The Redemption of Lydia Longley

Within about five minutes half of her family had been slain.  Lydia Longley, aged 20, entered into the strange journey set for her by divine Providence in the quiet morning heat of July 27, 1694, a quiet broken by the lulling sound of cattle lowing as they seemed to wander free from their customary confinement.  A quiet broken by the sound of the tomahawk striking down her father as he thought to move the cattle back.  A quiet broken with a war cry and the sound of running as Abenaki warriors rushed through the farm and struck down the entire Longley family apart from Lydia and her two younger siblings, Betty and John.  Victims and prisoners of a war for New England and the destiny of a Continent.  And yet, it proved to be a quiet broken by a God who wills our good, even through the evil that men might will for one another.

The Longleys lived a little over a mile north of Groton, Massachusetts.  Lydia’s mother had died nearly a decade earlier, and her father William had taken as a second wife Deliverance Crispe to assist him in raising the children; several more had been born, the youngest was a year old in 1694.  Their farmstead marked the limits of British and Protestant culture, a point on a border stretching along the north east quarter of the current Commonwealth, and skirting the coastal corner of New Hampshire and southern Maine.

Since the arrival of the first Puritan Longleys half a century early, the family consistently moved away from the maritime center of the Bay Colony into the wilderness.  The Longleys were staunch Congregationalists—common folk of the stock who understood their exceptional role in continuing the principles of the Reformation.  They were men, in the words of Puritan historian Edward Johnson, who “for this their great enterprise counted as so many cracked brains: but Christ will make all the earth know the wisdom He hath endued them with shall overtop all the human policy of the world.”  In a word, the Longleys were not simple pioneers, but militant Protestants, political and religious zealots confident of their righteous cause.

The Indians that attacked Groton in 1694 were not some indiscriminant raiders.  They were warriors of the Abenaki nation that stretched through Acadia—the territory between New England and New France, claimed by both.  The raid on Groton was the culmination of nearly a year of diplomacy at its most critical moments undertaken by the Jesuits Fr. Vincent Bigot and Fr. Louis Pierre Thury, who had seen the territory and political autonomy of the Abenakis being eroded by colonial English incursions and understood that the nascent Catholic faith of the region was threatened by the new settlements.  Also, critical in the discussions was an Abenaki prince, who had just returned from the Court of Louis XIV.  The raid would be one military extension of the many wars initiated by the Sun King.  The chief military allies of France in the New World were the various Indian tribes south of Québec and Montréal.  Indeed, French military power rested almost entirely on the participation of the Indians.  With the guidance of a small group of French men—including Fr. Sebastian Râle, newly arrived in Norridgewock, Maine—the Abenaki Indians united their sundry tribes gathered representative warriors and moved men and supplies over 250 miles to strike at targets along the frontier.  Nearly 300 elite Indian troops undertook the campaign with fewer than half a dozen French and Canadian companions.  The most effective moment in the campaign occurred on July 18th at the English plantation of Oyster River (near modern Durham, New Hampshire), which was successfully attacked and ruined the settlement.  The first two recorded Masses celebrated on New Hampshire soil were offered by Fr. Bigot and Fr. Thury for their Indians immediately after the battle.  The group of warriors that captured Lydia and her siblings were a unit from this larger military force which determined to continue to advance for another fortnight.

After the raids, some 40 or more prisoners were taken north.  At some point in the journey, Lydia’s sister Betty perished.  As was the custom, men and women were separated.  (Lydia’s brother John was trained as a brave and spent four years with the Abenakis living freely and learning their language and customs.  He was eventually—against his own desire—ransomed by family from Boston and sent back to New England).  Lydia’s journey with the small war-band took her up the Nashua river into New Hampshire, thence along the Merrimack river across to the feet of the White Mountains and into Maine, and finally to Ville-Marie (Montréal).  Travelers of this route now find it charming or invigorating.  For Lydia, the woods and rivers held no such comfort.  Beneath her own personal suffering was a vivid Puritan imagination, which from its earliest conception had seen New England as—in expression of William Bradford, “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.”  But then, as William Stoughton, chief justice during the Salem witch trials had said, “Whom hath the Lord more signally exalted than His people in this wilderness?”

