LE GALLO, MARIE, named Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth, founder and provincial superior of the Daughters of Jesus in Canada; b. 21 Dec. 1857 in Quistinic, France, daughter of Mathurin Le Gallo and Mathurine Le Marrec, innkeepers; d. 26 March 1939 in Plumelin, France.
Of Breton ancestry, Marie Le Gallo was the second of six children. Her father ran a lumber business, operated an inn, and worked a small farm. Her mother helped him and taught catechism to the local shepherds and shepherdesses in the spacious main room of their farmhouse in the hamlet of Pont-Augan. From early childhood Marie tended the flocks in the meadows bordering the Blavet River. When she was eight she was given lessons in reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic by lay associates of a religious order. In 1868 she began attending classes at the convent of the Daughters of Jesus in Quistinic, but within a few years she had to leave to help her parents on the farm. Marie was open, frank, spontaneous, impulsive, passionate, and generous by nature. It was already apparent that action was her forte. On 15 May 1877 she entered the noviciate of the Daughters of Jesus in Kermaria in the commune of Plumelin. This congregation devoted itself to teaching and to the care of ailing indigents. The following year she traded her small postulant’s bonnet for a novice’s wimple and veil and was given the name Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth. She made her vows on 25 Nov. 1879. Having obtained her elementary-school teaching certificate in November 1881, she was sent early in 1882 to a school run by her community at Le Hézo. In 1883 she was transferred to the school in Loctudy, where she taught the girls and was also the principal for nearly 17 years. At the end of 1899 she was then recalled to the mother house, where she prepared for her new assignment.
Storm winds were blowing across France at the end of the 19th century. Worried about the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on French youth, the republicans championed the cause of secular schools. A number of laws aimed at secularizing the public-school system had been enacted in the 1880s, including one in 1882 that made elementary public school compulsory and secular. After a period of calm during the 1890s, tensions between religious congregations and republicans would come to a head between 1902 and 1905 under the government of Émile Combes. It would pursue a vigorous anticlerical policy, marked by numerous measures to restrict teaching by religious congregations. This policy would culminate in a law adopted on 7 July 1904 that prohibited teaching by them. Given this situation, those congregations that wanted to preserve their teaching vocation faced a heart-rending choice: go into exile or go underground because of secularization.
The Daughters of Jesus met the crisis by pursuing both options. Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth was given the responsibility of establishing her congregation outside France during these difficult times. Appointed visitor in 1901, she was assigned first to investigate the possibilities of moving to Belgium. In the course of a year, seven groups were set up there, with varying degrees of success. They were all small communities representing the kind of presence and service familiar to the Daughters of Jesus. Her uncommon talent for observation, her courage, and the tact and diplomacy she showed prompted her superiors to put her in charge of another sphere of activity. She and a colleague, Sister Marie Sainte-Zénaïde, were sent to North America. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the bishop of Vannes and 2,000 francs that had been saved up, they were to visit the dioceses and seek places where the Daughters of Jesus might settle and found charitable institutions such as schools or hospitals. Faced with contradictory pieces of information from the Canadian bishoprics, the leaders of the community thought it would be better to send people out to assess the situation, make contact with the local religious authorities, and suggest the decisions to be taken in the light of their observations and the information they obtained.
Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth’s journey to North America, which she described in her diary, was truly epic. Between 21 Oct. 1902 and 27 July 1903 she would cover more than 13,000 miles, travelling from New York City to Montana by way of the Maritime provinces, the province of Quebec, and the district of Alberta in the Northwest Territories. She and her colleague left the port of Le Havre in France on 10 Oct. 1902 and landed on the 18th in New York, where they were welcomed by the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Weighing the possibilities, they chose to go to Acadia. They visited the Maritime dioceses, observing first-hand the life and activities of the religious communities that received them in the towns where they stopped. Having no news from the mother house, they had the agonizing responsibility of accepting or rejecting, in the name of the congregation, the proposals for settlement offered to them.
The efforts of Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth and Sister Marie Sainte-Zénaïde finally bore fruit. Between 1902 and 1904 the Daughters of Jesus opened several schools in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as a hospice and an orphanage in Sydney. They also took on housekeeping at St Dunstan’s College in Charlottetown and at the bishop’s residence in the diocese of Chatham in New Brunswick, thereby contributing, in their way, to the spread of French culture in the Maritimes. The widespread sympathy shown to them in the land of Évangeline (especially by the bishops) would be a crucial factor in the survival and rooting of the congregation in Canada.
From New Brunswick Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth and her colleague moved to the lower St Lawrence region in Quebec. The contacts they made there with the authorities of the diocese of Rimouski led to the establishment of several schools in the period between 1903 and 1910. In 1903 Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth also agreed to send some of the Daughters of Jesus to help the Eudists in the hamlets on the north shore of the St Lawrence. The tasks assigned to them there included the operation of seven small schools.
