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Mademoiselle Mange

The tide of religious enthusiasm ran high in the seventeenth century. The primary object of most of those interested in the New World was to convert the pagan Indians. It is true that many embarked in the fur trade, but the vast majority were religious enthusiasts. Champlain had written sketches of his travels, and he lost no opportunity to emphasize the great necessity of carrying the cross to the heathen tribes.

The enterprise of the rich young widow, Madame de la Peltrie, was a common theme of conversation among the ladies of France, and especially among those engaged in religious work. It is not surprising, therefore, to find many young women fired with the same desire to sacrifice themselves upon the missionary altar of New France.

The religious zeal was not confined to the gentler sex. It was no unusual thing for men to give themselves up wholly to religious exercises, and to mortify the flesh by flagellations and other cruel devices. Such a man was Danversiere, who had a call from heaven to found a hospital upon the Island of Montreal in Canada. By a strange coincidence, a young Parisian priest, named Olier, equally zealous in his religious observances, had a similar call from heaven to organize a society of priests and establish them on this same Island of Montreal. At that time this island was a wilderness exposed to the ravages of the dreaded Iroquois.

These two good men were full of their respective projects. Neither had ever heard of the plans of the other until they accidentally met, when, impelled by some unknown force, there was mutual recognition like the meeting of old friends. They discussed their plans and finally settled upon three distinct undertakings: The founding of a hospital, the organization of an order of priests to do missionary work among the Indians, and another order of nuns to teach the children.

For my present purpose I shall confine my-self to the first of these pious enterprises. What need, we may ask, was there for an hospital at a point where there were no settlers? The plan seemed to resemble the outcome of a disordered brain. The fact that there was no population upon this island did not quench their enthusiasm. They must establish a colony and get the population, and they set about this gigantic task. They organized the Society of Notre Dame de Montreal. Funds were raised and the title to the island secured. It was decided to send out a number of colonists (forty) in the first place, and to at once commence the erection of the hospital. Their next object was to secure a suitable woman to place in charge. Here again supernatural influence was at work. Mademoiselle Jeanne Mance was a delicate and devout maiden of thirty-four years. She had never taken the veil, but had lived a very exemplary and religious life. She had heard of Madame de la Peltrie and her work in the New World, and she longed for an opportunity to go to Canada and do what she could towards Christianizing the many tribes who had never heard of the Savior, to whose service she was prepared to surrender everything. Her spiritual adviser assured her that the call was from heaven, and that it was her duty to respond to it, which she accordingly did. She raised a considerable sum of money, and, though with no clearly defined plans in mind, proceeded to Rochelle, where Danversiere was preparing to dispatch his first installment of colonists. He had never met Mademoiselle Mance, and had no knowledge of her plans, and she also was in ignorance of his undertaking. Here again the same unseen Power seems to have introduced them to each other. They met in a church, and as the result of the conference, he secured a woman to take charge of the hospital that was to be, and Mademoiselle Mance realized her heart's desire an appointment to a position of trust and responsibility in the New World. Maisonneuve was in charge of the party, which consisted of forty men with Mademoiselle Mance, a young woman, and the wives of two of the men, who joined them at the last moment.

It was late in October, 1641, when the little colony arrived at Quebec, and their project did not meet with the approval of the Governor, who endeavored to dissuade them from it. Some historians attribute his attitude to jealousy, but it is probable that he had good reason to doubt the success of the venture. The entire French population did not exceed three hundred souls. The Iroquois were swarming about the settlements, and the danger of a general massacre was continually haunting the French. The Indians were particularly bitter at this period, and seemed determined to exterminate the white intruders. It was for the mutual benefit of all that they should not be scattered about in separate settlements. The idea of establishing a hospital one hundred and eighty miles from Quebec did not commend itself to the Governor, and he freely expressed his views.

The party wintered near Quebec, and on the 18th of the following May proceeded to their destination. Madame de la Peltrie accompanied them and for the time abandoned her own work to lend assistance to the more romantic one of Mademoiselle Mance. Upon landing at Montreal, their first act was to erect a rude altar, where they offered up thanks to the Almighty for bringing them safe to the scene of their future operations. As they sat about their camp-fires on that quiet spring evening recounting the experiences of the past few months and laying their plans for the future, little did they dream that they were laying the foundation of the commercial metropolis of a great country. Did Mademoiselle Mance see in the flickering flames pictures of that great hospital, the Hotel Dieu, that for nearly three hundred years has ministered to the sick and suffering of her race?

In three months' time another ship brought more colonists and further aid for the erection of the hospital, which was accordingly built, and Mademoiselle Mance placed in charge. She did not have to wait long for patients.

The Iroquois soon discovered the new post and made it an especial object of attention. They would lurk in a hollow or in the woods for a week at a time in the hope of surprising a colonist. It was no unusual thing for the inhabitants to be aroused from their slumbers by the war-whoop of the savages. This little settlement was particularly exposed, and the Indians lost no opportunity to harass them, and many a wound from the tomahawk or battle-axe was dressed by the tender hands of Mademoiselle Mance. She did not limit her-self to the nursing of the sick, but taught the young Indians and assisted in the religious exercises and instruction of the community. She had to contend against many obstacles, but she stood bravely at her post and surmounted them all. She endured the trials common to all the early settlers, and shared with them the dangers of the furious Indian raids. She had also the responsibility of managing and financing the institution of which she was the real head. She was not lacking in either resource or energy. She gave her life to the noble work, and the success of her labors shows that it was not given in vain. Her history is so closely interwoven with tradition that it is difficult to sift out all the actual occurrences, but the important facts remain unchallenged, that this brave woman left home and friends and came voluntarily to the dangerous wilds of America to sacrifice her life to suffering humanity, with no other hope of earthly reward than the consciousness of having done what she conceived to be her duty.

Heroines of Canadian History, By W. S. Herrington, 1910


Canadian Heroines

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