Marie de l’Incarnation Memorial Sites in Tours

par Deroy-Pineau, Françoise

Plaque at the Jardin Guyart-Martin in Tours

Marie Guyard, better known as Marie de l’Incarnation, was born in Tours, France. She lived there forty years, from birth in 1599 until she left for Canada in 1639. She is one of the pioneers of New France, where she founded the Ursuline convent at Quebec City, the first school for Indian and French girls in North America. She lived in this convent until her death in 1672. While she is well known in Quebec, her memory was almost forgotten in her native land, where only a handful of devotees, scholars and city councillors remembered this modest provincial woman of the seventeenth century, who left for Canada’s “few acres of snow”. However, since the 1950s, thanks to the tireless efforts of a group made up of Canadians and Tourangeaux, supported by a few elected officials aware of the influence of the French language in North America, the memory of Marie Guyard is finally receiving the attention it deserves in Tours.


Article disponible en français : Lieux de mémoire de Marie de l’Incarnation à Tours

The figure of Marie Guyard in Canada

 Marie Guyard (or Guyart) is a key figure in the history of Quebec and of Canada. On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, she was clearly designated as the third most important historical figure, after Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. The statue of this “mother of New France” appears on the façade of the Quebec Parliament building, while the building housing the Ministry of Education of Quebec, in Quebec city, bears her name. Marie Tifo, one of the greatest French-language actors in Canada, played her brilliantly on stage and in film in 2008. Marie de l’Incarnation, who was called by Bossuet the “Saint Teresa of our time and of the New World” (referring to the famous Teresa of Avila), is considered today as one of the greatest Christian mystics. Her life was exceptional both in France and in New France.


But who was Marie Guyard?

The banks of the Loire, where Marie Guyard used to go before she took vows, when she worked at her brother-in-law’s transportation business

Marie Guyard lived three quarters of the seventeenth century with a determination upheld by a powerful plan: to join – in society and deep in her soul – the movement of her “Gracious” spouse, Jesus, on this Earth. After a first biography by her son Claude Martin in 1675, an immense amount of historiography has been devoted to her. Specialists in various disciplines engage in debates about her that sometimes border on polemic. An unfit mother, or a model mother? A great mystic, or a religious fanatic? A crazy woman, or a practical one? Was she anorexic, or did she live it up? A talented writer, or an obscure scribbler? The fact is that some passages of her writing, sometimes taken out of context, lend themselves to several of these interpretations. (NOTE 1).

Born in 1599 to a family of bakers in Tours, she was immersed from the cradle in a Catholic environment. She took it very seriously, and practiced in her way a distributive justice by filching bread from the family shop to give to the poor. Her energy and her cheerful disposition did not work in her favour when she expressed a wish to enter the Benedictine order. Her parents arranged a marriage for her, at the age of seventeen, with a master silk worker. She then enjoyed great freedom and took advantage of it by reading novels, going to mass every day, bearing her son Claude, and developing a great talent for embroidery on brocade material made in her husband’s workshop.

After two years of marriage her husband died, deeply in debt. The young widow, not yet twenty years old, had a child and a bankruptcy to take over. Far from overcoming her, these tribulations nourished her mystic life. Preferring to be alone, she discouraged suitors, withdrew to her father’s house, and decided to devote herself to her son and to her inner passion, while not neglecting two things that she considered essential: to earn her living, and to serve by opening her door to sick and injured persons. Giving up her status as embroiderer to take up the position of manager of her brother’s transportation business, she became an important personage in Tours. Her influence was the result of her double life: fully involved in social and professional activities by day, she was sustained by extraordinary spiritual experiences by night. She brought up her son Claude in a very original way. At a time when people paid little attention to children, who often died early, and in contrast to child-rearing practices of the time, she never raised her hand to her child, and treated him with a “gentle gravity” which he would always remember (NOTE 2).

Then there occurred a first episode which was to inspire the imagination of writers and the debates of moralists: when her son reached the age for entry to college (11-12 years), she made the heartbreaking decision to entrust his care to her sister (NOTE 3). At the same time, she entered the Ursuline order without a dowry. The Ursulines were a new order whose vocation at the time was original: to educate girls. As a cloistered nun, Marie entered upon her vocation as a teacher, and without yet knowing it, as a writer. In 1633 she wrote her first autobiography, and instructions to novices. Both were writings of an undeniable baroque beauty.  

Arrival of the Ursulines and the Hospitalières in New France

Reading the Jesuit Relations, she became passionately interested in the Indians of Canada. At that time they were called “savages”. Little by little, a plan to go to that faraway place took shape. At first she proceeded discreetly in what would surely arouse opposition, since she was a woman, cloistered, of modest origins (NOTE 4), a provincial, and a commoner! But this urge become stronger and stronger. Her numerous connections as a business woman and teacher helped her mobilize the resources necessary to carry out her plan (NOTE 5). Of crucial importance was the agreement of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, founded in 1627 by Richelieu to manage New France.

