April 30 – James the Apostle; Mary of the Incarnation

The Apostle James (d. 44), brother of John the Evangelist, is sometimes called “James the Greater” to distinguish him from lesser Jameses. His real name was Jacob but everybody calls him James, for reasons that don’t bear going into. James and John were among Jesus’ first disciples, and are presented as a bit headstrong in the Gospels. Their mother was a little overbearing as well—she audaciously asked Jesus to let them sit in places of honor in His kingdom. Whether this explains why they were so ready to leave home and follow Him when called, we do not know.

James was martyred under Herod Agrippa, becoming the first Apostle to wear that crown. It is said that as he went to his death, one of his false accusers begged for his forgiveness. James forgave him and wished him peace, and the man confessed Christ, and was beheaded along with the apostle. Legend says that after James’ death, his body was placed by the angels in a rudderless, unattended boat, and floated to Spain. Rocks grew up around it (that part of Spain was known for its particularly fecund rocks), and his relics were found centuries later. They are now housed in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia[1]. El Camino de Santiago (“the Way of St. James”), the traditional pilgrimage route across northern Spain to the church, was one of the most well-trodden pilgrimages of the middle ages, and remains popular in our own day. Indeed, according to the guest log, 192,488 pilgrims completed the trip in 2012. James is, of course, the patron saint of Spain. And oyster fishers.

Mary of the Incarnation (1599–1672) was widowed at nineteen, and after making her late husband’s floundering business into a profitable concern and selling it, she returned with her young son to her parents’ home, paying the rent by selling embroidery (presumably hers). In 1620 she had a mystical vision in which she was first shown all her faults and sins, then immersed in Christ’s blood. Immediately she desired to live a monastic life, so she went to work for her brother’s shipping company for ten years.

In 1631 she entered the Ursuline convent in Tours, leaving her son with her sister (mother and son later healed this separation epistolarily). In 1634 she had a vision or two telling her to go to New France (Canada) with a companion to be named later and help establish the Catholic faith there. Eager to begin this new undertaking, she remained at the convent another five years. At that point she was introduced to Marie-Madeline de Chauvigny de la Peltrie, who would have come sooner but had trouble fitting her name into her valise. Mary recognized her as the woman in her dream, and together the two set out to Canada by way of Paris and Dieppe. In Paris they signed a contract to not upset the Jesuits running the mission, and Marie-Madeline signed away her life savings to support them. At Dieppe they were joined by Sister Cécile de Sainte-Croix, an Ursuline who had been waiting for an opportunity to live in squalor in the woods of an infant nation.

Once in Quebec City, they founded the first school in what would become Canada (there already being schools in what wouldn’t become Canada), educating both colonist and native (First Nations) girls. They also founded the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec, a Canadian national historic site (well, it is now—back then the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was still a far-off dream). Despite contracting a liver ailment, Mary taught at the school, led the other nuns, solicited funds, and in her free time wrote reams of letters as well as dictionaries of, and books in, both Algonquin and Iriquois. Her letters are one of our best sources for the history of that part of Canada at that time.

[1] “Santiago” = “Santo Iago” = “Saint James.”