Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Remembered from Quebec to Normandy

par Thierry, Éric

Catherine de Saint-Augustin by Father Pommier (1668), Centre Catherine de Saint-Augustin de Québec (Quebec City)

Beatified by Pope Jean-Paul II in 1989, Catherine de Saint-Augustin is considered to be one of the founders of the Canadian Roman Catholic church.  Born in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte (Normandy, France) in 1632, Catherine de Longpré joined the ranks of the hospital order in Bayeux in 1644.  A short time later she volunteered to assist the nuns operating the Quebec City Hôtel-Dieu hospital, and so, in 1648, she set foot in New France for the first time. In the land of her adoption, she led an exemplary life and died there of an illness at a very young age in 1668.  Her growing renown in the Province of Quebec in the 19th century for her good works eventually opened the way for her to be venerated in her homeland of France.

Article disponible en français : Mémoire de Catherine de Saint-Augustin, du Québec à la Normandie

The Success and Discredit of Father Ragueneau's Biography of Catherine de Saint-Augustin

Engraving published in Father Ragueneau's book

In 1671, Catherine de Saint-Augustin's former confessor, the Jesuit Paul Ragueneau, published La vie de la Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin.  The biography reveals the nun's struggles with demons, her visions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints. It also reveals how she decided to play the role of victim in order to obtain salvation for the colony.  From the very moment it was published, the book was met with great success among the devout, both in Normandy and the rest of France.  It strengthened the fervour of religious communities, such as Caen's Visitation Nuns, and it inspired devotion among prelates such as Maupas du Tour, Bishop of Evreux. It even served for the edification of the laity, touching the lives of individuals such as the idle young Parisian who, according to the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec annalist, decided to become a Jesuit missionary to Canada after he read the book.(NOTE 1)

However, La Vie de la Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin appeared at a time when many had begin to have doubts about the mystic nun. Furthermore, the growing condemnation of quietism (NOTE 2) would in the end cause many to discredit her.  As early as 1691, a member of the Recollect order, Chrestien Le Clercq, made fun of Father Ragueneau who had cleverly inserted the devil into one of Catherine de Saint-Augustin's teeth "to make her saintliness appear," and who, during the1663 earthquake, had evoked the nun's vision of four demons shaking Quebec City "by its four corners." (NOTE 3)  In his Histoire et Description Générale de la Nouvelle-France, published in 1744, Father Charlevoix of the Society of Jesus tried to defend his fellow society member by writing that "concerning God's interactions with the Human Souls with whom he communicates his most intimate ideas, there are hidden Mysteries that are useless and sometimes dangerous to reveal to the general Public." (NOTE 4) Nonetheless, he acknowledged that "the extraordinary" (NOTE 5) and, more precisely, the actions of tormenting devils, were by and large no longer an accepted part of recounting the lives of saints.

The growing negative opinion of Father Ragueneau's book in the 18th century spilled over into the following century as well.  In 1845, the Canadian historian François-Xavier Garneau did not hesitate to refer to Catherine de Saint-Augustin as follower of quietism. (NOTE 6) Three years later, in Normandy, the editor of the Annuaire du Département de la Manche [La Manch Regional Almanac ], upon revising Cherbourg scholar, Victor Le Sens' article on the nun, felt compelled to specify in a footnote that "the Jesuit Ragueneau, her biographer, inserted pious lies into the history of this saint of a girl, lies such as have been invented by so many writers of his order." (NOTE 7)


Catherine de Saint-Augustin's Good Name Restored

It was only with the 1878 Canadian publication of the Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec by Father Henri-Raymond Casgrain, that Catherine de Saint-Augustin's good name was finally restored.  Considering that she had become a sacrificial victim, giving her life to save New France from the "confusion" (NOTE 8) of the 1660s (according to Father Casgrain), couldn't this holy nurse from Quebec City become a means of salvation for her homeland [France], which had turned away from Christianity during the 1870s?  A Norman, Canon Le Cacheux was encouraged by the French-Canadian historian to find sufficient material in the work of Father Ragueneau for an article about "a Christian family in the 17th century in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte" (i.e. an article about the family of Catherine de Longpré). From January to March of 1878, he published a series of articles on the subject in the Semaine Religieuse du Diocèse de Coutances et Avranches [Weekly Newsletter of the Diocese of Coutances and Avranches]. And then, in1891, another Norman parish priest who had read Casgrain's writing, Eugène Viel, made Catherine de Saint-Augustin into one of the "glories of the Contenin Peninsula" and endeavoured to "contribute to the solemn beatification of this faithful Lover of Jesus Christ by the Holy See."(NOTE 9)

