For the holidays, a remarkable item from the AJC collection

This year, we drew from a remarkable item in our collection to illustrate The Archives of the Jesuits of Canada (AJC)’s Christmas card: a scene of the Adoration of the Magi, taken from Philippe de Montholon’s Book of Hours, which dates from the late fifteenth century.

Book of hours are collections of daily prayers created for the laity. They are counterparts to the breviaries used by clerics, which collect the prayers recited for the eight offices of the day. The first books of hours appeared in the thirteenth century and were widely distributed over the next centuries. Often beautifully illuminated, they were primarily designed for the aristocracy but gradually expanded to other layers of society. The books were generally small, in order to be easily transported.

The launch in 2018 of the exhibition Resplendent Illuminations: Book of Hours from the 13th to the 16th Century in Quebec Collections at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) gave a team of researchers, directed by Brenda Dunn-Lardeau, a professor in the Department of Literary Studies at UQAM, a chance to deepen our knowledge of this precious manuscript. We do not know when and how it entered the AJC collection, but we know it has been with us since at least 1892, the date that Father Arthur E. Jones—Father Félix Martin’s successor as head of the Archives of the Collège Sainte-Marie—lent out the manuscript for an exhibition at the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal.

However, it is possible the manuscript arrived in Quebec much earlier. We know that such works were in circulation in New France. The Hospital Sisters of Quebec regularly asked their European benefactors for them for the benefit of the ill, and passages from the Jesuit Relations reveal that the Jesuits also used them in their missions. One hypothesis suggests that the manuscript reached the Ursulines in Quebec through Catherine de Montholon, a descendant of one of the book’s first owners, Philippe de Montholon. After the death

of her husband, Catherine de Montholon retired to the Ursulines of Dijon, who were themselves benefactors of the Ursulines of Quebec. If the manuscript was indeed in Canada before the suppression of the Society of Jesus at the end of the eighteenth century, Father Félix Martin could have recovered it when the Jesuits returned to Canada in 1842. Indeed, before his death in 1800, Father Jean-Joseph Casot, the last surviving pre-suppression Jesuit, entrusted part of the order’s records to the Hospital Sisters of the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec City. The records that Father Martin retrieved in the nineteenth century became the core of the Collection des Archives du Collège Sainte-Marie, one of the foundational collections of the AJC’s current holdings.

Other hypotheses remain to be explored, however, and we cannot rule out that the manuscript was integrated into the collection at a later date. Philippe de Montholon’s Book of Hours has not yet shared all its secrets! You can learn more about it in the note written by Brenda Dunn-Lardeau, Helena Kogen, and Geneviève Samson in the stunning Catalogue raisonné des livres d’heures conservés au Québec, produced in the wake of the MMFA exhibition.


Dunn-Lardeau, B. (dir.). (2018). Catalogue raisonné des livres d’Heures conservés au Québec. Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Biron, J. (2016). Enquête sur la provenance et les pérégrinations de deux livres d’Heures enluminés du XVe siècle conservés aux Archives des jésuites au Canada. Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, 39(4), 19–72.