Jeanne LeBer, a witness for our time

2007-10-03

Today, October 3rd, is the anniversary of the death of an important woman in the history of our local Church, a great mystical figure of New France: Jeanne LeBer, who died at just 52 years of age.

Born in Ville Marie in 1662, 20 years after the city’s founding, Jeanne LeBer had a promising future in the new colony. The daughter of a rich merchant, related on her mother’s side to the famous LeMoyne brothers, she could look forward to a comfortable existence and the best marriage prospects possible. She decided on another lifestyle, that of prayer and seclusion.

At that time, Ville Marie was in the midst of rapid growth. Everything needed to be rethought, adapted and built. Jeanne was very conscious of that. Her goal was not to hide from the worries of the burgeoning colony. She remained close to these concerns all of her life by drawing closer to God.

In her early years, she learned to love God and pray to him. As with other children of that period, she witnessed the battles between the Iroquois and the French settlers. The inhabitants of Ville Marie were usually armed, ready to defend themselves in case of sudden attacks. Despite all of this, she decided early on to be an instrument of peace, which she accomplished by praying for peace in the colony.

In 1674, at the age of 12, she left Ville Marie for three years and went to study with the Ursuline Sisters in Québec. Along with her studies, she also learned contemplative prayer, the way the sisters themselves prayed. She also became proficient in sewing and embroidery.

Soon she divided her time between prayer and needlework. The embroideries of the liturgical vestments and ornaments she created and sewed were of great value. Some of her works are on display today at the Maison Saint-Gabriel.

When she returned, Jeanne LeBer continued to be drawn to a life of silence and solitude; prayer was becoming more and more important in her daily schedule. This led her to embrace a life of seclusion and prayer. Initially, she did so in her parents’ home where, for 15 years, she only left her room to go to Mass.

In 1695, Jeanne LeBer entered a state of total seclusion, occupying a small cell adjacent to the sanctuary in the chapel of the Congregation of Notre-Dame convent. There, she lived a very frugal lifestyle of prayer, sewing and embroidery, and making clothes for the poor. She slowly gave away her great fortune to help the needy, the Church and the Sisters of Marguerite Bourgeoys.

This radical lifestyle touches me in essential ways. Contemplative brothers and sisters help us to look beyond our present concerns. We must not think that they don’t care for the world and its people because they have chosen to live apart from it. Quite the contrary, their lifestyle invites us take another look at our own lives.

Today, as our society drives us toward consumerism, incessant activities and noise, the life of Jeanne LeBer is a welcome contradiction. She invites us to calm down, to focus on what is essential.

The vocation of Jeanne LeBer also reminds me how often Jesus prayed: at the Last Supper, during his Passion, on the Cross. He did not pray for himself but for his disciples, for their witness of unity. And he prayed for all those to whom his Word would be proclaimed; he prayed that they would believe.

We are now celebrating Jeanne LeBer Week. As we prepare to be part of the International Eucharistic Congress in Québec next June, I find it quite relevant that we take some time to reflect on the advantages of the spiritual life and Eucharistic adoration in order to hear God’s call better.

Jeanne LeBer still has something to tell us. Today, the Recluse Sisters follow her lifestyle and perpetuate her mission in two monasteries, one of which is located here in Montreal.

+ Jean-Claude Turcotte
Archbishop of Montreal

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