Montréal may have shocked Lydia as much, perhaps more—for the Puritan categories of the wilderness would have been fulfilled during trials of her journey, but what vision would have prepared her for Catholic Montréal?  Unlike the white-washed angularity of Groton, the roads of Montréal moved along natural contours; the 200 wood homes were not of painted, but weathered wood, and stone buildings rose up above the main civic district, giving the place an older, rock-like solidity.  The Streets and markets took their names from the saints; men, women, Indians, and blacks moved about the city with little segregation; and signs of color and hierarchy abounded.  As a Protestant woman, a Congregationalist and a New Englander, Lydia came from a culture in which an egalitarian monotony of clothing and goods cloaked an exclusive spiritual hierarchy, where an unseen destiny separated God’s elite from the unwashed.  Here, expressive colors, troubling cuts of cloth, religious habits, and the acceptance of Indian accoutrements by Europeans bore witness to both a freedom and a social hierarchy, while beneath it all—as she would learn—there was a radical sense of spiritual solidarity.

Lydia was ransomed by Jacques Le Ber, one of Montréal’s worthies—one of among the half-dozen wealthiest men in Canada.  Le Ber was a veteran of the Mohawk wars in defense of Montréal.  In 1694 he was at the pinnacle of the merchant class.  He belonged to that particular group of men who would ransom Anglo-American prisoners and then work with the government and the Church authorities to find out if relatives in New England survived and wished to reclaim them.   Widowed, Le Ber lived on St. Paul Street with his adult daughter Jeanne.  His son Pierre resided nearby.  Within the household were two other ransomed prisoners, John Lahey, an Irish-born colonist from New York, who was now a domestic servant to Le Ber and permitted to remain Protestant.   Le Ber had one personal slave, brought from Africa to New England, captured by Indians, purchased by Le Ber, and now a permanent member of the household.  The slave had embraced the Catholic faith and had recently been baptized.  He took the name Jacques.

Jeanne Le Ber had a profound influence on Lydia.   Jeanne chose to live first as a voluntary recluse within the Le Ber house, appearing only for Mass and the sacraments.  Jeanne, one of Canada’s wealthiest and most attractive women was known throughout the city for the wealth she personally commanded and for her rigorous mortification and fervent prayer life.  Always an elite, she retained a servant, directly managed her own property, and financed the construction of the convent and church for the Congrégation Notre Dame de Montréal.   A year after her arrival, Lydia participated in a long religious procession through the streets of Montréal—down St. Joseph Street, along that of St. Paul, and ending at St. Jean Baptiste Street—escorting Jeanne Le Ber to the new convent. Behind the chapel’s high altar, Jeanne had built an apartment that would allow her access to the convent gardens and the Sacraments.  There, after making a solemn profession before the religious authorities, Jeanne spent the rest of her life as a recluse, gazing in benediction upon Montréal, but removing herself from the loving glance of any but her spiritual Spouse and a few sisters.

Whereas Jeanne Le Ber gave witness to the Catholic contemplative tradition and the graceful place of women within Christendom, Pierre Le Ber introduced Lydia to another side of civilization.  Pierre was Lydia’s senior by only two years.  He was an artist by training, a rarity in Canada, but something unknown in New England at the time.  The churches and religious buildings of Montréal were filled with the decorations and pious art of Pierre Le Ber.  Heir to the wealth of one of New France’s wealthiest families, Pierre constantly funded and eventually pledged the majority of his inheritance to help finance the Congregation Notre Dame and construct the Hôpital Général of Montreal, run by the Brothers Hospitallers of the Cross and St. Joseph.  The Brothers had been established by Pierre Le Ber and his associate François Charon de La Barre, or simply Charon, as he called himself.  Le Ber and Charon poured massive personal resources into the creation of this religious community, and in so doing established throughout Montréal and Quebec the principle amongst both merchants and commoners that religious and social institutions should be funded by the entire local Catholic community and not simply the Crown or the aristocracy.  The Hôspital—a three story stone building with 24 spacious rooms and slate roof—was completed two months before Lydia’s arrival.  It was the second hospital built in New France.  Its chief purpose was to care for orphaned boys, disabled men, and the infirm.  Those who were able-bodied were taught crafts so that they could ultimately become self-supporting.  In the Anglo-American colonies no such hospital would be built for over half a century until the Pennsylvania General Hospital, undertaken by Benjamin Franklin in 1751.  Although Pierre never took final vows with the Brothers who ran the hospital, he divided his days between painting, helping the poor and infirm, and living the devotional life of the brothers.  He would live out his life a celibate in communion with the Hospitallers.

