Touring Montreal convents in 1980 I found two portraits of Marguerite Bourgeoys, Canada’s first uncloistered teaching nun and foundress of the Congregation Notre Dame. The first, a death portrait, painted by Pierre Leber in 1700 depicts a fierce, determined character. The second, more popular version dates from the 1960’s when the Order commissioned an update that rendered the stern visage into a softer, rounder, happier countenance. Giving voice to the first became my task.
The biography I imagined for Marguerite begins, “I am Marguerite” and ends with the phrase, “I am root black left after rain.” The work describes Marguerite’s experience, arriving in Ville Marie in 1640 without official sanction yet determined to found a religious order, in a context of patriarchal resistance and physical hardship. In my creative process, I photographed myself as Marguerite as depicted in Leber’s death painting. The white cowl, and black scarf buffeted outside sounds and directed my gaze forward. The dark robes weighed on me. I remember Sister Quigley, beginning my photographic tour of the stone barn crypt with the words, “Don’t step off the path, the ground is uneven.” This phrase became an unspoken mantra throughout the making of Marguerite.