Jeanne Mance, co-founder of Montréal, founder and director of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (baptised 12 November 1606 in Langres, France; died 18 June 1673 in Montréal, QC). Mancewas the business head behind a utopian missionary settlement on Montréal Island in 1642. She recruited wealthy sponsors in France and became the settlement’s treasurer, director of supplies and hospital director. When the nascent colony was under threat, she offered hospital funds to raise troops, which allowed the settlement to survive. Mance not only co-founded Montréal, but also played a prominent public role in what would become one of the world’s great cities.

Medic and Missionary

Daughter of an attorney at Langres in the Champagne province, Jeanne Mance is thought to have developed nursing skills working with charitable local societies during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). A famous portrait portrays her as a beautiful young woman with doe-like eyes and flowing hair. She was not drawn to marriage, preferring to emulate the laywomen and Ursuline nuns who had founded a school and hospital at Québec in 1639; she was also inspired by a cousin who was a missionary priest. Clergymen helped secure introductions to devout circles at the French court. She also met Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve and other members of the Society of Notre-Dame of Montréal, which had acquired Montréal Island with a view to turning it into a missionary hub for converting Aboriginal people to Catholicism. Their plan was to push westward past the existing settlement at Québec and set up a wilderness mission astride the trade routes of the powerful Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).

Fundraiser and Organizer

An eloquent speaker, Mance inspired confidence in potential donors and colonists. A late addition to the Society as it was preparing to sail from La Rochelle in 1641, she placed the visionary group on a more solid footing. She convinced them to send a prospectus of their project to Angélique de Bullion (widow of a French finance minister) and to other wealthy Parisian ladies and gentlemen. In consequence, donations more than doubled, and the Company of Montréal expanded from 8 members to 38, including 9 women. Mance herself — at that stage of her life an ascetic who lived on bread and water — paid four successive visits to the lavish mansion of Madame de Buillion, the venture’s leading donor, who commissioned Mance to found a hospital.

The Mission at Montréal Island

In May 1642, Mance and her companions embarked on Montréal Island, where they pitched tents and began living in the woods. Fifty-five of them (including 10 women) remained on the Island as winter fell. The next year Mance set up a small hospital within the fort’s palisades, which quickly attracted ailing Wendat (Huron), who were allied with the French. They became catechumens as well as patients of this useful mystic who possessed her own lancets, syringes, and pharmacological instruments. Some beds had to be reserved for French settlers wounded by the tomahawks of Haudenosaunee resisting French encroachment on their trade routes.

Founder and Defender

Contemporaries acknowledged Mance’s vital role in this early chapter of Canadian history (although later accounts have not always recognized her importance). Seventeenth-century historian Dollier de Casson described Mademoiselle Mance and Governor de Maisonneuve as co-founders of Montréal. Mance was the colony’s official treasurer, director of supplies, and hospital director. She took it upon herself to sail back across the Atlantic in 1649, where she revived waning French support for the settlement. Most importantly, it was Mance’s idea to use her hospital’s endowment to recruit more men to protect the town. When the outlying Jesuit mission of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons collapsed in 1649, Montréal became the front line in the Franco-Iroquois conflict. After more than a third of the colonists had been slain, fear drove the survivors to abandon their houses and live in the fort. By mid-1651, there were only 17 militiamen left to face 200 Haudenosaunee warriors. “Everyone was reduced to extremities,” Mance wrote. “One spoke of nothing but leaving the country.” She persuaded Governor Maisonneuve to visit her benefactor in France and secure permission to use the hospital’s endowment to raise French troops. He agreed, warning her he would not return if he failed to get reinforcements; but the benefactor consented, and relief arrived in 1653. Dollier de Casson asserted that Mance’s actions to raise troops saved the settlement.

Legacy

As the little settlement grew, its hospital flourished. In 1659, Mance made a trip to France and recruited three Hospital Sisters of Saint-Joseph to help at the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, which she had founded. It soon grew to three stories and became a much-loved institution. Today, the original wooden palisades are long gone, but patients still arrive in search of timely medical care. A massive metal statue of Jeanne Mance stands guard outside the Hotel-Dieu, testimony to the founder of Montréal’s first hospital and — even more strikingly — to a woman rare in the annals of nations, who co-founded one of our great cities.