While John Mather and other Puritan divines were attempting to resolve the tension between faith and works in Calvinist theology (and in so doing fashioned that compromise dubbed by Max Weber “the Protestant Work ethic”), Jeanne and Pierre Le Ber were living out fully-Christian lives—each in his and her own way celebrating faith and works, contemplation and action, and never forcing a wedge between them.  It would have been inconceivable to the Le Bers or any other ordinary Catholic in New France to be troubled over a perceived dichotomy between public and private virtues, between the inner religious man and the outward civic man; and how they would have chuckled at Mather’s novel conclusion that “a true believing Christian…lives his vocation by his faith.”  Was there another alternative?

Less than two years after her arrival in Montréal, Lydia Longley requested to live in the Congrégation Notre-Dame so that she could make final discernment about embracing the Catholic Faith.  The Puritan captive was finding her true ransom.  Le Ber, of course, granted permission.  One month later, on Tuesday, April 24, 1696, Lydia was baptized, taking the name Lydia Madeleine, taking the name of her sponsor Madam Marie Madeleine Dupont du Neville, wife of the local Marine commander Paul Le Moyne de Maricourt.  Le Moyne was beloved by both many Indian nations for his mastery of language, culture, and his fair representation of Indian interests within the French empire.

Lydia was now positioned to rise to the very heights of Canadian society.  Jacques Le Ber had assisted in several high-level marriages—most of former Anglo-American colonials.  Instead, Lydia Madeline chose to continue her journey as a nun.  In so doing, she slips beyond the envious eye of History.  We know that with some other Anglo-English captives, she joined the Congrégation Notre-Dame under the tutelage of Marguerite Bourgeoys—canonized Saint Marguerite in 1982.  The Congrégation brought together French, Canadian-born, Anglo-American, and Indian women into one religious order.  The nuns ran schools for both the elite women of Canada and impoverished girls.  Additionally, they lived out part of their lives as soeurs fermières—“farming sisters,” who oversaw and themselves worked on various small agricultural estates along the St. Lawerence River.

The sisters of this community expressed their lives as a vie voyagère.  Modeled on the life of the Virgin Mary, it was both contemplative and yet determined to address the immediate needs of men and women in New France.  The mission was simple.  According to a dictum of Saint Marguerite: “act as an advocate of the Church and its own baptized members will be converted and unbelievers as well.”  In prayer and in action, these women slowly illuminated the darkness of their age through their advocacy of the Church.

We know very little of Lydia Madeleine after her entrance into the Congrégation Notre-Dame.  She was faithful and promoted to office.  She personally seems to have overseen the religious instruction of young women and her name appears on the confirmation records of the period as a sponsor.  During the 1720s Lydia maintained contact with her family in Groton.  She sent pincushions to a niece and communicated to her brother John that she would continue to pray for him that he would be able to embrace the Catholic Faith.  Although she never wished to return, she never forgot New England, nor ceased to pray for its conversion.

Lydia Longley, or Soeur Sainte-Madeleine as she spent her days, was grafted to Christ through the graces of many Christians and through the unseen and merciful hand of God.  For 62 years she lived as a faithful Catholic nun in Montréal and at Sainte-Famille, Île d’Orléans, the community’s smaller convent and school in the midst of a farming community, where she acted as superior of the mission.   Sainte-Famille—what a beautiful irony that a young woman whose family was cut down in war and who was led captive into the terrifying wilds of New England should mature into a woman overseeing a group of religious women and ministering to the needs of farming families on an island dedicated to the Holy Family.  And a woman whose mother had died in her youth, lived out her days under the patronage of Our Lady—a living testimony to the unity of contemplation and action in Christian life.

William Edmund Fahey

By

Dr. William Edmund Fahey is President and Fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

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  • Jpct50

    Truth is stranger than fiction. What a beautiful story. Thanks.

  • A great History lesson and a beautiful story

  • LizEst

    Thanks for this primer.  I had never heard her story.  God bless you.

  • ATLflygirl

    Lydia Longley is my ancestor. I purchased the book, “Lydia Longley, The First American Nun”, many years ago. I am reading it, now, to my 10 year-old son as he studies his ancestory in school. It was wonderful to read your account of her life and the lives of those who ransomed her. Thank you for adding more of the missing pieces of the puzzle of my families heritage.

    • aperson

      I’m an ancestor of Lydia Longley as well. I’ve read the book as a child and recently purchased the book. I enjoyed reading your account as well thanks.

  • Sr. Mary Catharine

    I grew up knowing the story of Lydia Longley and found that my parents’ house is built on property her father owned.
    Many years later I visited Montreal and the tomb of Jeanne Le Ber and the Sisters were surprised that I knew all about her and Lydia!

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