18 May 2020

Time 8 minutes

Jean-François Royal, the man behind today’s Marguerite Bourgeoys

Jean-François Royal, the man behind today’s Marguerite Bourgeoys

“Our newest vision? Yes, we’re in the middle of making it a reality. Maybe not as fast as I would like, but it’s getting there.” The microcosm that is Montreal involves a lot of consultations and the seamless intermeshing of several services. “We have put several steps in place in order to realize our projects as best as we possibly can,” says Jean-François, who left his post as director of the Nicolet Museum of World Religions to make his big return to Old Montreal in Fall 2018 with an aplomb and a reputation that precedes him.

Taking his leave to make a big return

After a 15 years’ absence from Old Montreal – in those days, he worked one day a week at Marguerite Bourgeoys while also working at Château Ramezay - he has returned, pleased with what he has found. “The neighbourhood is magnificent! There was a real effort made here to attract people to Old Montreal and to really make it flourish. Now, it’s my turn to help bring new people here.” Proactive and brimming with ideas, Jean-François is the man behind the recent identity change of two of our important buildings: the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum and the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel have now become “The Marguerite-Bourgeoys Historical Site”.

Creating a space for discussion

“The museum is a place where one can discuss societal issues. Marguerite Bourgeoys, in this regard, is a historical figure who left her touch on myriad subjects (immigration and its contribution to the host community, the role of education, and woman’s place in society – one of history’s most important female figures!). The museum should incite reflection, maybe passion in some cases, but it should always allow a free space for people to question. If that happens in our museum, I will have done my job.” He further explains: “We even took a survey this past summer – 25% of our clientele is generated from religious tourism; a very good reason to come here. But 75% entered our museum by chance, because they found the chapel to be charming. We have decided to lean into that, and so today we are offering a contemporary and bold museum production”.

Changing to reinforce their true essence

His actions may be controversial to some, but he is used to it. But we can be sure that, having been given a mission, he will be determined to see it to completion alongside his team. “I have been hired to manage a site, and that is what I am here to do. As for the name, an alarm was raised, the process was already underway, the internal team was ready for this change, and we underwent an exercise in determination – finding out who we truly were. It was apparent that Marguerite Bourgeoys was still who we were at the core, and that she must stay in our name. Then, there was also the heritage aspect that we wanted to conserve.”

Exploring all opportunities

“Marguerite Bourgeoys does not mean anything to tourists from abroad, and not much more to Quebeckers either. We decided to center everything around who she really was. That is to say, an entrepreneur, a visionary, and a woman who had a rather revolutionary view on education. Creating a community of non-cloistered women in 17th-century France was impossible, so she came and did it here!”

Adapting, just as Marguerite did

Before the introduction of beautification projects and the identity overhaul of the site, the whole team was disappointed that they could not open to the local and tourist public as planned during the Gens du Vieux 5@7 Evening. With the universal confinement in effect, everyone worked remotely. “The team adapted well,” Jean-François Royal assured us. “Everyone adapted. It certainly was frustrating, but there are just some things that we cannot control.” As director, he led by example. “There’s no use in getting angry or discouraged. I’ve found that I have a high level of resiliency. We are going to be the first museum to show a non-conventional art exhibit, that’s the bottom line! Let’s go!”

Securing the new brand

For the new initiatives they have begun to put in place, like their traveling book store, they have looked for ways to launch the event while still working around the constraints of the quarantine. “Line, who is the communications and cultural action manager, has had this great idea to offer a surprise book at a flat rate, which we choose according to whatever interests the recipient communicates to us. It’s a great way to give a gift and to perpetuate Marguerite Bourgeoys’ educational mission,” states Jean-François, who admitted that he’s highly looking forward to finding out what surprise copy awaits him in his office! “I asked for a Quebecois novel. In general, I like science-fiction novels. Isaac Asimov, Orwell; I love that universe, it makes me nostalgic (he laughs with a resonant boom). I have always loved fantastical worlds.”

