Champlain’s Habitation, though meant as the first permanent settlement in the colony of New France, needed a population to match. Despite surviving several sieges, the population numbered only about one hundred by 1630: by no means thriving. In an attempt to grow the colony, New France has a chapter in its history about religious orders and a new city. Enter the Ursulines and the founding of Ville-Marie.
The Ursulines begin their story in New France in Quebec. The sisterhood, named after the catholic Saint Ursula, were already well-established in the sector of education for young girls in the Old World, and together with their male counterparts, the Jesuits, who had landed much earlier in the 1610s, they would land in New France in order to educate the young people of New France. However, this didn’t mean the children of Champlain’s colonists: it meant the education (and conversion) of Native Americans. With the Ursulines landing in New France in the 1630s, they would eventually settle into their permanent monastery in 1639, where the building, originally provided by the Company of One Hundred Associates, still stands and continues to serve as a school for young women. In the early days of New France, the sisters learnt the languages of the Native Americans and would teach young girls about the Catholic religion, as well as traditional women’s work for the day such as needlework and drawing. Their Iroquois attacked the monastery in the 1650s, but the building was soon reestablished.
Their counterparts, the Jesuits, would travel further south, towards an island in the Saint Lawrence river. Initially met with a hostile reception—one of their abbots would be killed and cannibalised by an Iroquois tribe—the Jesuit brothers would focus their evangelisation efforts on the three tribes in the immediate area: the Algonquin, the Montagnais, and the Wendat. One Jesuit, a one Jérôme le Royer de la Dauversière, acquired a seigneurie that comprised of an island in the Saint Laurent River, and hired two people to realise a religious colony for him. The result was the mission of Ville-Marie, founded in 1642 by military officer Paul de Chomedy, the sieur de Maisonneuve, and a nun from the Société de Notre-Dame, Jeanne Mance, Ville-Marie would become a hub for religion and medical care. Jeanne Mance would found the first hospital in North America, the Hôtel-Dieu. Paul de Chomedy was Ville-Marie’s first governor, and is at the origin of the existence of the Cross on Mount Royal: with the threat of a flood approaching the new colony, de Chomedy prayed to the Virgin Mary to come to the colony’s aid. Any potential disaster was avoided, and in gratitude, the governor of Ville-Marie put up a cross on Mount Royal, where a luminous metal replica stands to this day.
Despite the efforts of Paul de Chomedy and Jeanne Mance, the colony of Ville-Marie alone did not have many settlers in its early days, and after many attacks by the Iroquois living in the area in the coming decades, at one point, the settlement of Ville-Marie numbered only about fifty people. By the 1660s, the entirety of New France—a territory that included not only much of Quebec, but also a territory extending south towards the Great Lakes—numbered about three thousand, with about a half of those people being natives of New France. In order to grow a population—perhaps even double or even triple it in time—they would need more than religious institutions and fur traders onsite. They would need even more people in the colony, that is, a higher childbirth rate.
The two religious institutions discussed in this article are still in operation. Visit the Ursulines’ official website here, and the Jesuits’ website here. The Ursulines Quebec City school is still in operation and you can visit their website here.You can also take a step inside the city of Ville-Marie/Montreal’s collective memory by looking here.