January
18th 2009
Le 18 Janvier, 1709

Posted under: American history, captivity, childhood, O Canada, women's history

Le 18 Janvier M. De Vaudreuil nous a donné une petite Angloise nommée Esther pour être a Nre pensionnaire elle payera sa pension sur a pied de 40 Ecus.

Translation:  “January 18th M. de Vaudreuil brought us a young English girl named Esther. She paid 40 ecus for her board.”

Today is the 300th anniversary of Esther Wheelwright’s matriculation at the Ursuline school for girls in Quebec.  She was twelve years old.  She had been taken from her natal family more than five years earlier at the age of 7 in an Abenaki raid on Wells, Maine in August of 1703.  Her admission to the school signified the loss of her Abenaki family and kin, who had adopted her, as well as her lifelong alienation from the Protestantism she was born into.  “M. Vaudreuil” refers to Madame Vaudreuil (despite the masculine-appearing title abbreviation “M.”), the wife of the Governor of New France, who enrolled her own daughter at the school later that year as well as paid the expenses for other girls who appear to have been English captives.  In the decades surrounding the turn of the century, the school served Indian, English-born, and French students alike.  Although the Marquise de Vaudreuil was an enthusiastic patron, other Quebecois in the local community also paid the fees on behalf of several English captive girls. 

Sister Marie-de-Jésus, "Arrival of the Ursulines and the Sisters of Charity in New France" (1928)

The Ursulines were a counter-reformation women’s order who are comparable to the Jesuits both in their zeal for founding New World missions and their dedication to educating young people for the preservation and spread of Roman Catholicism.  The school in Quebec taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the core of the experience was religious education.  The first day of school is a significant and usually memorable day in the lives of all children, but Esther could not have known in 1709 the role this school would play in her life.  Esther must have excelled as a student in spite of the fact that French was her third language, because she declared her intention to become a religieuse as a young teenager.  Except for a short time at the Ursuline convent school in Trois Rivieres, she remained at the convent for the rest of her life as a teacher in the first school she ever attended. 

We can’t know what her feelings were on the first day of classes three hundred years ago, but I am certain that in retrospect, the adult Esther looked upon her entrance in the convent school as providential, perhaps moreso than the day she was taken captive, or the day she arrived at the Abenaki village.  Although both of those days were steps along the path toward fulfilling God’s plan for her, Esther’s first day of school was the beginning of her life as an Ursuline nun, so she may have seen it as the first day in which she understood her calling as an Ursuline and as an educator.

How many of you felt so at home on your first day of school that you ended up wanting to return to the classroom again and again as a teacher?

Image:  Sister Marie-de-Jesus, “Arrival of the Ursulines and the Sisters of Charity in New France,” 1928.  Photo from the Virtual Museum of Canada.

8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Le 18 Janvier, 1709”

  1. Indyanna on 18 Jan 2009 at 10:50 am #

    Quel fete! Bloggin’ from packed-powder! This book is pre-ordered for my syllabus the day it comes out.

    I still have the picture somewhere, of me in a goofy (if predictively-tweed) jacket and non-matching flannel *shorts*!, with a still goofier clip-on bow tie if I’m remembering it. Sitting next to Lea, the literal girl next door–who got away! Nah, I was an outlier of a hard steer to break to the routines of the ecole. But Miss Goldsmith did what she could those first days and months. A lesser teacher would’ve sliced my ears off and sent me straight to the discard pile.

  2. Susan on 18 Jan 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    I don’t think it was first grade when I began to feel at home at school (the Lycee Francais was too strict for my free spirit) but by second grade, I knew how to read and I didn’t think there was anything better in the world…

  3. Clio Bluestocking on 18 Jan 2009 at 2:30 pm #

    Not the first day, which was a bit shellshocking since I was about 2, but definitely the summer between 1st and 2nd grade (when we had a new baby and a very stressed mommy in the house) I realized that learning was my favorite and most liberating activity. Libraries and schools became my second home.

    Little Esther had a pretty interesting life — and is making an interesting book, too, right?

  4. hysperia on 18 Jan 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    What a wonderful story! I hadn’t heard of Esther.

    I adored school before my first day. My best friend was one year older and went off first. I have a very clear recollection of sitting on my front lawn, watching her go and longing to join her. She shared what she’d done at school with me and took on the role of “teacher” with me which was sometimes fun and sometimes not!

    My earliest and best memories are of being in school. The smell of poster paint and tempera, the smell of pencils and shavings, the bits of timber in the newsprint on which I learned to write that were capable of tripping pencils onto another part of the page; erasers; the wax on the floors and the stuff the janitor used to absorb spills. I went to a convent school situated on Lake Ontario. It was a very, very old building and the nuns kept chickens and bunnies. The floorboards creaked and the wooden desks were connected by wooden runners on the floor.

    I’ve heard horror stories from others about being taught by nuns but I don’t have any. More than a couple of them were batshit crazy but none of them were mean. I worshipped and adored them and I think that, even then, I was attracted to a life lived independent from men.

    I did enter the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph when I was nineteen. It didn’t work out, but I wouldn’t be surprised that part of the reason was that modernization of the religious orders resulted in the loss of some of the beauty. Of course, my understanding of the life was also romanticized. But those women gave me a love of learning, of books, of mystery and of life that I haven’t lost, though I no longer practice that religion.

    Thanks for reminding me!

  5. Profane on 18 Jan 2009 at 8:58 pm #

    As a Mainer with Abenaki ancestry I always find that sort of stuff fascinating!

    I taught at Bates, where I got my undergraduate degree, for a semester when I was fresh out of graduate school. It was a joy, although I got ripped in the student evaluations – one of the best things that ever happened to improve my teaching.

  6. Historiann on 18 Jan 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    Thanks for all of your memories of school. hysperia–I guarantee you, it’s a trip back into Catholic schools in the early and mid-20th C (or at least as I imagine they were) if you visit the Quebec archbishop’s HQ today. I think it has something to do with the smell of the floor wax and cleaning solutions and their chemical interaction with 19th C wood and stone buildings. I grew up in a mainline protestant church, and there’s a similar smell that permeates those institutions–the institutional cleaning fluids mixed with decades of potluck suppers and coffee, crossed with a whiff of diaper pail and graham crackers from the Nursery.

    When I was a college student, a woman in her 30s walked in the dorm and to my surprise, breathed in a great breath of air, and savored it. She explained that she was an alumna of the college, and she wanted to smell the dorms because the smell of them was the same after 15 years. I thought she was a bit mad at the time, but now I know exactly what she meant. They do have the same smell, and that smell is very particular to those dorms.

  7. Matt L on 19 Jan 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    I actually didn’t really like school until I went to college. I was a fair to middling high school student in the subjects I enjoyed (history, english, biology) and wretched in the ones I did not (Chemistry and all sorts of math, but especially geometry).

    But I had such a great time at college (even studying!) that I knew I wanted to go back and teach someday. I want the students in my classes, department and university to have the same opportunities that I did.

    Thanks for another great post!

  8. Pope orders doctrinal investigation of nuns’ leadership organization : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 19 Apr 2009 at 8:56 am #

    [...] choice outside of marriage, motherhood, and/or prostitution.  I think the youngest sisters in the convent where I’ve been doing research for the past few years are in their 70s, and the girls’ school there has only lay teachers now.  Within a few [...]

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