Way back in the 1600s, the area then known as New France, now Quebec, Canada, was a rugged, rough, and forbidding place to be. This was a land that was full of uncharted, dangerous wilderness, hostile Iroquois natives, and deadly epidemics plaguing the settlers. It does not seem to have been a place someone would actually choose to be, but in 1639 a French nun of the Ursuline order calling herself Marie de L’Incarnation came to these shores with the intention of spreading her faith among the indigenous people of the region and to start the Church in New France, convinced that it was God’s will for her to be in Canada and willing to die on its soil if that was His wish. Also known as the Hospitaller of Quebec, in Canada Marie founded a convent and the first school for girls, and she was crucial in the spread of Catholicism in New France. She devoted her life to spreading her faith among young Native girls, and indeed the Native tribes adored her, calling her Iakonikonriiostha, meaning “the one who beautifies the soul and make the heart warmer.” She would go on to become a saint, and also had some rather strange paranormal stories to tell, and one of these involved a young woman plagued by demons.
Before coming to the New World, Marie de L’Incarnation had already had her fair share of visions and paranormal experiences. From a young age she had claimed to have seen Jesus Christ, as well as other spirits, and in Canada things were no different. She claimed to have had a vision of an earthquake that came to pass, as well as seen other omens such as incoming Iroquois attacks or other disasters, and she also spoke of hearing voices from the sky and of seeing flaming, flying canoes, of which she would once write:
The lamenting voices that were heard in the air over Trois-Rivières might have been the echo of the poor captives carried away by the Iroquois; and the canoes that seemed to be flying in the air, all on fire, around Quebec, were only a feeble presage of the enemies’ canoes.
She wrote extensively in journals, letters, and manuscriots, indeed her written works constitute one of the largest collections of personal documents from the early years of French colonization, and appearing interspersed amongst her writings on religious thoughts, observations on the growth of New France, musings on spirituality, and the mundane daily life of the colony and of the convent, here one can also find mention of numerous paranormal phenomena, as well as her discovery that sorcery existed in New France, once writing that “there are sorcerers and magicians in this country.” One tale in particular that stands out revolves around 17- year old, in some accounts 15-year-old Barbe Hallay, also known as Hallé or Halé, who arrived in the port of Quebec with her family in 1660 aboard a ship full of new colonists from France. At the time, she just seemed to be another normal girl among the influx of colonists, but she would soon prove to have mystery surrounding her.
Upon arriving, Hallay went to work as a servant at the manor house of merchant John Maheu and Marguerite Corriveau in Quebec City, then only a small settlement of fewer than 3,000, and it was here where strange phenomena would begin to orbit her. It began with strange music such as flutes and drums seeming to come from nowhere, and objects that would move when Barbe was around, at first small items, but quickly graduating to heavier things such as furniture. This intensified, with items flying off of shelves or pictures falling from the walls when Barbe would pass by, but the most frightening thrown objects were perhaps the stones. It became a frequent occurrence for rocks and stones to come flying through windows or seemingly even hurtling from thin air. These rocks would smash into the walls or break objects with great force, and one Jesuit missionary by the name of Paul Ragueneau would say of the strange phenomena:
The girl’s home was so infested that stones were flying from all sides, thrown by invisible hands, hurting no one, though they flew through twenty persons or so, with a noise and a force as great as if they had been launched by a mighty arm.
After this, things would get even worse still when Barbe began to see apparitions lurking about. These could take many forms, including mere shadow figures, ghosts, or horrific monsters, and they appeared to her at all hours of the day and night. It seemed as if only she could see them, and they tormented her constantly. At some point, it was reported that these entities began to speak through her, with Barbe’s voice sometimes changing tone and timbre, even into that of a man or a beastly hissing snarl. Ragueneau would write of this:
Only the possessed girl saw the demons who appeared to her under various shapes of men, women, children, beasts and hellish spectres, and, at last spoke through her mouth … without seemingly using the possessed girl’s voice.
The paranormal activity got so bad that Barbe was forced to move out of the manor, but it followed her to her new home and there seemed to be no way to escape it. By now, Barbe’s plight was well known amongst the colonists, who whispered all manner of things about it. To some she was a witch, to others possessed by demons or afflicted by some evil spell, and still others thought she was in league with the Devil himself. An exorcism was ordered by the Bishop of New France, but this was unsuccessful, and indeed made the various phenomena even more intense. It was at this time she was brought to the convent hospital of Marie de L’Incarnation, which at the time was under the leadership of a Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustin. It was Mother Catherine who would immediately recognize this as demonic possession, something she had a deep interest in, and she came to the conclusion that Barbe was under demonic attack but still mostly in control of herself.
These demons or whatever they were reportedly did not like it there at the convent at all, becoming fiercer, spewing obscenities at them through Barbe’s mouth, appearing as apparitions, sometimes as angels in order to deceive the nuns, and even attacking them with such ferocity that they were left with cuts and bruises. Marie de l’Incarnation began to come to the conclusion that this demonic affliction had been brought about by a wizard named Daniel Vuil, who had made the voyage to the New World with Barbe and had even unsuccessfully asked her to marry him. Marie surmised that the jilted Vuil had then used his black magic to conjure up the demons that were tormenting Barbe, and she was further convinced of this when the stricken girl claimed that she had been seeing an apparition of Vuil as well.
Authorities were only too happy to arrest Vuil on suspicion of witchcraft, because he had been causing a lot of trouble in the colony and was considered of bad moral character, illegally selling alcohol to the Natives and turning away from Catholicism and committing blasphemy. He was taken into custody, and apparently his various offenses were enough to get him the death sentence.
After his execution by firing squad on October 7, 1661, the demonic attacks continued, forcing the nuns to take other actions such as a series of exorcisms, having Barbe carry powerful religious items, and even at one point for some reason sewing her within a sack. Eventually their efforts seem to have worked, because the demonic phenomena passed and Barbe went on to live a normal life up until her death in 1696 at the age of 52.
Marie de l’Incarnation would go on to be recognized “Venerable” by Rome in 1874, and in later centuries officially beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and finally canonized as a Saint in 2014. She definately had an important part to play in the early history of Canada, but what are we to make of her more mysterious claims? Is there anything to this all, and if so, what was going on here? What was tormenting Barbe Hallay and what did it want? Whatever the case may be, it remains an interesting historical account of some pretty strange stuff.