Marguerite Bourgeoys & Montreal, 1640-1665

by Patricia Simpson,
264 pages,
ISBN: 0773516077

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by M D

In her introduction, by way of justifying this new biography of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, Patricia Simpson writes that "each age puts its own questions to the past and does so in its own idiom. [Previous biographers of Marguerite] wrote in the hagiographic style of their time, a style that tends to alienate today's reader. The questions of our own era are not those of the 1850s or even the 1940s." We might understand this statement as saying that the idiom of our age is simply different from those of past ages, no better, no worse; they had their questions, we have ours. And we might therefore expect Ms. Simpson's biography-which highlights Marguerite's pioneering efforts for women in the Church as well as her compassion-to be free of criticism of previous biographies of Marguerite.

To our surprise, however, in telling her story Ms. Simpson does her level best to discredit the hagiographic accounts of Marguerite, to downplay as much as is possible (it turns out it is not entirely possible) Marguerite's mysticism and sanctity. Ms. Simpson's effort therefore ends up being described better by the sensational blurb on the back (and, in abbreviated form, inside) cover: "Patricia Simpson goes behind the mist of myth and hagiography surrounding Marguerite Bourgeoys to reveal her true character."

Why does Ms. Simpson do so? There are, after all, precedents in Christianity for the combination of the miraculous or mystical and the compassionate. The answer lies in reflection on Ms. Simpson's interpretation of Marguerite as a proto-Rousseauean/feminist: Ms. Simpson must undermine previous hagiographies, for if Marguerite was as saintly or "otherworldly" as they say, it might suggest to readers that the chief aim of her prodigious efforts was the salvation of souls, that her primary concern was the next life, and this would rule out understanding her as primarily devoted to issues in this world. It seems that the "idioms" of each age do not merely coexist, but that the "idiom" of the current age survives at the expense of those of previous ones.



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