Marie Madeleine D’Houet. Do you know the name? Do you know the woman? There is a Calgary Catholic School named for her. She has been declared “Venerable” by the Church and her process for canonization awaits a miracle. Who is she and what’s her connection to Calgary?
Marie Madeleine d’Houet is the Foundress of the Sisters, Faithful Companions of Jesus. She began her new religious congregation in 1820 (so last year was the FCJ Sisters’ Bicentennial). The new congregation opened its first convent in Amiens, France. The Jesuits inspired Marie Madeleine--she loved their spirit of self-renunciation in order to love God with a whole heart and she was inspired by their passion for mission. She would often pray, “ O God, give your Church women Jesuits!”
In the years after the French Revolution, France needed a lot of help to rebuild the country, particularly in educating poor children and girls of all social classes. So, Marie Madeleine started schools. Typically, she founded a boarding school for the daughters of wealthy parents and then used some of the school fees to open a day school for poor children. Many women caught her spirit and joined the new community. Soon, she had established convents and schools in many towns and cities in France, England, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium.
By the time of her death in 1858, the congregation had received Papal approval. If you’d like to read more about her life, you can visit the FCJ Sisters website or stop by the FCJ Centre behind the Cathedral and borrow a copy of her short biography. Sr. Madeleine Gregg wrote picture books to teach children and youth about Marie Madeleine’s life, published in 2020, that are available for sale at the FCJ Centre.
In 1882 Bishop Vital Grandin, OMI wrote to Mother Josephine Petit, Superior General of the Sisters. “I hope, Reverend Mother, that you will be willing to come to our aid by accepting a foundation in my poor diocese…” Mother Josephine Petit answered that plea, “Monseigneur, you ask for Sisters for your schools and your diocese in urgent need. The journey will be long, difficult, costly, and even dangerous…Your poverty does not permit you to pay our traveling expenses. You ask for sacrifices. Well, we will do it for God.”
The first Sisters left Liverpool, England on May 10, 1883. Four went to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and four went 40 miles further, to St. Laurent. With the Riel Rebellion and active shooting, Bishop Grandin sent the Sisters to Calgary, where they arrived on July 26, 1885. The Oblate priests handed over their house to the sisters, who opened St. Mary’s School five weeks later. Details about the journey to Canada and harrowing accounts of the early days in Saskatchewan can be found here.
One of these Sisters, Mother Mary Greene, was an extraordinary woman who seemed to take the work of establishing new schools and convents in stride. (There is a Calgary Catholic School named for her, too.) She was the first principal of St. Mary’s School and it was through her hard work and shrew negotiation that the Calgary Catholic schools were given equal funding with the non-Catholic schools… that both were funded as public schools.
They say that when Bishop Carroll visited rural areas within our Diocese, he kept encountering families with strong Catholic faith, devotions, and traditional practices, even though many of them were able to attend Mass only rarely. When he asked about how they were managing to keep the faith, the mothers often responded, “We are Mother Mary Greene Catholics!” They had attended St. Mary’s in Calgary as boarding students and their solid faith formation allowed them to carry on, even in the absence of the sacraments!
The first convent, created from the Oblate Father’s house, was soon too small. In 1892, the sandstone Sacred Heart Convent was built. The main floor has been preserved as “heritage rooms” with very interesting features to admire. In 1922, two large wings were added to the convent/boarding school: a large Chapel and the even larger 4-story addition. This beautiful sandstone building, situated between the Cathedral and the Elbow River, is now the FCJ Retreat and Conference Centre.
Written by Sr. Madeleine Gregg, fcJ for Faithfully. Originally published on The Faithfully on May, 4th 2021.
Please join us on Sunday, May 16, from 2:45 pm to 5 pm when the FCJ Centre will celebrate the Bicentennial of the Sisters with a Showcase of the spirit and work of the FCJ sisters around the world and a presentation of what goes on now at the FCJ Centre!