Montréal’s first school was built in what is now Old Montréal near the corner of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Saint-Paul. Precisely where is hard to say, because there are two commemorative plaques for this establishment, about 100 m apart (one on Rue Saint-Dizier and the other on Rue Le Royer)!
But we do know that the colony’s first school kids learned reading, writing and arithmetic in a former stable. In 1658, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, founder of Ville-Marie (now Montréal) granted Marguerite Bourgeoys—a layperson devoted to education—a stable that she turned into a school.
Bourgeoys spent months erecting the structure with the help of future students, and possibly carpenters and masons. The class was on the ground floor, where she had installed a fireplace, while the future teacher and her assistant of 12 years, Marguerite Picart, lived in the former pigeon loft, upstairs.
Looking for teachers
The school-stable opened on April 30, 1658. Since the colony was sparsely populated, with only a few children present in Ville- Marie since its founding 16 years earlier, it just accepted 5-to 9-year-olds. There are few records for the remainder of this first school year, explains Stéphan Martel, acting director of the Musée Marguerite-Bourgeoys. “We don’t even know if Marguerite Bourgeoys taught class there that spring.”
The next fall, Marguerite Bourgeoys, who anticipated a shortage of teachers, left the school in the hands of the young Picart and two nurses, returning to Troyes, France to hire more faculty. Bourgeoys returned to Montréal a year later with four recruits— pioneers of the future Congrégation de Notre-Dame.
The colony prospered over the years and the school-stable was no longer big enough to teach children of the colonists and Amerindians. In July 1662, Marguerite Bourgeoys bought a house and a small barn kitty-corner from the school.
“There is no indication that this house was used for classes, because in 1663, Marguerite housed 17 girls sent by the King of France to be married and populate the colony,” added Mr. Martel.
Using the June 1663 census, historians have concluded that Marguerite Bourgeoys’ school had at least 40 students that year. Until the mid-1660s, it was also coed— unusual for Catholics and Protestants at the time. We can only conclude that the demands of colonial living prevailed over religious precepts.
History lovers will be delighted by the information available to the public at the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum, the Centre d’histoire de Montréal and Archives de Montréal — along with topical exhibits, artifacts, open data and historic records to satisfy the most inquisitive visitors!