James Pattison Cockburn, General Hospital, Quebec, Lower Canada, BAC

Published at the author's own expense, this study was not a major success in France, but Catherine de Saint-Augustin's fame nevertheless continued to grow in Quebec.  As it had become known that Father Jean de Brébeuf, killed in 1649, had been her secret spiritual advisor, her cause benefited from being linked to the religious order of "Holy Canadian Martyrs."  From the moment it was established in 1892, a Montréal monthly, the Messager Canadien du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus [Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart], conveyed the Canadian Roman Catholic Church's efforts to promote the canonization of the Jesuit missionaries who were victims of Iroquois violence. Furthermore, in 1907, the monthly's director, Father Léonidas Hudon, published his own Vie de la Mère Marie-Catherine de Saint-Augustin [The Life of...].  The book took much of its inspiration from the work of Father Ragueneau and eventually inspired many to "emulate her evangelistic fervour and passion for the cross."(NOTE 10)


The Slow Progress of the Cause

The canonisation of the "Holy Canadian Martyrs" was handed over to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1923 and the inquiry into the life of Catherine de Saint-Augustin began in Quebec City the same year and then a year later in Bayeux.  There, a French scholar Georges Goyau, who had just published his Origines Religieuses du Canada [Religious Origins of Canada], spoke as an advocate for the nun's canonisation.  His work focused on the "Age of Canadian Martyrs" and paid tribute to Catherine de Saint-Augustin.(NOTE 11)  Georges Goyau, who had read Father Hudon‘s book, urged that it be republished, a suggestion that was taken seriously and subsequently resulted in the 1925 Paris re-edition of the volume.

Bayeux Cathedral, BAnQ

The newly published edition of the Nouvelle France was a great success among French Catholics and breathed new life into the convent in Bayex, but the official beatification process of Catherine de Saint-Augustin advanced more slowly compared to that of the "Holy Canadian Martyrs," who were all canonized by 1930.  In Quebec new interest was awakened by the 1941 creation of the Comité des Fondateurs de l'Église du Canada [Canadian Catholic Church Founders Committee] and by the prayer campaign in support of the beatification and canonization of François de Laval, Marguerite Bourgeoys, Marie de l'Incarnation and Catherine de Saint-Augustin, which was organized by the Church of Rome the following year.

In spite of the German occupation, the clergy in Normandy was kept informed and, in 1942, a local priest named Léon Blouet, wrote a detailed description of Catherine's heroics in a book entitled Une Normande Héroïque [A Norman Heroine].  Nevertheless, due to the ravages of war, Blouet's efforts were overshadowed by the battle that resulted from the June 6th, 1944 landing on the Beaches of Normandy. Thus, it was only later with 1957 publication of Marthe Ponet-Bordeaux's work by the prestigious Parisian firm Grasset, that Catherine de Saint-Augustin once again became a topic of discussion in her native country.(NOTE 12)

And so, the Quebec City nun became a figure of contemporary importance, just as Father de Parvillez pointed out in his forward: 

We are at the hour of the Youth Movements, and Catherine, if God should let her climb to the top of our altars, will be our most youthful saint.  We are back in the century of the missions, and our girls are listening to the call of faraway lands-and Catherine was one of the first to understand that a nun could also be a missionary.  We are witnessing the promotion of the archetypal woman who is seeking her point of balance between the imposing tasks that are becoming accessible to her and the maternal and family duties for which her nature prepares her.  And Catherine, for whom no initiative was too frightening, nevertheless limited herself to her work as a nurse:  a destiny both heroic and quintessentially feminine."(NOTE 13)

View of the two chapels located in the chancel of Bayeux Cathedral (E. Thierry, 2007)

Approaching the tri-centennial of the nun's death, Normans and Quebeckers finally decided to join forces and chose Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte as the setting for a ceremony of major significance.  Organized by the Association Normandie Canada, the Association Canada Normandie, the Comité d'Expansion Économique [Quebec-Normandy Committee for Economic Growth], the municipal government and the archdiocese of Quebec City and the district where Catherine de Saint-Augustin was born, the event was slated to take place on May 8th , 1968.  On the very date of the event, Quebec City Mayor Gilles Lamontagne officially named a street after Catherine de Longpré, and Mgr Bélanger, on behalf of Quebec City's archbishop, Cardinal Roy, inaugurated (with a formal blessing) a commemorative plaque set up in the church close to the baptismal fonts dating from the beginning of the 17th century.


