DÉGRÈS, IRÈNE-MATHILDE, named Saint-Paul, provincial superior of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary; b. 13 Oct. 1854 in Cernay-en-Dormois, France, daughter of Jean Dégrès, an army bootmaker, and Bélissante Gérard; d. 27 Sept. 1921 in Limoilou ward, Quebec City.
Despite opposition from her mother and stepfather, Irène-Mathilde Dégrès decided to become a teacher, but she failed the required examinations. She was then driven from home by her stepfather, worked for a few years in Reims, and experimented with the contemplative life. Eventually she made her way, in 1877, to the Institut des Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie, which had been founded in Paris in 1860 by Jeanne-Marie Moisan and Father François-Jean-Baptiste Delaplace. This congregation devoted itself to protecting orphaned boys and girls and to teaching. Irène-Mathilde Dégrès, now known as Sister Saint-Paul, took her vows in October 1878, and in May 1880 she was appointed mistress of novices. As secretary to Delaplace, she also was involved in drafting the congregation’s constitutions. In 1895 she was sent to North America to visit the houses that had been founded in Illinois in 1889 and in Canada in 1892. This mission earned her an appointment as assistant general in 1896. When the first laws restricting the activities of religious congregations were passed in France, she was sent out to direct the Canadian province; she arrived at Quebec in 1903 with a group of 21 nuns.
The Canadian province had been started in 1892 in Saint-Éphrem-de-Tring, in the Beauce region of Quebec, at the request of the curé, Léon-Maxime Morisset, who wanted a congregation that could teach both boys and girls. The new provincial decided, however, to establish the provincialate in the congregation’s house in Limoilou, in the environs of Quebec City, which was a better location. When Mother Saint-Paul arrived, the congregation had three boarding schools that were unusual in including both boys and girls, and five mixed day schools. The instruction they provided was, for the most part, at the elementary level. The arrival of the new contingent in 1903 made it possible to open five more schools. Although the provincial regretted the misfortunes that “afflict poor France,” she added, in a letter to the superior general, “Providence is giving us . . . the opportunity to establish ourselves in Canada, to make us take our place among the best congregations in the country.” Indeed, Mother Saint-Paul was approached in 1904 to take on responsibility for a school of home economics in Saint-Pascal, in the Kamouraska region, where the congregation was operating a school. However, because she lacked qualified staff, and recognized the competencies of the Congregation of Notre-Dame, she had to decline the responsibility.
In 1905 Mother Saint-Paul decided to open a noviciate in Limoilou. This move would involve a difficult negotiation to close the existing one in Saint-Éphrem-de-Tring, “where the novices,” in her view, “have no religious guidance whatsoever.” It would require a visit from the mother general in 1912 to close it. In 1907 Mother Saint-Paul had managed to have the transfer of the corporate seat of her congregation’s Canadian province to Limoilou legally recognized. Her correspondence shows what a hard task that was. The mixed classes were overcrowded, some having as many as 78 to 84 children. Accommodating both boys and girls necessitated doubling the number of staff in the three boarding schools. The integration of the French nuns posed a problem. “It takes at least a year to get used to the ways of the country,” she commented. “There are teachers who are far from strong in their educational background and teaching methods. Eventually this [weakness] is noticed and it is not helpful for us.” “There are so many things to settle in order that our French and Canadian sisters can blend together as perfectly as possible.” It should be noted that a third of the French nuns would eventually return to France. Many Canadian women felt called to the congregation – more than 150 in 20 years. To justify to the French authorities the fact that most of these women were admitted without a dowry, the provincial told them, “This is the way it is in all communities in Quebec.” However, after appointing a Canadian superior, Mother Saint-Paul began to “regret” this move, and saw it as “a lesson not to put a Canadian at the head of any charitable organization for a long time!”
In 1914, because of the war, Mother Saint-Paul had to take over the development of her province almost single-handedly. She managed it prudently and with a firm hand. One of her schools was requisitioned in October 1918 for the care of victims of the Spanish influenza. When illness forced her to give up her position in 1920, after six successive terms of office, the Canadian province of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary had 20 houses and 178 nuns. She died on 27 Sept. 1921. Mother Saint-Paul had left a distinct mark on her congregation by maintaining very strong ties with France. And yet it developed mainly in Canada. Not until 1938 would a Canadian, Marie-Thérèse Dionne, named Sainte-Eugénie, lead the province; she would become superior general nine years later.
Arch. Départementales, Marne (Châlons-en-Champagne, France), État civil, Cernay-en-Dormois, 13 oct. 1854. Arch. des Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie (Beauport, Qué.), Corr. externe de mère Saint-Paul, 1903–20; Corr. interne de mère Saint-Paul, 1904–19; Lettres circulaires de mère Saint-Paul; Lettres du fondateur, F.-J.-B. Delaplace, aux religieuses; Listes des Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie depuis la fondation au Canada; Procès-verbaux du conseil général, 1882–1960 (copies); Procès-verbaux du conseil provincial, 1903–46; “Racines SSCM” (bulletins dactylographiés, no.18 (octobre 1992) et no.20 (novembre 1993); Rapport fait au jubilé de diamant du père fondateur. Guy Laperrière, Les congrégations religieuses: de la France au Québec, 1880–1914 (2v. parus, Sainte-Foy, Qué., 1996–?), 2. R[ené] Piacentini, Un esclave de la Divine Majesté: F. J.-B. Delaplace, de la Congrégation du Saint-Esprit, fondateur de la Congrégation des Sœurs Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie, 1825–1911 (Beauport et Montgeron, France, 1952). La révérende mère Saint-Paul de la Congrégation des Sœurs Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie, 1854–1921 (Paris, 1922). Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie, Cinquante ans de vie canadienne: 1892–1942; l’Institut des Sœurs Servantes du Saint-Cœur de Marie effeuille ses souvenirs aux rayons d’un jubilé d’or ([Beauport, 1944]).