Finally Marie embarked on the Saint-Joseph on May 4, 1639 with Madeleine de La Peltrie, a liberal and independent-minded young widow who also wanted to devote herself to the conversion of the “Savages”. She had engaged in a simulated marriage with Jean de Bernières, “Treasurer of France” in Caen and himself a committed mystic, in order to devote her fortune to founding the Ursulines in Quebec. (NOTE 6). Three months later, after a difficult Atlantic crossing, the two women and the first Augustines (Soeurs Hospitalières) landed in Quebec, a new colony consisting of a few dozen people. 

Marie de l'Incarnation teaching young Indian students

Marie was intensely active, educating Indian and French girls, helping the Indians, founding the Quebec Ursuline community, and taking an ever-growing role as advisor to the inhabitants of Quebec, beginning with the Jesuits and the colony’s administrators. The trials and tensions of those founding years are hard for us to imagine (NOTE 7). She often had to oppose important persons who did not understand her practical views and her far-sighted policies. Her correspondence with her “very dear son” Claude, who remained in France, left to posterity letters giving a detailed account of life in New France. In addition to these exceptionally valuable historic documents, she wrote a second autobiography with unexpected mystical and poetic flights. Although she was several times on a sickbed, Marie also wrote catechisms, grammars and dictionaries in Algonquin and in Iroquois. She finally succumbed to a “hepatic flux” on April 30, 1672.


Restoring a memory 

Portrait of Marie de l'Incarnation

Centuries passed. While the memory of Marie de l’Incarnation remained alive in Canada despite the ravages of time, the same was not true in Tours. The 1792 massacres of the French Revolution and the suppression of religious orders did not help to keep this memory alive. Shortly after the end of World War II, a contingent of Canadians including Wendat Indians, descendants of the Hurons who took refuge in New France near Quebec City, made a pilgrimage to Tours to visit the site where the founder of the Quebec Ursulines was born and grew up. This visit aroused the interest of the Tours city council, which made plans to restore some important sites. On October 26, 1950, a plaque commemorating the Saint-Joseph hermitage (the building had been demolished two years earlier) was inaugurated by Marcel Tribut, the new mayor of Tours. The ceremony took place in the presence of a large Canadian delegation, including the archbishop of Quebec and several Ursulines in religious clothing.

The next year a cleric from Trois-Rivières, Mgr Beaumier, who was very devoted to Marie de l’Incarnation, went to Tours to find traces of his heroine. He visited the plaque that had been inaugurated the year before, and the Saint-Michel chapel, where she took her vows. Imagine his consternation on finding that the old building housed the showers of the Lycée Nationalisé de Jeunes Filles (nationalized secondary school for girls), which was in the former Ursuline convent. The whole situation was definitely unworthy of the memory of the mother of New France. The mayor of Tours then declared that “the Saint-Michel chapel is [for Canadians] a sacred place, and we wish to give it to them and make it Canadian ground, since they see in it the spiritual origin of their country.”

In the following ten years, several influential people from Tours mobilized the necessary political and administrative resources (NOTE 8) to create an association to restore important sites from the life of Marie de l’Incarnation. The necessary funds came mainly from Canada (Trois-Rivières and Quebec City). 


The Saint-Michel chapel, the Petite Bourdaisière and the little Saint-Joseph hermitage 

The Association des Amis de Marie de l'Incarnation (which later became the Association Touraine-Canada) was founded on August 8, 1961, with a mission to restore certain buildings associated with her life in France: the Saint-Michel chapel, and the little Saint-Joseph hermitage. The young woman lived in these places from January 25, 1631 until February 22, 1639, when she left for New France. 

The Saint-Michel chapel, housing the Marie de l'Incarnation museum, in 2008

The Saint-Michel chapel was constructed in 1628 for the Ursuline nuns who arrived in Tours in 1622. The building, which had changed uses several times, needed a considerable amount of work. The association led the work, which was carried out promptly and finished in 1964. In the same year the association received a gift of four paintings, one of which portrays the departure of Marie de l’Incarnation for Canada. They were restored thanks to Boris Lossky, conservator at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, who also gave the chapel a very fine seventeenth-century altarpiece and a “Presentation of the child Jesus at the temple” (NOTE 9). The Musée des Beaux-Arts also lent other paintings, including a representation of Saint Ursula (no doubt from the time of the French Revolution) wearing a Phrygian cap. Soon afterwards, the façades of the chapel were registered in the additional inventory of historical monuments.

