Faith and Spirituality
Living one’s faith
Faith occupies a central place in the life of an Ursuline. It is present in all her actions, both big and small, on a daily basis. This omnipresent faith is also reflected in the places the community inhabits.
The Ursuline Chapel in Quebec City, the heart of the monastery, is undoubtedly the most compelling example of this. Various devotional objects, holy images, prayer books, reliquaries and maxims can be found throughout the monastery rooms, common areas and corridors as a visible display of their faith.
Marie of the Incarnation’s rosary
Wood and ivory
Approximately 25 cm
Marie Guyart of the Incarnation (1599–1672) was the founder of the Ursulines in Quebec City. Mother, missionary, mystic—this exceptional woman was responsible for the creation of the first school for young girls in North America, still in operation today.
Marie Guyart experienced a divine call very early in her life, at the age of seven. She recounted this first vision in a letter written in 1653: “Raising my eyes to the sky, I saw the heavens open and our Lord […] appeared and came to me through the air […] and said: ‘Do you want to be mine?’ I replied: ‘Yes’,” a commitment that she would keep for the rest of her life.
The rosary is an important object of devotion for nuns. To recite the rosary, you begin by making the sign of the cross, evoking the Holy Trinity: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Next is the Our Father, three Hail Marys and the Glory Be or a creed, symbolized by the first beads. Then each section of ten small beads corresponds to ten Hail Marys, preceded by an Our Father and followed by a prayer of praise, such as the Glory Be, symbolized by the larger beads interspersed among the smaller ones. These prayers are repeated while fingering the rosary beads and meditating on Jesus’ life.
Attributed to Marie of the Incarnation, this rosary is a symbol of her unwavering faith. It was also of great importance to the founder, as seen in this excerpt from one of her letters: “As soon as I started my rosary and heard the meaning of the words, my spirit was swept toward God.”
Epistres spiritueles de R.P.I. de Avila
Paper, ink and leather cover
Published by Gervais Mallot
This book is a French translation of the spiritual writings of the Reverend Father Jean d’Avila (1502–1569), a preacher and spiritual master whose works were used as devotional guides. Upon his death, his disciples published his texts, which were quickly translated into several languages, including French.
This version was translated by Gabriel Chappuys, who held the title of secretary-interpreter of the King for the Spanish language. An interesting fact about this translator: He was a native of the city of Tours, as was Marie of the Incarnation, founder of the Ursulines in Quebec City. Oral tradition links this book with Marie of the Incarnation. Although it is difficult to say with certainty that she brought this book with her, the geographical proximity supports the possibility that it may have been hers.
It should be noted that books were not commonplace items in the 17th century. Although the popularization of leather binding in the 12th and 13th centuries helped to democratize books, they remained expensive and of little use to those who did not know how to read. As a community of religious missionaries and teachers, they needed to own a certain number of books. We can assume that a work such as this, intended to serve as a spiritual guide for the nuns, was of great importance to them.
Reliquary on stand
Cardboard, velvet, gold and silver
21 x 10 cm
This reliquary is decorated with gold and silver embroidered flowers. The top section, in the shape of a heart, once housed a relic. The Ursulines had many reliquaries, which in the 17th century were said to be “precious and portable little vessels used for encasing relics.”
The Ursulines obtained the large majority of their reliquaries during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1674, the Saints Chapel was erected above the nuns’ chancel for the purpose of displaying relics. In 1700 the Ursulines began holding a day of celebration in honor of the holy relics every second Sunday of August!
Agnus Dei reliquary
Wood, paper, glass, sealant, gold and silver
39.50 x 35 x 8.50 cm
This reliquary was imported from France. The background is made of black velvet and the wood frame is sculpted and gilded with tempera. It features a sun monstrance encircling a wax medallion depicting the Lamb of God, an important symbol in the Catholic religion.
This reliquary is a fine example of paper rolling, also called quilling. This technique consists of taking thin strips of paper and rolling them up. They are then arranged to create different designs. Here everything you see inside the frame, except the medallion, was made by quilling.
You are probably familiar with the fleur-de-lis! Its origins lie in French history, representing the sovereign’s divine right to rule. Long-time emblem of the monarchy, today this symbol is a reminder of the French presence in North America today.
Silver and gilded copper
58.30 x 22 x 14 cm
The origin of this altar crucifix remains a mystery. Oral tradition says it belonged to Madame de la Peltrie, benefactor of the Ursulines. She is said to have brought it with her when she came to Quebec City in 1639. However, it is difficult to find a record of it in the Ursulines’ history. The object is not mentioned with certainty before 1900, when it was listed in the Ursulines’ annals.
A study of the object and its ornamentation places the silver base in the 17th century, although it was later regilded. The acanthus leaves and cherub faces were popular motifs under King Louis XIII. The other sections of the crucifix likely date from the 18th or 19th centuries.
Gold and silver
Pierre Rousseau II, silversmith
26.70 x 15.50 cm
Few pieces of silverwork or goldwork from New France remain in existence today, making this one exceptional. Canon law requires the use of precious metals in the making of chalices. The chalice shown here, made by French silversmith Pierre Rousseau II, is made entirely of silver. Only the cup is made of vermeil, a silver alloy gilded with gold.
Several antique objects come with their own stories and anecdotes, not all of which can be verified but that are nonetheless deeply rooted in oral tradition. As such, it is said that this chalice was used by Monseigneur François de Laval, first bishop of Quebec City, when he celebrated mass with the Ursulines.
To emphasize the sacred nature of this piece of silverwork, the base is lavishly decorated. The ladder and colum depicted here are two instruments from the Passion. These objects, often seen in Catholic imagery, symbolize Christ’s sufferings.
Plaster, canvas, paper, paint and gold
18 x 5 x 3 cm
This small figurine represents a crowned Black Virgin holding the baby Jesus in her arms. Black Virgins were part of medieval iconography. They take their name from their dark color, often limited to the face and hands. But why black? This is a question that remains shrouded in mystery. Historiographers do agree on one thing—Black Virgin is not the same as African Virgin.
The statuette is made of plaster. It is the only plaster statue from this period conserved by the Ursulines. Although it is not known when it came into the Ursulines’ possession, it is believed to have been made in France prior to 1650. According to oral tradition, this Madonna is said to have survived the fires of 1650 and 1686 that ravaged the monastery in Quebec City.
Wood, iron, paint and gold
19 x 28 x 2 cm
The inscription on this wood panel reads, “Tota Pulchra es Maria et Macula non est In te,” a prayer to the Virgin Mary taken from Song of Songs. The Latin text can be translated as “You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain [spot] (of sin) is not in you.”
Wood, plaster, gold and pigment
23 x 26 x 26 cm
This trapezoid pedestal with curved sides was carved and gilded with tempera by the Ursulines, who began gilding when they arrived in New France in 1639. Marie of the Incarnation (1599–1672) was skilled at the art of gilding. The founders of the Ursulines made a concerted effort—and a successful one at that—to pass their expertise on to their novices in New France.
The front side of the object is decorated with the Blessed Virgin’s monogram, a symbol recognized by the intertwined letters M and A (for Ave Maria). The monogram’s prominent position is a good illustration of the importance of the Ursulines’ devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
The right side features a rose tied with a knot, while the left side depicts a peony, also tied with a knot.