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First educational institution for girls in North America

The Ursulines played an essential role in the development of New France and then Quebec. They educated generations of students in the oldest school for girls on the North American continent and contributed to the advancement of other cities such as Trois-Rivières, Stanstead, Roberval, Rimouski and Gaspé.

They were deeply committed to their vocation as educators, striving to develop not only the intellectual potential and practical skills of their students, but also their humanity.


Hemp and wool
Mary Tooner
28 x 37 cm

Samplers are the fruit of a pedagogical exercise that used to be given to young ladies attending boarding schools, including the Ursuline School in Quebec City. The girls practiced cross-stitching on a rectangular or square piece of cloth to perfect this skill for use in marking, or identifying, household linens. On this sampler, we see numbers, alphabets and figurative elements.

Most likely proud of their creations, some young ladies like Mary Tooner also cross-stitched their names and dates of completion on their samplers. The young Mary cross-stitched a bird, heart, spade and clover on her sampler and embellished it with a border too.

Natural History of African Birds

François Levaillant
Between 1799 and 1808
53 x 35 x 8 cm

An original edition, this book is one of the treasures in the Ursulines’ book collection. It is the fruit of the work of François Levaillant (1753–1824), French explorer, collector and ornithologist. Having developed a great interest from his parents in the mysteries of nature and birds, Levaillant set out for South Africa in 1781.

In 1790, he published Travels into the Interior Parts of Africa, based on his recollections. This was followed by Travels into the Interior Parts of Africa, Vol. 2 in 1796. That same year he began work on his Natural History of African Birds, which is shown here.

The success of this work was due, in large part, to the illustrations by Jacques Barraband (1767–1809). A painter and illustrator specializing in ornithology, he was the first to introduce color engravings in France.

Weight lifter

Glass, varnished wood, brass and rubber
Joseph Wightman, United States
Circa 1839
58 x 40 cm

This object is called a weight lifter, a device invented by Joseph M. Wightman in 1839. The inventor owned a company that supplied scientific instruments to educational institutions, which could explain how this object ended up in the Ursulines’ collection.

The device can lift up to 45.35 kg (100 pounds). A weight is placed on the hook that hangs from one end of the bag, centered between the three wooden legs. The air inside the apparatus is then pumped out using the brass cylinder on top of the glass globe. The external air pressure becomes greater than the internal pressure, moving the bag upwards toward the inside of the glass globe, which in turn lifts the weight off the ground. This demonstration helps people visualize the force of air pressure.

Fraction apple

Wood, stain, ink and glue
Industrial manufacture, United States
Circa 1890
7 x 8 cm

Used for teaching fractions in class, this apple is part of a set containing 14 pieces that can be assembled on 6 different bases. Patented on November 14, 1882, the set was used at the day school in Quebec City beginning in 1897, according to the inscription found on one of the bases.

Cuisenaire rods

Plastic, wood, cardboard and stain
Industrial manufacture
After 1967
3 x 20 x 27 cm

Invented in 1945 by Belgian schoolteacher Georges Cuisenaire, this learning tool gained popularity throughout the world thanks to the Numbers in Color method published in 1950. Quebeckers discovered Cuisenaire rods at the 1967 International and Universal Exhibition (Expo 67).


Wood and nerve
Artisan made
21 x 3 cm

This curious little object helped teach reading. If a student made a mistake, the teacher would press down on the wooden rod and then release it. The resulting “twang” indicated the student had made a mistake. The nuns let the signal do the talking, so to speak.


Paper, plants, ink and paint
Adèle Tessier
19 x 27 x 4 cm

This herbarium is one of the oldest in the collections. It was made by Adèle Tessier, an 1868 graduate of the Ursuline School. It stands out for its originality and the great attention to detail on every sheet. 

Some of the sheets are simply outstanding! In addition to the taxonomic exercise, there is a significant amount of artistic work involved—calligraphy, visual composition, collage, etc. The result is a beautiful union of art and science!

Botanist’s microscope

Brass, glass and paint
Schütz Ruff & Co., Germany
19th century
29 x 10 x 22 cm

This microscope from Schütz Ruff & Co., a German manufacturer of scientific and optical instruments, was purchased in London. The boarding students at the Ursuline School in Quebec City used it during their natural sciences classes.

Grammar Book for Ladies

Paper, leather, cardboard and ink
Abbot Louis Bathelemi
30 x 20 x 3 cm

This “new treatise on French spelling” was printed in Pont-de-Vaux, France, by publisher J.P. Moiroud. The Ursulines were particularly committed to the teaching of the French language, and they made sure to explain all its various subtleties to their students over the centuries.

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