REGNARD DUPLESSIS, MARIE-ANDRÉE, dite de Sainte-Hélène, Nun Hospitaller of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec, annalist, letter-writer, superior; b. 28 March 1687 in Paris, France, daughter of Georges Regnard* Duplessis and Marie Le Roy; d. 23 Jan. 1760 at the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec.
Marie-Andrée Regnard Duplessis was two years old when her parents decided to emigrate to New France. She was therefore left in the care of her maternal grandmother, who lived at Chevreuse, near Paris. All that is known of her upbringing is that at 13 years of age she was sent to the convent of the Filles de la Croix in Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris, where “a good number of ladies and young girls of all conditions and even some duchesses resided.” Judging from her writings, she must have received a rather thorough education there, which later permitted her to hold important offices in the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec.
In 1702, when she was 15, she joined her parents in Quebec, and there she frequented fashionable society, in which, it seems, her appearance made a sensation. The report is believable since, according to a witness, she had “a fine figure and an excellent wit.” Her obituary mentioned that she was “sought after in marriage by several persons of rank.”
The year 1707 marked a turning-point in Marie-Andrée Regnard Duplessis’s life. On 27 July she entered the community of the Nuns Hospitallers of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec. She was 20, and contrary to what one might think she was considered to be rather old, since the average age of nuns at the time of their entry to the noviciate was at that period 14 to 16. Two years later, on 27 July 1709, she made her profession under the name of Sainte-Hélène.
We have little information about her early years of religious life. In 1713 her sister Geneviève came to join her at the Hôtel-Dieu. Marie-Andrée later wrote: “We are very fond of each other and are closely linked in our feelings.” Her sister’s presence would have helped relieve the austerity of the cloister and the bitterness of seeing her family reduced almost to poverty after having held a most honourable position.
In 1718 Mother Sainte-Hélène was named mistress of novices (a little later she was to become depositary for the poor), an office that she exercised until 1721. It was during this period that she wrote Les annales de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, 1636–1716, in collaboration with Mother Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau* de La Ferté, dite de Saint-Ignace. The latter supplied Mother Sainte-Hélène with the material but relied on her collaborator “for the style, order, economy, and piety.” The work, which remained in manuscript form until 1751, chiefly recounts the history of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec from its beginnings, but through the narration the entire history of New France lives again, with its ups and downs, its social and political problems, its immense spaces peopled with Indians and wild animals, all seen from the point of view of a cloistered nun, whose horizons were, despite her culture, necessarily limited.
As for the history of the Hôtel-Dieu, the work presents an accurate picture, indeed even a meticulous one, of the sisters’ daily life, of their preoccupations as nuns and hospitallers. The modern reader may consider tedious, if not naïve, certain “miraculous” happenings, such as that of the “barrel of peas, from which several bushels were taken every day [and which] lasted more than three months.” One is free to believe moreover that providence did not intervene each time that fire – always to be feared then when nearly all dwellings were in wood – was successfully brought under control or went out by itself. The fact remains that the work is full of extremely interesting information on the life of an important religious community in Canada over a period of 80 years, on medical techniques used at the time, and on the handicrafts of the sisters. The descriptions or accounts dealing with the life of the Canadian colony often give first-rate information which is found nowhere else and which no historian of the period can overlook. The opinions expressed about certain persons must be taken with a grain of salt, especially when those persons, such as Mme d’Ailleboust [Boullongne*], Intendant Jean Talon*, or Governor Denonville [Brisay*], happen to have been benefactors of the community.
It must be kept in mind when reading the Annales that it was intended to be read by the community, which explains some voluntary omissions, certain gaps, that would otherwise seem to be unpardonable weaknesses. The reader must not be astonished, therefore, when every sister receives after her death an eulogy leading us to believe she had hardly any faults, or such slight ones that they were scarcely hateful. Certainly one must trust the annalist when she speaks of the nuns’ devotion to the sick and the poor, French or Indian. The Annales gives evidence of a real talent for writing, both in the quality of the expression and in the liveliness of the account. It is clearly one of the important Canadian works of the period.