The Beatification of Catherine de Saint-Augustin

In spite of the mobilization of the faithful, the beatification process of Catherine de Saint-Augustin did not advance very quickly, for the cause was not taken up in Rome until 1980.  At this point, proponents for the beatification still had to clearly demonstrate the saintliness of Catherine de Saint-Augustin on the basis of an already-completed file.  At the request of Quebec City's Augustines, Guy-Marie Oury, a Benedictine monk, set to work on the case. His defence of the saintliness of Catherine de Saint-Augustin was adequately convincing for, on June 9th, 1984, the Church of Rome proclaimed Catherine de Saint-Augustin's virtues to be truly heroic. And so, on April 23rd, 1989, Pope John Paul II beatified this "Lover of God" who had sacrificed herself out of Christian charity.  For the occasion, the members of the convent in Bayeux met with an important delegation of Quebec Augustines and Ursulines at Rome's St. Peter's Square, which was led by Cardinal Vachon, the Archbishop of Quebec City-although very few Normans actually joined the pilgrims from Quebec.  It would take several visits to Normandy from Quebeckers returning from Rome before any interest among the French was awakened at all.

Although the ceremony in Rome was not even covered by the regional press, articles were written about the thanksgiving mass celebrated on April 30th in the Bayeux Cathedral, as well as about Cardinal Villeneuve's May 2nd speech to inaugurate a Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte senior citizens' residence bearing the name of Catherine de Longpré. Two written works were also published around the same time: the first, a new biography greatly inspired by Father Ragueneau's work, was written by a local journalist, Pierre Leberruyer, and the second, a historical account of the Bayeux monastery of the, was written by François Petit, a priest from the Premonstratensian abbey at Juaye-Mondaye.

Statue of Catherine de Saint-Augustin in Bayeux (E. Thierry, 2007)

The Bayeux Augustines had every reason to believe that their defunct blessed sister Catherine had a glorious future of widespread veneration in reserve for her, for on April 18th, 1989, they received a relic of the saint offered by the community of the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. Furthermore, on September 27th, 1990, they assisted with the unveiling of a bronze statue created by Montreal sculptor, Jules Lasalle, which was offered by the "Association des Amis Québécois de Catherine de Saint-Augustin [Friends of Catherine de Saint-Augustin Society]."(NOTE 14)  On May 8, 1991, near Place du Québec, the town square where the figure of the blessed sister stands, the Bayeux Augustines opened a Catherine de Saint-Augustin centre to provide information for both pilgrims and sightseers.

Unfortunately, during the fall of 2004, the centre was forced to close due to the fact that the aging community had moved from Bayeux to Pont-L'Evêque.  Since that time, the precious relic from Quebec City has been on exhibit in the Bayeux Cathedral in a chapel adjacent to the one dedicated to St. Theresa of Lisieux.  As Quebec's Denise Pepin points out, their close proximity is no accident:  "Both are ‘Norman girls born and bred.'  Both are young, fervent lovers of God.  Both come from profoundly Christian communities.  Both are missionaries.  Both offer themselves to Divine Love as victims to be consumed by fire in as a most sacred Burnt Offering.  Both suffer from the same illness and die in an ecstasy of love."(NOTE 15)

Nevertheless St. Theresa of Lisieux continues to outshine the venerable Catherine de Saint-Augustin.  Due to the ever-diminishing support of the Bayeux sisters [as the population of the community continues to age], the former Quebec nun is gradually disappearing from the collective memory of her fellow Normans.


