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It all started on the right note… and it never stopped!

Music crossed the ocean with the Ursulines in 1639. Sister Marie-de-Saint-Joseph, one of the two Ursulines who accompanied Marie of the Incarnation, was a talented musician. It wasn’t long before she was giving voice and viol lessons to the first Indigenous students. The French and Canadian students were not left out, nor were the nuns, who sang psalms and hymns and provided instrumental accompaniment during the Divine Office.

Music lessons became very popular over time. The 1847 course catalog for the Ursuline Boarding School in Quebec City lists the music classes offered: “…Organ, Harp, Piano, Guitar, Accordion, Vocal Music….” Although first given as elective courses, music was so pervasive and became so popular that the leading monasteries opened schools of music affiliated with the universities in Montreal and Quebec City. Music still enlivens the Ursuline monasteries today—music lessons continue to be offered in their schools and concerts are held in their chapels and gardens.

Holy Week book

Holy Week book
Paper and ink
17th century
20 cm

The origins and history of this work remain mysterious, yet fascinating. Let’s look at the handwritten inscription on the last page. It reads: “This book, which the monastic tradition confirms to have belonged to the venerable Marie of the Incarnation, was in the trunk or wooden box that also contained bones and a rosary, described in the minutes of April 27, 1948, signed by Abbot Bruno Desrochers, chancellor.”

The purpose of this book is also interesting. It was intended to accompany the services marking the days of Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter. The left-hand pages contain traditional songs associated with these celebrations. The right-hand pages give explanations in French of the rituals to be performed and the Latin prayers that should accompany them. On Palm Sunday, for example, it says that the priest must wear a purple cappa magna. The fact that these guidelines were written in French in a prayer book was rather exceptional and suggests that it was a specialized work geared towards religious communities.


Wood, metal, fiber and ink
Theodore Frederick Molt
5 x 83.50 x 15.20 cm

This device is a chromatometer, invented by Theodore Frederick Molt. Originally from Germany, Molt moved to Quebec City in 1822. He began giving voice and music lessons upon his arrival. Although Molt did not teach at the Ursuline School, his daughters Henriette-Eugénie, Mathilde and Louise were students there.

The chromatometer, patented on April 6, 1832, was used to regulate the voice and tune a variety of string instruments. If you believe the different press articles written about it, the main advantage of this new device was that anyone could use it with ease.

The teaching of music and voice was particularly important to the Ursulines. Knowing this, we can easily see how useful the chromatometer was for them!

Double-action harp

Wood, brass, gilding, paint, varnish and wool
Sébastian Érard, England
Circa 1835
170 x 90 x 56 cm

In the early 1800s French manufacturer Érard patented numerous technical developments for its harps, including a double-action pedal system (diatonic harp). The instrument pictured here is equipped with this system, allowing musicians to play in any key.

Square piano

Black walnut, ebony, ivory, brass and varnish
Chickering & Sons, United States
Circa 1855
93 x 181 x 84 cm

Purchased in the 1860s, this piano is one of approximately fifteen acquired by the Ursulines in Quebec City during the 1860s and 1870s. A single piano cost nearly $800. Manufacturer Chickering & Sons improved the sonority of its instruments by using a one-piece cast-iron plate that provided better string-tension support.

Grand piano

Grand piano
Black walnut, ebony, ivory, brass and varnish
Heintzman & Co., Toronto
142 x 160 x 102 cm

When Sister Marie-Claire Chasle, a remarkable musician, became an Ursuline nun around 1940, she brought her instrument with her. She was passionate about teaching the fourth art for six decades. Manufactured by the still well-known Canadian company Heintzman & Co., the piano is still in use today!

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