Sister Saint Aristide, r.j.m. (1923-2002)
Religious, philosopher, educator, these are probably the three words that best encapsulate the remarkable woman that was Sister Irène Léger.
Irene is of Acadian origin. She was born October 18, 1923 in Paquetville, New Brunswick. She was the daughter of Irénée Léger and Malvina Dugas. She completed her primary studies in Paquetville. She went to the Convent of Jesus-Marie Lamèque (New Brunswick) to continue her high school. In 1941, she received her diploma from the “École Normale” in Fredericton (New Brunswick).
In September of that year (1941), when she was only seventeen, the young educator began a career that will continue until 1977, career interrupted only by stays in Rome or in various universities. She taught the students of Grande-Anse (New Brunswick) in 1941, and those of Paquetville the following year. In 1943, she became the first director of the school of Néguac (New Brunswick), a position she held for three years. While being director, she also taught the students from the eighth to the eleventh year.
These six years of teaching will have benefited not only the many young Acadians with whom she shared what she knew and what she was, but also her brother Aristide that she helped with her encouragement and her money to follow the path that lead to priesthood. After her only brother became a priest, Irene was able to follow the calling of the vocation and on August 7, 1947, we find her at the novitiate Jesus-Marie in Sillery, Québec. She continued the training which led her to her religious profession on August 22, 1949.
In the fall of that same year, the Jésus-Marie Convent in Shippagan, New Brunswick, welcomed the return to Acadia of this excellent educator, then known as Sister Saint-Aristide. The Lamèque high school students received her services in 1950 for three years. She then returned to Shippagan until 1968, except for the year 1955-1956 that she spent in Rome to deepen her religious and cultural training.
While the school years are well filled by teaching, the months of vacation are far from being idle; Sister Léger employs them to pursue her education. She graduated from the University of Ottawa, Ontario, with a Bachelor of Arts in 1957, a Bachelor of Education degree from the same university in 1958, and a BA in Philosophy, still in Ottawa in 1964.
In the meantime, Shippagan's Convent Jesus-Marie underwent a major transformation: it became Collège Jésus-Marie in 1960, the first institution of higher education for young girls in northeastern New Brunswick. Sister Léger becomes the first director of studies. Only God knows how much energy and tenacity this nun and her collaborators will have spent for this institution to emerge.
From 1968 to 1971, Sister Irène Léger continued to be interested and to work for the cause of education in Acadia even if she did so from a distance and indirectly. She spent three years in Lyon, France, where she first obtained a master’s degree in philosophy in 1969, then a doctorate in the same discipline in 1971. Her thesis, “L’adolescent aujourd’hui, l’homme nouveau de demain" published by Editions Privat under the title: “The teenager in the world of today” in 1974, shows us how this nun, educator to the bottom of her being, was able to scrutinize the behavior of young people of the time and dedicate her gifts of intelligence, of heart, of woman to their formation.
Back in Shippagan in 1971, we find her as a college rector, professor of philosophy, superior of her community group and provincial councillor of her community. Sister Léger continued her challenging and complex task until June 1977, when Shippagan College became the Shippagan University Center, one of three campuses at the University of Moncton, New Brunswick. The premises will fall under the responsibility of the university and the management will be assumed by a deputy rector appointed by the university. In the meantime, it’s difficult to measure how much effort in terms of steps, of proposals and all out fights so that this institution of higher education, the only one in the north-east, to survive following the closure of Bathurst College, New Brunswick. Many collaborators have supported and collaborated with her, but she was undoubtedly the soul of those years of work and struggle.
Initially open to girls aspiring to complete the four-year course toward a Bachelor of Arts degree, Shippagan College has evolved to meet the needs of the region's population and the demands of formal diversified training. Technical courses were added: librarianship, secretariat, administration; these courses were also offered to boys as of 1972. During its fifteen years of existence, the Collège Jésus-Marie in Shippagan has enabled many young Acadians to acquire a higher education. Already, many of these young people have made their mark in the profession they have chosen. But it is probably to the young Acadian girls of the North-East that this educational work will have been most useful: they have also been given opened access to studies and occupations almost reserved exclusively to young people given the geographical, economic and cultural situation of the area.
The Academic Senate of the Université de Moncton wanted to pay tribute to Sister Léger for her remarkable dedication to the cause of higher education in Acadia, conferring on her, in 1979, the title of Professor Emeritus. Already in 1967, Sister Léger had been awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal.
Starting in June 1977, Sister Irene saw a wider field open to her influence as a philosopher and educator: she was chosen by her Congregation to become Secretary General with residence in Rome.
Sister Irene died on August 3, 2002 at the Interprovincial Infirmary of the Sisters of Jesus-Marie in Sillery, Quebec.
- Genealogy notes by Gilles Pinet
- Silhouettes acadiennes, from Thérèse Lemieux and Gemma Caron, 1981, pages 277-280.