A tour of the Ursuline convent: Guided by a “living treasure”

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Photo: Photo by Shirley Nadeau

Sister Louise Godin, o.s.u., one of some 50 Ursuline nuns living at the convent, can truly be described as a "living treasure." Her intellect and her rich wealth of convent history make her invaluable to the community. At 96, Sister Louise is not the oldest of the sisters at the convent.

Sister Louise Godin, u.s.o., 96, is very active, both physically and mentally. A long-time subscriber to the QCT, Sister Louise contacted us a few weeks ago regarding the newspaper's 250th anniversary year.

I was invited to join her for lunch and later, she took me on a tour of the oldest Ursuline Convent in North America, founded by Marie de l'Incarnation in 1639. It is the oldest institution of learning for women in North America and was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1972. This year, the Ursuline and the Augustine sisters celebrate the 375th anniversary of their arrival in New France. (See sidebar on page 2).

Louise Godin was born in Trois-Rivières in 1917, but her family moved to Toronto soon after, and she grew up and completed her primary and high-school education there, in English. She considers herself more Anglophone than Francophone. She came to the convent in Quebec City in 1936 to learn French, and took her vows as an Ursuline nun when she was 24 years old.

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The entrance to the Ursuline Convent at the corner of rue Du Parloir and Donnacona in the heart of the Old City. 

Sister Louise's niece, Marie Crête, informed me, "Since her youth, my aunt always wanted to pursue her education, and she is highly grateful to her congregation because they always supported her in fulfilling her dream."

Crête continued, "She first obtained a degree in Latin. She has three Master's degrees - in biology, education and English literature. She obtained a Ph.D. in 1981, at the age of 64. My aunt spent several years teaching biology and English in New Brunswick and Quebec City. In recent years, she was in charge of the convent's museum because of her knowledge of painting restoration, history and English. She enjoyed greeting various visitors at the museum.

"Throughout her life, Aunt Louise has suffered a number of major illnesses. As a child, she contracted polio and had surgery to regain her to ability to walk. She then had tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanatorium. In the last decade, she cracked her hip but is nevertheless still walking. All her life, she has always succeeded in overcoming her health issues and in keeping her enthusiasm, joie de vivre and craving for learning. She has been a keen reader of the Chronicle-Telegraph for several decades. I hope that the Chronicle-Telegraph will continue its mission for many years to come."

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 Convent students Daphne Coulombe and Rose Coutu have been studying the life of Saint Marie de l’Incarnation. Rose portrays the Saint, dressed in a habit similar to what she would have worn in the 1600s. 

Starting with the basement level (la cave) in the oldest section of the convent, Sister Louise showed me a huge fireplace. It was there that the lay sisters, those who did the cleaning and cooking in the kitchen, would sit in the evenings to keep warm, socialize and enjoy the company of the cats who lived in the convent. A copy of a letter written by Marie de l'Incarnation to her brother-in-law on September 4, 1640, sits by the fireplace. It reads (translated) "Recipe for ‘Sagamité' (Indian food): When we prepare food for our savages we use: one bushel of black prunes, four loaves of bread, six measures of pea or corn flour, two or three pounds of lard, a dozen melted suet candles, so everything is very greasy, because that's what they like . . ."

A large brick and mortar oven, part of the original convent built over 350 years ago, was once used to bake their daily bread and occasionally large pots of beans. A more "modern" cast-iron stove made in Trois-Rivières stands beside the older brick oven.

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 The interior of the Ursuline chapel, once exclusively for the use of the cloistered nuns, is now open to the public. Sister Thérèse Paget was practising on the Casavant organ, built in 1901. 

We moved on to another level where we entered a chapel built in 1642, in the oldest wing of the complex. This chapel served as a place of worship for 50 years and was chosen in 1716 to be the Centre de la Confrérie du Sacré Coeur de Jésus (Centre of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.)

Part of the convent is still used today as a private elementary school for boys and girls. As we walked the corridors, we saw pupils playing in the interior courtyard, sheltered from the noise of the busy city that surrounds the convent complex.

In former times, the chapel of the Ursuline sisters was solely for the use of the nuns, as they were cloistered until some time in the 1960s. It can now be seen and visited by the public. Richly decorated vaulted ceilings lead the eye toward the altar at one end and the magnificent Casavant organ at the other.

A teacher led a group of children to the side chapel, where the tomb of Saint Marie de l'Incarnation is found. One of the girls was dressed in a habit to represent the sainted sister while they learned about the life of the woman from Tours, France, who left her home to come to the wilderness of Canada as an Ursuline nun.

Now retired, Sister Godin continues to practise her life-long vocation of watercolour artist. In fact, as she led me on a tour through the maze of corridors, I discovered one wall almost completely covered with a series of beautifully executed works of art, each one signed "L. Godin, o.s.u." Her teacher was Jacques Hébert, co-founder of the Canadian Watercolour Society. As I was leaving, one of the most charming paintings caught my eye: it showed a group of eight Ursuline nuns sitting near a fireplace knitting long red-and-white stockings for the members of the 78th Fraser Highlanders who came to Quebec with Wolfe's army in 1759. The Highlanders were billeted at the convent. That first winter was bitterly cold and the nuns took pity on the Scots wearing kilts with bare legs in such weather. Sister Louise told me that, in return, the Highlanders kept the sisters supplied with food and firewood. It could be said that the soldiers and the nuns "kept each other warm" that winter.

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 The text at the bottom of the painting reads: “Les ‘Highlanders’ (clan Fraser) furent bien au chaud durant cet hiver 1759” (The Highlanders were nice and warm during the winter of 1759) - signed L. Godin o.s.u. 

On my way out, I discovered a small boutique on Du Parloir street operated by the convent specially for the 375th anniversary celebrations. There I discovered a series of 14 original watercolours by Sister Louise Godin depicting the life of Saint Marie de l'Incarnation from her birth in France in 1599 to her death in Canada in 1672.