While she was writing the Annales, Mother Sainte-Hélène started a correspondence (which lasted until 1758) with Mme Hecquet de La Cloche, who lived in Abbeville in France. Only Mother Sainte-Hélène’s letters, 32 in number, have been preserved. They can be considered an extension of the Annales in that they contain a mass of information concerning life at the Hôtel-Dieu and events in the colony. In them the writer is much more at her ease in making judgements, sometimes, it is true, debatable, about people and things. For example, she entertained the same prejudices about Canadians in general that certain French people had at the period. Her opinion of them was not very flattering. She considered Canadian products mediocre. As for the Indians, according to her “they are very unpleasant people, they are savages, I need not say anything more.” She attributed the little progress made in evangelizing them to the bad example set by the French. Not as important as the Annales, these letters nevertheless constitute an interesting and not unimportant documentation for the period. Their literary form is on the whole poor, compared to that of the Annales. It must be said that they were written in haste. What is rather astonishing is that Mother Sainte-Hélène’s correspondent was a strict Jansenist who at 47 years of age wrote a profession of faith in which she rejected definitively the bull Unigenitus and admitted that she was a heretic, unyielding and unamenable to the church. Either Mother Sainte-Hélène showed indulgence, or else she knew nothing at all of her correspondent’s beliefs, which seems more probable from an examination of the letters. Nowhere, indeed, does one find in them any allusion to Mme La Cloche’s ideas.
Mother Sainte-Hélène held the office of superior several times. In all she occupied the post for nearly 16 years, 1732–38, 1744–50, and 1756–60, the year of her death. In between she carried out the duties of assistant superior.
Her last term as superior was marked by cruel trials for the community. Scarcely had they recovered from a disastrous fire which entirely destroyed the Hôtel-Dieu on 7 June 1755, when the hospitallers had to suffer the repercussions of war. In the space of five years, from 1754 to 1759, more than 15 nuns died, most of them of illnesses contracted at the bedside of the sick, the majority of whom were soldiers. Then there came the invasion and capture of Quebec, when the community was forced to move to the Hôpital Général, whence it returned after the battle of the Plains of Abraham almost completely ruined, to such a degree that Mother Sainte-Hélène even considered its suppression. Overwhelmed by grief and trials, during the night of 17 Jan. 1760 the superior was taken by a fit of shivering, along with a pain in her side. Although she was attended by a French doctor and an English one sent by James Murray*, she died on 23 January, after having received the last sacraments from the vicar general, Jean-Olivier Briand*.
With her disappeared the last nun of the Hôtel-Dieu born in France and one of the most remarkable superiors of that institution. In the letter of condolence written to the community two days after Mother Saint-Hélène’s death the vicar general praised “her gentleness, good nature, prudence, modesty, humility, love of prayer, her mortification, her regularity and entire fidelity to everything, even in the smallest matters.” Unfortunately there remains no portrait of Mother Duplessis de Sainte-Hélène.
“La correspondance de la mère Sainte-Hélène avec Mme Hecquet de La Cloche,” A.-L. Leymarie, édit., Nova Francia, II (1926–27), 66–78; III (1927–28), 35–56, 94–110, 162–82, 220–37, 279–300, 355–61; IV (1928–29), 33–58, 110–23. Juchereau, Annales (Jamet); this work was published at Montauban, France, in 1751 by Louis Bertrand* de Latour as Histoire de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. Casgrain, Histoire de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. M. L. Gies, “Mère Duplessis de Sainte-Hélène, annaliste et épistolière” (unpublished doctoral thesis, Université Laval, Québec, 1949). Juliette Rémillard, “Mère Marie-Andrée Duplessis de Sainte-Hélène,” RHAF, XVI (1962–63), 388–408.