Dominican third order. It is known that for a long time she had been hoping a community of Dominican women would be founded in Quebec, and that an inner voice had been telling her she herself would help to bring about its creation.
In July 1885 Sister Catherine-Philomène spoke of her dream to a French Dominican visiting the Séminaire de Chicoutimi, where she was serving. Father Bernard-Marie Lacorne offered her every encouragement and predicted that her hopes would be realized. On her return to Quebec that month, she engaged in many discussions and consultations and began a crusade among her fellow tertiaries, despite the opposition from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and their chaplain.
In the summer of 1887 the sisters refused to renew an agreement reached with the Séminaire de Québec in 1885 to send tertiaries to supervise the kitchen and the household maintenance. Sister Catherine-Philomène, who had been on duty there since 1886 with six colleagues, made a bold suggestion to the seminary’s bursar: “This is what has to be done if the gentlemen at the seminary want to keep us. We must be able to live the true Dominican life, which means to set up a foundation, separating ourselves completely from the Good Shepherd. Our rules would be those of a French Dominican community and we would wear the Dominican habit.”
Founded on 16 Sept. 1887, the Dominicaines de l’Enfant-Jésus chose a life of prayer and work, aptly captured in their motto Oratio et labor. Their first prioress was Sophie Laforest, named Catherine de Sienne, because she was the nun with the most seniority and the most education. Accompanied by 13 colleagues, Philomène Labrecque made her first vows on 15 Aug. 1888 and her perpetual vows on 21 Aug. 1893. Her deeds, words, and writings would bear constant witness that the name she had chosen, Marie de la Charité, was inscribed in her innermost being.
The step taken by Marie de la Charité in founding the Dominicaines de l’Enfant-Jésus was original in two respects. First, the order differed from almost all the religious communities of women that had sprung up during the 19th century in that she herself had initiated it, rather than some religious authority, priest, or bishop having the idea and inviting her to take charge. Secondly, it was because she wanted to lead a full Dominican life, and not because she hoped to fill a social need, that she sought to establish it.
The Séminaire de Québec had undertaken to support the community in return for the exclusive use of its services in supervising the kitchen and the household maintenance. The seminary fulfilled its obligations admirably, even going to Rome to defend the community against some of its priests who wanted to have it abolished, but this dependence nevertheless proved onerous. It was not until the community obtained its autonomy, 26 years after it was founded, that it could flourish and develop freely. Even then, it had to commit itself to providing for the seminary’s needs before taking on other charitable works. Marie de la Charité was a tough, demanding, headstrong negotiator, sometimes resistant to authority, and she must have needed endless patience to stand up for her proposals. She was prioress from 1892 to 1898 and from 1901 to 1907. In 1902, after Archbishop Louis-Nazaire Bégin* had obtained some Dominican women for his archbishopric, she managed to persuade the seminary to let a group of nuns leave for the Séminaire de Trois-Rivières. However, these sisters had to form a community independent of the one at Quebec, under the name of Dominicaines du Rosaire. Mother Marie de la Charité wanted to head this community, probably because it enjoyed the broader freedom of action she herself had negotiated with great difficulty. But the members of her community refused to let her go, and so she appointed Léda Labrecque (no relation), who was also from Saint-Raphaël. The two communities would be reunited permanently only in 1967, under the name of Dominican Sisters of the Trinity.
Since 1888 Mother Marie de la Charité had had to refuse many requests to set up establishments in Canada and the United States, but she was finally able to detach two missions for the west, one going to Makinak, Man. (1910), and one to Regina (1911). Once again, despite her keen desire to become a missionary, she agreed to remain at her post, since the sisters still refused to let her go.
As leader of her community for 18 years and member of its council for the rest of the time, Mother Marie de la Charité, ruddy of face and loud of voice, was a one-woman band or a general fighting on all fronts. She insisted on doing all the menial tasks, competing keenly for this right with her daughters. She began work on new constitutions in 1910 and, with the help of the male Dominicans, devoted herself to preparing for the autonomy that would be sanctioned by an ecclesiastical decree issued on 4 Aug. 1913 and by a civil charter of incorporation granted on 7 March 1915.
The inaugural general chapter meeting was held in 1913 and Mother Marie de la Charité was elected the first prioress general. The following year saw the purchase of the mother house, Burstall Villa, or Elm Grove, on Chemin Saint-Louis in Sillery, near Quebec, which served as a noviciate and as a home for sick and elderly priests of the diocese. In 1919 the latter charitable service would be made available to the laity as well, with the opening of a new convent conceived and designed by the founder. One of the titles Mother Marie de la Charité cherished was that of nurse. She risked her life during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, when, with only one assistant, she took care of the residents and all those in the convent who were ill, while doing the cooking and keeping the mother house running as well.
After the second general chapter meeting, in 1919, Mother Marie de la Charité wanted to withdraw into obscurity and resume the status of ordinary nun, in order to prepare for death, which she knew was not far off. She died, surrounded by her daughters, on 1 July 1920, after a short illness.
The community, which had numbered about 75 in 1913, had nearly doubled by the time of her death. Since then, it has continued to grow, prosper, and exert influence. Its 70 establishments provide hospital care, teaching (at several levels), and a diversity of other services, in various countries and continents. In addition to Canada, it is active in Peru, the Philippines, Burundi, and Rwanda. In 1992 it had about 350 members, most of the new recruits coming from the Philippines.
[The most important documents concerning Philomène Labrecque, named Marie de la Charité, and the Dominicaines de l’Enfant-Jésus are found in the Arch. des Dominicaines de la Trinité (Montréal), the AAQ, the ASQ, and the Arch. de la Maison Généralice des Sœurs du Bon-Pasteur de Québec (Sainte-Foy, Qué.). As annalist for the community between 3 Feb. 1892 and 22 Aug. 1899, Mother Marie de la Charité kept its registers; these are preserved at the mother house in Montreal.
A complete description of the primary sources, secondary works, and articles used in the preparation of the biography is provided in the author’s study, Une femme au séminaire; Marie de la Charité (1852–1920), fondatrice de la première communauté dominicaine du Canada (1887) (Montréal, 1987). g.h.]