Still seeking new places of refuge, the two nuns stopped in Montreal on 11 Nov. 1902. At the mother house of the Congregation of Notre-Dame, they made the acquaintance of a sister of Bishop François-Xavier Cloutier of Trois-Rivières. She urged them to meet her brother, who was, she said, looking for nuns to teach in the parish schools of his diocese. Thus on 18 Nov. 1902 the two sisters had a meeting that proved the most important one of their journey. Judging that the Daughters of Jesus had a vocation well suited to his needs, Bishop Cloutier invited them to set up the provincial house of their community in Trois-Rivières, as well as a noviciate and an elementary school for young boys, known as the “jardin de l’enfance.” He entrusted teaching in the rural schools of his diocese to the sisters. On 25 March 1903 the bishop issued a decree giving canonical recognition to the installation of the French congregation in Trois-Rivières. Having become provincial superior, Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth was able to direct the immigrant nuns, who came in droves as the crisis in France reached its peak, towards the available positions. Thanks to her intense efforts, she had more than enough to offer.
In June 1903 Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth went to western Canada to visit the communities that had been established by the Daughters of Jesus in 1902, shortly before her arrival in North America. These communities, the congregation’s first in the New World, were set up in Calgary, Edmonton, and Saint-Albert (Alta) at the request of Bishop Émile-Joseph Legal* of Saint-Albert. During her journey, Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth received a message from the mother house asking her to go to Lewistown, Mont. After a difficult four-day journey through the Rocky Mountains she finally reached her destination and managed to negotiate an agreement with the local parish priest for the foundation of a school and St Joseph’s Hospital. In 1904–5 she had three other institutions opened in what would become the province of Alberta.
It would take many years of persistent effort to give the congregation the space needed and adequate bases for serving in North America. Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth, who was provincial superior until 1911, devoted herself to this task. The accomplishments of this good-hearted, courageous, and generous nun speak eloquently for themselves. She laid the groundwork for the main centres of activity of the Daughters of Jesus in Canada. She founded some 40 houses during her term of office, the majority between 1902 and 1905. She welcomed 234 French nuns between 1902 and 1911 (180 of them between 1902 and 1904), as well as 39 Canadian recruits between 1906 and 1911. By then, Canada had become the congregation’s largest centre next to Brittany, the cradle of the community.
After her election as assistant general, Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth left the Canada she loved in 1911 and resumed her peripatetic life, travelling in France, Belgium, England, and North America. On 18 June 1928 she was elected the institute’s eighth superior general, but in 1931 she suffered a stroke that forced her to give up her duties. She withdrew to the Sainte-Famille rest home, which she had built at the community’s headquarters when she was in charge of the congregation. After being sequestered for eight years, the valiant fighter died peacefully on 26 March 1939, nearly 60 years after entering religious life. This humble daughter of Brittany’s moors firmly believed there existed somewhere a land of hope; Canada had become a land of refuge.
Sister Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth wrote the account of her travels in America in the journal that she kept between 1902 and 1903. Held at the Arch. des Filles de Jésus at the congregation’s mother house in Plumelin, France, with the reference number 211-08-01, it was published under the title “Nos premiers pas au Canada: récit de la fondatrice, mère Marie de Sainte-Élisabeth,” in Congrégation des Filles de Jésus ([Plumelin et Trois-Rivières, Québec, 1944]), 19–66. The author wishes to thank Sister Suzanne Le Rouzic, head of the general archives of the Filles de Jésus at the mother house, as well as Sister Madeleine Aylwin, archivist of the Filles de Jésus at the provincial house in Trois-Rivières, for their invaluable assistance.
Arch. Départementales, Morbihan (Vannes, France), État civil, Quistinic, 21 déc. 1857. Congrégation des Filles de Jésus, diocèse de Vannes; notice historique: état actuel des maisons d’Amérique (Rennes, France, 1914). Henriette Danet et Brigitte Cholry, Signé d’une croix: une histoire de sœurs, les Filles de Jésus de Kermaria, 1834–1989 (Paris, 1990). Guy Laperrière, Les congrégations religieuses: de la France au Québec, 1880–1914 (3v., Sainte-Foy [Québec], 1996–2005). Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires de Mgr F. X. Cloutier: 3ième évêque des Trois-Rivières (5v., Trois-Rivières, 1905–34), 1, 423–29. Sœur Marie-Agnès-Joseph [Alice Trottier], “Les débuts de la congrégation des Filles de Jésus aux Trois-Rivières de 1902 à 1908” (mémoire de l. ès l., [univ. Laval, Québec], 1958). R[ené] Piacentini, Les “Filles de Jésus” ([Plumelin] et Trois-Rivières, 1952). Souvenir du cinquantenaire des Filles de Jésus au Canada, région des Maritimes (n.p., [1953?]). Souvenir du cinquantenaire des Filles de Jésus au Canada, province de l’Ouest canadien (Alberta et Montana) (n.p., [1954?]). Alice Trottier et Juliette Fournier, Les Filles de Jésus en Amérique ([Trois-Rivières], 1986).