Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 5, 2004
Valiant sisters remembered
Ven. Mary Madeleine d'Houet -- Feast Day -- April 5
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Calgary was just 10 years old, a town in Canada's remote Northwest Territories, when the Sisters, Faithful Companions of Jesus arrived in 1885 on the two-year-old CPR to establish a teaching foundation in the Rocky Mountain foothills. It would be another 20 years before the province of Alberta came into being but within a month they opened the first school.
Visiting the "FCJ" Convent behind St. Mary's Cathedral can provide an explanation as to why their trip from England lasted 26 months. An impromptu tour with resident archivist Sister Elizabeth Fitzgerald provided a wealth of information on this and the building from one who loves and respects her home.
A distinctive, Mansard-roofed stone tower with a glassed-in effigy of convent namesake, the Sacred Heart, forms the original 1893 core of the building. Entering at its base, visitors are greeted in a formal reception room by a likeness of the society's founder.
Marie Madeleine d'Houet grew up during the turmoil and uncertainty of the French Revolution. This later influenced her resolve to aid and visit the sick and prisoners despite an early widowhood and the responsibility of raising a son. Persecution of the Church in France also inspired in her a determination to commit her life to the service of God.
After experiencing visions and reflecting on the holy women at the foot of the cross, she established a society, fashioned after the Jesuits, in Amiens in 1820. Her inspiration and vision, courage and confidence attracted many followers interested in a vocation to educate the less fortunate.
The foundation quickly expanded, teaching poor children and setting up night schools for women. Soon houses existed in several European countries.
Marie Madeleine was pronounced venerable by Pope Benedict XV in 1916 and her cause for canonization is ongoing. She is remembered by the society each April 5, the anniversary of her death in 1858 and is honoured in Calgary in the name of Ecole Madeleine d'Houet French Immersion Junior High School.
Beyond the main entrance, the bright, recently renovated chapel features a colourful tapestry showing the women at the cross. Altar and lectern have been skillfully re-crafted from the chapel's old wooden pews. Mass is celebrated irregularly at the request of the sisters.
On the walls of the long east wing of the convent, alternating with coloured photos illustrating the society's current activities in the Majority World, are sketches drawn en-route to the Canadian West.
Included are views of the original party on the deck of the steamship Peruvian as it left Liverpool in 1883, of Quebec riverside villages, and of pancake breakfasts, covered wagons and lost horses on the prairies before the group's arrival at their original destination of St. Laurent.
Not shown in the sketches, but described vividly in letters written by the sisters, are the times spent teaching Metis children and becoming embroiled in the Northwest Rebellion where, at Batoche in 1885, they found themselves nursing the wounded in the middle of a battlefield. Once through the ordeal, they happily accepted a new assignment - to teach in Calgary.
Leader of the expedition and superior of the Calgary establishment and first school, was Irish Mary Greene. She is remembered today in the name of academically highly-ranked Mother Mary Greene Elementary School in Calgary.
Today, her convent maintains a vital life of its own hosting through the FCJ Christian Life Centre, students in its full-facility conference areas. For participants, the manicured, treed grounds with their pathways along the banks of the tranquil Elbow River offer a meditative venue in which to escape the busy city centre.
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