Have you ever had a saint crush? I’ve had several since joining the Catholic Church. Saint Marie of the Incarnation is my latest saint crush. This woman grew up in France in the 1600s and came to Canada as a missionary. Also known as Mere Marie de l’Incarnation, she was a mystic who had a deep and extraordinary relationship with Jesus. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her as I researched my Canadian Saints Kids Activity Book.
Marie’s Early Life
Marie was born in the fall of 1599 in Tours, France. Her parents were bakers, and from them she learned about the Catholic faith and running a business. Even as a child, Marie had visions of Jesus. At age 7, she felt him calling her to devote herself entirely to Him. She began to spend more time praying and reading devotional books than playing with children her own age.
As a teenager, Marie mentioned to her mother that she wanted to become a nun. However, shyness kept her from bringing the topic up again. When she didn’t say anything about it, her mother assumed she’d forgotten about it and encouraged her to marry. To please her parents, Marie wed Claude Martin, a local silk merchant, when she was seventeen.
Theirs was not a happy marriage. Marie had a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. And Claude soon realized that Marie had another love: Jesus. Although Marie was devoted to her husband, her love for Jesus came first. She gave birth to a son, whom she named Claude. She was only nineteen when her husband died, leaving her with his bankrupt business.
Marie liquidated the business and moved back in with her parents. Living in the attic, she spent her time praying and meditating, and taking in sewing to support herself. Her family encouraged her to remarry, but Marie made a private vow of chastity. She wished to withdraw from the world to devote her time to Jesus, but she couldn’t leave her infant son.
Then her sister and brother-in-law asked her to help them with their household and business. She moved into their busy home, and the business prospered under her care. Marie managed to maintain a deep prayer life, often praying as she went about her chores, without anyone around her realizing she was praying.
Becoming Marie of the Incarnation
When her son Claude was 12, Marie could no longer put off her desire to be a nun. Leaving Claude with her sister, she joined the local Ursuline convent and took the name Marie of the Incarnation. It was not an easy separation. Marie wrote, “I left no goods on entering religion, but I felt I left more in leaving my son whom I loved so much, than if I had given up all possessions imaginable.” Claude also tried to protest the separation, gathering his friends and standing outside the convent shouting for Marie.
At the convent, Marie felt Jesus giving her a new calling. In a vision, He showed her a land of vast mountains and valleys. “You must go there to build a house for Jesus and Mary,” He told her. Marie’s cloistered state and lack of finances seemed to make this calling impossible, but Marie kept praying and waiting. When her spiritual director mentioned that he wanted to go to Canada as a missionary, Marie shared her own calling with him.
Then a wealthy widow, Madame de la Peltrie, stepped forward as the foundress of a mission to Canada. Now, Marie’s family opposed her going. Her parents had passed away, but her sister said she would no longer take care of Claude. He heard of her plans to leave and met her on her way to the ship. One can only imagine what they said at their last meeting, but Marie was firm in her calling to go, and something in her words or actions changed Claude’s mind. They parted on good terms.
Missionary in Canada
With Madame de la Peltrie and two other nuns, Marie made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada. In Quebec, she was given the use of a two-room house as the convent. Here, she and her sisters started a school for the French and Huron girls. They learned three Aboriginal languages and often gave food, clothing, and other goods to the Hurons who came to them as refugees from the Iroquois attacks.
Life in Canada in the 1640s was not easy. Winters were long and cold. The settlers relied on food and supplies from France. Iroquois attacks were frequent. The Ursulines built a larger convent two years after their arrival, but it burned to the ground only a few years later and they had to rebuild again. An earthquake hit in 1663, causing landslides and rockslides and other damage.
From within the walls of her convent, Marie provided not only spiritual advice to the colony but also business advice. The governor and other leaders frequently visited the little convent to consult with her about colony affairs. She was acquainted with St. Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, as well as St. Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary and martyr. Father Jerome Lalemant, the Jesuit superior, served as her spiritual director. She became known as Mother Marie or Mere Marie de l’incarnation.
Marie wrote thousands of letters back to France, including many to her son. Claude had finished his schooling with the Jesuits and then, after a brief period of wondering what to do with himself, joined the Benedictines. He became a monk and frequently consulted his mother about spiritual matters, asking her about her faith life. Her letters to him are full of love both for him and for Jesus. Claude kept all her letters and compiled the first biography of his mother after her death.
Lessons from St. Marie of the Incarnation
Mere Marie de l’incarnation died in the spring 1672 at the age of seventy-two. She was beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. In 2014, St. Francis canonized her with St. Francois de Laval through the process of equipollent canonization, where no miracle is required. Her feast day is April 30th.
Saint Marie of the Incarnation is the first saint my new book, Canadian Saints Kids Activity Book. Reading her accounts of her relationship with Jesus is like catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. While her life certainly wasn’t always easy, and she went through dry periods in her faith too, she had times of deep, mystical communion with God and Jesus that left me with a hunger for that too.
In St. Marie’s life, I see a model of patience. It would be easy to think that, since she knew God’s will for her in a concrete way, and had intimate conversations with Him, her life would be easy or her goals would be accomplished quickly. Instead, St. Marie’s life is full of periods of waiting.
She had to wait for her son to be old enough that she could enter the convent (and even then, she was criticized for leaving him “so young”). She had to wait for others to come alongside her in her mission to Canada. In Canada, she faced even more hardships and struggles. Yet through this all, she had a sense of joy in knowing that she was where God wanted her to be, and He would accomplish everything He’d told her in His good time.