Éric Thierry
Historian, Ph.D.
Instructor at Lycée Paul Claudel in Laon
Secretary General of the Fédération des Sociétés d'histoire et d'archéologie de l'Aisne

[Ainse Federation of Historical and Archaeological Societies]




Note 1:  Concerning Caen's Visitation Nuns and the case of the young Parisian, see Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Ignace and Marie Andrée Duplessis de Sainte-Hélène's Les Annales de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. 1636-1716, ed. Albert Jamet, 1939; republished, Québec, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, 1984, p. 242-243 and 237-238 respectively.  Concerning Maupas du Tour, see Denise Pepin's, Chroniques... Pour une meilleure connaissance de Catherine de Saint-Augustin. D'après les témoins de son temps, Montréal, Les Editions du Long-Sault, 2001, p. 31-32  (based on a manuscript containing an account by Marie-Madeleine de la Hennaudière de Saint-Augustin, founder of Bayeux's Augustine monastery).

Note 2:  Quietism is a form of spiritual life that strives for total communion with God by way of prayer, without any concern for rites or works of charity.  Made popular in France by Madame Guyon, it was condemned by Pope Innocent XII in 1699.

Note 3:  Chrestien Le Clercq, Premier Etablissement de la foy dans la Nouvelle France, Paris, Amable Auroy, 1691, p. 26-27.  Concerning the devil in Catherine de Saint-Augustin's tooth and her vision of four demons shaking Quebec City, see Paul Ragueneau's, La Vie de la Mère Catherine de Saint Augustin,1671; republished, Québec, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, 1977, p. 49-50 and 146-147 respectively.

Note 4:   Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France, Paris, Pierre-François Giffart, 1744,  I:402.

Note 5:  Chrestien Le Clercq, op. cit., p. 27.

Note 6:  François-Xavier Garneau, Histoire du Canada, Québec, N. Aubin Press, 1845, I:369-370.

Note 7:  Victor Le Sens, "Catherine de Saint-Augustin," Annuaire du département de la Manche, 1848, pp. 330-336 and Note 1, p. 334.  The author repeats the stories told by Father Ragueneau concerning the apparitions witnessed by Catherine de Saint-Augustin.

Note 8: Henri-Raymond Casgrain, Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, Québec, Léger Brousseau, 1878, p. 239.

Note 9:  Letter from Eugène Viel to Mgr Germain, Bishop of Coutances and Avranches, Colomby, June 10, 1891, in E. Viel, Les Gloires du Cotentin. I. La Révérende Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin Colomby,  the author, 1891.

Note 10:  Léonidas Hudon, Une fleur mystique de la Nouvelle-France.  Vie de la Mère Marie-Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Montréal,  Bureaux du Messager canadien, 1907, p. XXIII.

Note 11:  Georges Goyau, Une épopée mystique. Les origines religieuses du Canada, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1924, p. 181-244, and concerning Catherine de Saint-Augustin, p. 203-204.

Note 12:  This book, written at the request of the order in Quebec City, is the French counterpart of the study by Canon Lionel Groulx that appeared in No. 3 of the Cahiers d'Histoire de la Société historique de Québec in 1953 entitled Une petite Québécoise devant l'Histoire (Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin).

Note 13:  A. de Parvillez, "Avant-Propos", in Marthe Ponet-Bordeaux (Jeanne Danemarie), Catherine de Longpré, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1957, p. 8-9.

Note 14:  This event refers to the unveiling of a copy of the original statue, which is located on rue Charlevoix in Quebec City.

Note 15:  D. Pepin, Deux héroïnes de Normandie.  Catherine de Bayeux et Thérèse de Lisieux, Montréal, Les Editions du Long-Sault, 2001, p. 5.



Gagnon, Serge, Le Québec et ses historiens de 1840 à 1920. La Nouvelle-France de Garneau à Groulx, Québec, Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1978.

Leberruyer, Pierre, Hospitalière, missionnaire, mystique. La Bienheureuse Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Caen, Editions Don Bosco, 1989, p. 26.

Oury, Guy-Marie, L'Itinéraire mystique de Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Chambray-lès-Tours, Éditions C.L.D., 1985.

Pepin, Denise, Catherine de Saint-Augustin. Sur la place de Québec à Bayeux, Montréal, Les éditions du Long-Sault, 2005.

Petit, François, Les Augustines hospitalières de Bayeux. La communauté de la bienheureuse Marie Catherine de saint Augustin, Caen, Editions Don Bosco, 1989.



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