The year 1980 was a turning point in the history of the Saint-Michel chapel. The beatification of Marie de l’Incarnation attracted the public, with more visitors than ever before. The archbishop of Tours received seven bishops and 250 Canadian pilgrims there. The next year, the Ursuline nuns returned and set up the Association Marie Guyart. In 1983 this new association acquired the Petite Bourdaisière, a brick and stone building dating from the fifteenth century near the Saint-Michel chapel. It had been bought for the Ursulines in 1625 to serve as their convent. (NOTE 10). A Marie de l’Incarnation Centre was opened there in 1985. Finally, the new Saint-Joseph hermitage was inaugurated the same year by the archbishop of Tours. This identical reconstruction of the building demolished in 1948 was made possible thanks to Canadian contributions. 


The memory of Marie de l’Incarnation in Tours, now and in the future 

Interior of the Saint-Michel chapel in Tours

The heritage is now highlighted in a number of complementary ways. The Marie de l’Incarnation Centre makes known Marie’s life and work by receiving visitors and pilgrims (NOTE 11). The Association Touraine-Canada, together with the Association Marie Guyart, promotes activities in the Saint-Michel chapel, such as concerts, choir rehearsals, lectures, celebrations and historical tours. It also offers cultural excursions to sites of Canadian heritage in Touraine. Finally, a guided tour titled “Marie Guyard, Tours and Canada”, organized by the Tourist Office and the Heritage Department of the city of Tours, includes a visit to the Saint-Michel chapel, the Petite Bourdaisière, the neighbourhood where Marie Guyard lived in Tours, and, on request, to the Saint-Joseph hermitage.

However, the future is not assured. Since the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Quebec City in 2008, the Association Touraine-Canada has mobilized resources to restore her portraits and to renovate some walls of the Saint-Michel chapel. For example, the interior of the chapel must be made safe in order to display the newly restored paintings that portray the spiritual and cultural environment of Marie de l’Incarnation and the Ursulines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (NOTE 12). But considerable financial and administrative obstacles remain.

All this heritage work is meant to maintain the symbolic bridge across the Atlantic that was begun by Marie Guyard. Her creative spirit urges us to revitalize the sites associated with her life to build the future. In this time of globalization, they remind us of the importance of this pioneer for Francophonie and French civilization in North America and the rest of the world (Japan, Peru, the Philippines) where the Quebec Ursulines have been active as educators, following the vision of their famous founder from Tours.


Françoise Deroy-Pineau
Social historian and biographer

With Catherine Ferland
Associate coordinator of the Encyclopédie du patrimoine culturel de l'Amérique française




1. The works of Marie de l’Incarnation are the best documents for learning about her: Écrits spirituels et historiques, published by Albert Jamet in 1928-1929, based on the edition of Claude Martin, 2 vol, Éditions Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, republished en 1985 by the Ursulines of Quebec. Correspondance, edited by Guy-Marie Oury, Éditions Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, 1971. Also a collection of her works commented by her son, Claude Martin: 1677, La Vie de la Vénérable Mère Marie de l'Incarnation, reproduction (1981) of the original edition by the monks of Solesmes. Introduction by J. Lonsagne. Tables by Guy Oury, 835p. (V). For details of the biography of Marie Guyard, see our book Marie de l'Incarnation, femme d'affaires, mystique, mère de la Nouvelle-France (Paris, Robert Laffont, 1989, 1st reedition, Montréal, Bellarmin, 1999, 2nd reedition, Montréal, Bibliothèque québécoise, 2008).  

2. Marie de l'Incarnation, Écrits spirituels et historiques (vol.1, Tours, vers 1633) published by Claude Martin, reedited by Albert Jamet in 1928, then by the Quebec Ursulines and Éditions St-Pierre de Solesmes, 1985, p. 283.

3. See Marie Guyard, un destin transocéanique, Montréal/Paris, L'Harmattan, 2000; Femme, mystique et missionnaire. Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, under the direction of Raymond Brodeur, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval; Lecture inédite de la modernité aux origines de la Nouvelle-France, under the direction of Raymond Brodeur, Dominique Deslandres and Thérèse Nadeau-Lacour, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2009.

4. An anecdote about the origins de Marie Guyard (or Guyart) is worth recounting. Fleurant Guyart, Marie’s father, was a baker, the son of Fleurant Guyart, a notary in Touraine. But according to Marie’s son, who was in a position to know, Marie’s mother Jeanne, the daughter of Paul Michelet, was somehow related to the rich Babou de la Bourdaisière family (V,1677:4). It has even been suggested by V. that she was illegitimately descended from royalty. Historians of Touraine confirm that there were liaisons between François Ier and several women of the Babou de la Bourdaisière family (Leveel, 1989, p. 406); this does not contradict Guy-M. Oury (1994, p. 4-5, 14).

