[Exposition] Women of Faith and Science

It is no coincidence that, contrary to all odds, the nuns began teaching science in French Canada in the 1830s and 1840s. female religious communities teach their protégés astronomy, botany, chemistry, and physics. At least they do it for the benefit of the privileged young girls they watch over.

However, most women who were subjected to this theocracy will live an adult life placed entirely in the shadow of religion and domestic life. Do we know to what extent science first made a nest in the skirts of the Church to be found there later to spread its wings?

The interest of religious communities in science may seem paradoxical in many ways. At the time of the inauguration of a new exhibition entitled Nuns, teachers and … scientists!Jean-François Royal, director general of the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Historical Ensemble, explains how science made its way, often with significant resources, to schools run by nuns. By 1840, he summed up, “the Protestant school curriculum was of better quality.” This school system allowed attendees better access to the realms of scientific knowledge. Therefore, the Catholic hierarchy has no choice but to adapt. It must follow, whether you like it or not, a movement initiated in favor of the sciences. Without renouncing faith.

As the teaching network grows, albeit timidly, congregations need to train science teachers. This allows some young women to develop knowledge and become pioneers. Everyone knows the botanist Marcelle Gauvreau, who first studied at the Mont-Sainte-Marie convent in Montreal. Some nuns are well-known scientists, such as Sister Estelle Lacoursière, who will establish the foundations of the Department of Biology and Ecology at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières.

From the 19thi century, to oppose the competition of the Protestant school, says Jean-François Royal, the nuns who brought scientific material from abroad. They will also be in charge of training in new scientific disciplines. “Some nuns are even going to study in Europe. Their congregations often acquire high-quality scientific equipment. The conservation of these objects has been especially well ensured by these communities, which allows us today to observe period scientific objects in perfect condition. And Jean-François Royal to show, as proof, a remarkable model of the solar system animated by a clever motion carried by bronze gears or even by a German microscope whose black lacquer has retained its dazzling brilliance.

A new exhibition

Scientific material of this type is also in large quantities in the archives of the Montreal Sulpicians, which are still inaccessible to the public since its closure in 2020 and despite a notice issued since then by the State of Quebec for ensure its integrity. The exhibition of the historic site of Marguerite-Bourgeoys, adjacent to the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal, is based instead on the rich archives of two other religious communities, these women: the Ursulines de Trois-Rivières and the sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Montreal. Starting Thursday, Nuns, teachers and scientists! complements the new permanent exhibition at the historic Marguerite-Bourgeoys site. This was deployed during the pandemic and was barely seen, due to health containment.

“Contrary to popular belief, science was taught to girls, at least in privileged backgrounds. However, when they finished their studies, they were destined to be housewives or nuns. Three rich trees presented in the form of a table to the visitors of this exhibition allow us to reconstruct the life options available to young girls in the years 1856, 1885 and 1970. The window of the horizons takes a long time to open to science …

However, emulation in favor of the sciences existed from the 19thi century, says Jean-François Royal. But its results cannot be realized with the occupation of new positions and new roles in society. That’s why we have to wait until the 70’s. “And again! Even today, as we can see, it is not always easy. That’s why we thought this exhibition was important. »

Anglo-Saxon women were the first to go to university in the land of maples. The exhibit presents the fate of some of these women, including Harriet Brooks, who will be researching at McGill University with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. The exhibition also briefly presents, among other pioneers, Irma LeVasseur, who became the first French-Canadian doctor to pursue a doctorate at Saint Paul University in Minnesota.

Science today and yesterday

In addition to many archival elements related to zoology, as well as geology, physics, chemistry, and botany, the exhibition offers a perspective on the involvement of women in current science.

For example, he presents the colorful testimony of Julie Roberge, a native of Nicolet and a professor at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico City. As a child, she says in a video recording, she was marked by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens volcano. On the day of an eruption, her father had explained at home that the ash produced by the eruption would go around the Earth quickly. To prove it, everyone had washed the car the same evening to better discover, the next morning, a thin layer of white soot. This experience marked her. She has become a specialist in internationally renowned volcanoes. Julie Roberge especially monitors the eruptions of Popocatépetl, a volcano south of Mexico City that woke up a few years ago.

In 1892, the young Marie Desjardins, who is supposed to be about 15 years old, has to answer her science exam. With a perfect letter, with a very firm hand, he explains. “Declining and extinct organisms,” their forms are modeled, “molecule by molecule, so to speak, by mineral elements” to become fossils. The past of the world is, therefore, before our eyes. Advances in evolution did not go hand in hand, as some might think too quickly.

The visitor can also see, right next to it, another exam paper, this one signed by Alixina Dion, also a teenager. Alixina wonders about astronomy. Everything is clear here too. The world does not revolve around the Earth. No, in this often narrow religious world, scientific minds were no flatter than Earth.

Religious, teachers and … scientists!

Marguerite-Bourgeoys Historic Site at 400 Saint-Paul Street East, Montreal. From April 28, 2022 to April 10, 2023.

To watch on video

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