Meditation evenings and a photographer-led discovery of the neighbourhood through new photographic angles are among some of these pushed back activities. “But things will start moving again,” Jean-François insists.

Maintaining the Chapel’s mission

“We are still running the chapel, which is not a negligible task, but that led us to the idea of unifying the two entities into one,” Jean-François Royal explains, wishing to reassure the stability of the footprint and mission of the chapel, neighbouring Accueil Bonneau. “The name change has no effect on the chapel’s role. The guys at Accueil Bonneau may still come to find refuge, warmth, and comfort, come winter or summer. For us, it’s a done partnership, it’s assumed. The Chapel must remain a place of refuge for people of the neighbourhood, as well as the Montreal populace at large. Cultural, social, and religious life, and its celebration, all make up the chapel’s essence.”

Improving the image, liberating history

“The biggest surprise I’ve found since taking up this position is probably having truly discovered Marguerite Bourgeoys. I saw her through a stereotypical lens, just a religious preacher, but that is not at all the case! She was a woman of action, a modern woman who questioned and questioned her role, her place in religion. We shouldn’t forget that, during the rise of Protestantism in Europe, there was an emergence of a new Christianity and she wanted to take an active part in it! Oftentimes, for Saints, we talk about how he or she had a vision, but not Marguerite Bourgeoys. She saw a statue of the Virgin Mary, it touched her – according to the writings – and she decided to inspire the way she led her own life after her. That’s it. Marguerite Bourgeoys was a pragmatic woman.”

Rethinking the name and the museum experience

For the new identity, the pathway through the museum has been completely reimagined. The celebrated collection of dolls dating back to the 60’s has been replaced. Everything has been modernized to highlight the boldness, courage, and dynamism of Marguerite Bourgeoys, with a tour that is resolutely more contemporary and much easier to connect with. “Osez Marguerite was developed around the fact that she was an entrepreneur, not just a religious woman. Her aims were to help her neighbours, but her heritage can be summed up in one phrase: “One should go to where there is need.” The new tour is organized around the action verbs: dare, educate, and organize. Because those verbs represent her best.”

Putting humanity first

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but for me, human culture meditation is the best. The Chapel, for example, is at human level: we can experience it best in person. Visiting virtually is fine, but it lacks authenticity, it lacks the feeling,” the director sighs, before exclaiming. “Still, I don’t want to reveal the surprise, but the last room is really... surprising! We are showing a slide presentation and, suffice it to say, we’re making a statement! The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel is THE most photographed and sketched building in Montreal. It’s true!” he cries with laughter. “It is one of the first built, so we have a head-start over the others!”

Montreal’s anniversary, #historiquementrésilient

This year, we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of Marguerite Bourgeoys’ life as well as the 378th anniversary of Montreal. “Yes, she was a cofounder of Montreal, in the sense that she participated in Montreal’s development and she had this crazy project of constructing a chapel. Which she did!” The museum houses a work whose story also speaks of a pandemic, history, recovery, and resilience. As he recovered from typhus, an epidemic that stemmed from Irish immigrants fleeing the famine of their country and which was devastating Montreal, Bishop Bourget spoke three vows that he addressed to the Virgin during his Ministry on the subject of the 1847 epidemic:

- Promote pilgrimage to Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours;

- Replace the statue given to Marguerite Bourgeoys by Facamp, which had been stolen in 1831;

- And have painted, and displayed in the chapel “an ex voto tableau representing Typhus attempting to enter the city, but stopped at the door by your (the Virgin’s) powerful protection”.

We would say that during Montreal’s 378th spring is a great time to remember this somewhat tempestuous and difficult past. A past that shows the Montreal spirit of trying one’s hand at a problem and relentlessly tackling new challenges together, united as one.

Photo and Tableau Credits:

Photography 1 : Jean-François Royal, photo credit Mathieu Rivard

Le Typhus, Attributed to Théophile Hamel, c.1848

Collections from the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Historical Site

Photography 2 : Normand Rajotte

Photography 3 : Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, photo credit Ariane Giraldeau