5. On this subject, see some of our articles, which resume essential chapters of a doctoral thesis in social history at the Université de Montréal en 1996: “Réseaux sociaux et évolution de la vie de Marie Guyart”, in Femme, mystique et missionnaire. Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation (Actes du colloque de Québec de septembre 1999), under the direction of Raymond Brodeur, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2001; “Marie Guyard ou l'incarnation de la mystique dans la société par les réseaux sociaux”, 2001, Liberté, n°252, vol 43, p.27-39; “Projet mystique, réseaux sociaux et mobilisation des ressources: le passage en Nouvelle-France de Marie de l'Incarnation en 1639”, with Paul Bernard, Archives de Sciences sociales des religions, n°113, January-March 2001.

6. See our book Madeleine de La Peltrie, amazone du Nouveau monde, 1992, Montréal, Bellarmin.

7. For example, she had to see to it that the convent was builts in 1645. A fire destroyed it in the middle of winter 1650-1651. When the situation seemed hopeless, the people of Quebec City, including Indians, mobilized to keep the nuns and rebuild the convent. She wrote to her son in 1654, “Oh! how many deaths must be endured by a soul called by God to a continual life of the spirit, before arriving at the end! It is unimaginable, and anyone who has not been through it can hardly believe it”. Marie de l'Incarnation, Écrits spirituels et historiques [vol 2, Québec, c. 1650] published by Claude Martin, reedited by Albert Jamet in 1929 and by the Quebec Ursulines and Éditions Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, 1985, p. 299.

8. Charles Lussier of the Canadian Embassy, where he is Délégué général du gouvernement de Québec, provided invaluable assistance.

9. According to the site, this work is a “transposition onto another canvas in 1964 in the Louvre workshops” of an oil painting on canvas by François Simon, dated 1643. “Provenance: Ile-de-France, 91, Etréchy, parish church”.

10. This site is registered in the additional inventory of historical monuments.

11. The Centre present expositions on different aspects of the life of married women, business women, Ursuline nuns, teachers, and embroiderers, as well as mystic life. The Centre also offers lectures, sessions and retreats (in France and abroad, international or not), and educational material for young people.

12. An appeal for contributions has been launched (subscription organized by the Fondation du Patrimoine).  



ARDOUIN, Idelette (et al.), Le milieu familial de Marie Guyard, Tours, Atelier du CGDT, (coll. Centre généalogique de Touraine- CGDT), 1999.

ARDOUIN, Idelette (et al.), Présence tourangelle au Canada au XVIIe siècle, (2e ed.),  Tours, Atelier du CGDT, (coll. Centre généalogique de Touraine- CGDT), 1999.

BRODEUR, Raymond (dir.), Regards pluriels sur Marie de l'Incarnation, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1997.

BRODEUR, Raymond (dir.), Femme, mystique et missionnaire. Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation (Actes du colloque de Québec de septembre 1999), Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2001.

BRODEUR, Raymond, avec Dominique Deslandres et Thérèse Nadeau-Lacour (dir.), Lecture inédite de la modernité aux origines de la Nouvelle-France, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2009.

DEROY-PINEAU, Françoise, Madeleine de La Peltrie, amazone du Nouveau Mobnde, Montréal, Bellarmin, 1992.

DEROY-PINEAU, Françoise, Marie de l'Incarnation, Marie Guyart. Femme d'affaires, mystique, mère de la Nouvelle-France 1599-1672, Montréal, Bibliothèque québécoise, 2008 (1e ed, Robert Laffont, 1989, 2e ed ellarmin, 1999).

DESLANDRES, Dominique, Croire et faire croire : les missions françaises au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Éd. Fayard, 2003.

GUIART (textes réunis par F. Deroy-Pineau), Marie Guyard - de l'Incarnation, un destin transocéanique, Actes du colloque de  Tours, 14-15 mai 1999. Paris, L'Harmattan, 2000.

LANDY-HOUILLON, Isabelle, « Marie Guyart « de l'Incarnation », l'amie de Madeleine de La Peltrie » dans CONSTANT, Jean-Marie (dir.), Madeleine de La Peltrie et les pionnières de la Nouvelle-France. Actes du colloque d'Alençon avril-mai 2003, 2004.

PERRET, Madeleine, La vie tourangelle de Marie de l'Incarnation, 1964, 52 p.

ZEMON-DAVIS, Nathalie,  « Nouveaux monde », Juive, catholique, protestante, trois femmes en marge du XVIIe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 1997.

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