May 18, 1765.
Mother Marguerite d’Youville and her sisters watched with heavy hearts, smoke burning their tear-filled eyes, as flames raged through the General Hospital of Montreal. The building had been their home as well as home to scores of the city’s sick and infirm whom they nursed there. Then Marguerite gathered her courage —as she had done so many times throughout her life — and said, “Let us kneel and say the Te Deum to thank God for the cross he has seen fit to send us.” Forty hours later, after the fire was finally put out, one hundred eighty-two buildings — one-quarter of the city of Montreal — had been destroyed.
This was not the first time Marguerite d’Youville had known such loss. Twenty years earlier her house, where she had also sheltered the elderly and ailing, was gutted by fire. Nor was she a stranger to other hardships. She had suffered from a difficult marriage and the infant deaths of four of her children. Widowed at the age of twenty-nine when her alcoholic husband died, she was left with the burden of his many debts and shameful reputation. Yet the more God had taken from Marguerite, the more she had generously given to God.
The Early Years.
Born on October 15, 1701, in Varennes, near Montreal, Marie-Marguerite was the eldest of the six children of Christophe Dufrost de Lajemmerais and his wife, Marie Renée. Marguerite’s father died when she was seven years old. When she was eleven, she was sent to the Ursuline school in Quebec to prepare for her First Communion and to learn skills to help her mother take care of the home and family.
Dedication to the Poor.
Ten years later, Marguerite married a charming suitor, François d’Youville, unaware that he was an unscrupulous spendthrift. It wasn’t long before he showed himself to be a selfish man with little regard for his wife. He frequently spent long periods of time away from home, and Marguerite came to realize that he made his income secretly selling liquor to the Indians around Montreal —a practice banned by the French colony’s government. Nonetheless, Marguerite cared for François when he became ill as a result of his dissolute lifestyle and grieved at his death. Now left to raise two young sons on her own, Marguerite opened a small shop and slowly paid off her husband’s debts.
Rather than being embittered by these difficulties, Madame d’Youville saw them as opportunities to draw closer to God. She attended Mass daily and grew in love for God through prayer. Her devotion to “the Eternal Father” and her trust in God’s loving providence became the keynote of her life. It was also during these early years of her widowhood that she began to visit the poor and sick throughout the city.
Marguerite’s spiritual director, Fr. Louis Normant, saw how compassionately she reached out to the destitute. He realized that her own experiences of suffering had given her valuable spiritual and practical training and encouraged her charitable work. He also noted her talent for managing her shop efficiently and eliminating François’ debts, and foresaw great works for her in the future.
In November 1737, Marguerite, with her son Charles, converted her house into a home for the poor and aged. On December 31, she and three like-minded companions privately consecrated themselves to the service of the poor. The following year Marguerite moved to a larger house so she could accommodate more needy people, and her associates moved in with her.
In the eighteenth century, new religious communities could not be formed in France or its colonies without the approval of the king —something which was usually difficult to gain because religious orders were supported by subsidies taken from the royal purse. Thus, for the next fifteen years, Madame d’Youville and her companions actively carried out their works of mercy as a “free association of pious women” but were neither civilly nor canonically recognized as a religious congregation.
At the time Marguerite invited her coworkers to move in with her, she was still criticized as the widow of the disreputable d’Youville. Many Montrealers considered her charitable activities a front for continuing her husband’s illegal bootlegging business. Marguerite and her companions were even pelted with stones in the street and publicly refused Communion, and called “les soeurs grises”, or the “tipsy sisters.”
When the sisters’ house burned early in 1745, they had to find new lodgings for themselves and the people they cared for. They also saw this tragedy as an opportunity to deepen their commitment as a sisterhood by sharing all their possessions in common. At their request, Fr. Normant wrote a provisional rule of life for them—the foundation stone of the future congregation—which they signed on February 2.
Slowly, as they saw the sisters’ true worth, many of the townspeople changed their opinions of Marguerite and her sisters. After the fire, many came to their assistance. By 1747, circumstances were ripe for the sisters to be given charge of Montreal’s General Hospital. The religious brothers who founded the hospital in 1694 and had staffed it for many years could no longer carry on this responsibility, and the building was in dire need of repairs. Its restoration and management was entrusted to Madame d’Youville, with the provision that she and her sisters also assume the hospital’s enormous debt of 49,000 livres. Undaunted, Marguerite put her confidence in the Eternal Father.
The sisters took in the sick, the disabled, the aged, the mentally unbalanced, and the incurable of either sex. They turned no one away. The General Hospital not only served the afflicted, it also became the cradle of a new religious institute. Young women impressed by the sisters’ witness asked Madame d’Youville to accept them as novices. Finally, in 1753, King Louis XV of France granted the sisters royal sanction as a religious congregation, and two years later, the bishop of Quebec formally approved their rule, recognizing them as the “Sisters of Charity of Montreal.” The French word for “tipsy” also means “grey,” so with a sense of humor and as a sign of humility, the sisters chose to wear grey habits. Thus, the former “tipsy sisters” also became known as the
“Grey Nuns”—but it was now with respect and admiration that their fellow Montrealers called them les Soeurs Grises.
These years of struggle and growth for the Grey Nuns were also marked by economic hardship and political upheaval in Canada. The war that had flared up on the Continent between France and England reached the colonies in the New World, too. As the British battled the French Canadians and their Indian allies, the wards of the General Hospital were filled with the wounded of both sides.
Mother d’Youville even ransomed English captives from Indians who intended to torture them to death. On one occasion, an English soldier by the name of Southworth rushed into the hospital, pursued by an Indian brandishing a tomahawk. Mother d’Youville calmly hid the soldier under the large canvas tent she and another sister were sewing. Later, during the siege of Montreal, cannons were aimed to fire on the large stone hospital, fortress-like in appearance. It was Southworth who stopped the bombardment just in the nick of time, rushing to his commander to explain the work of the sisters who had saved his life there.
Quebec fell to the British in 1759 with General Wolfe’s victory over General Montcalm, and Montreal surrendered in 1760. By the provisions of the Treaty of Paris, all of Canada came under the British flag. Owing to damages and the exorbitant cost of food and other necessities during the war, the General Hospital was again heavily in debt. Nevertheless, Mother d’Youville bought and ran farms to ease their needs and support her large “family” of 118 patients, sisters, and boarders.
Rather than cutting back during these lean years, the Grey Nuns expanded their charitable efforts. In addition to continuing their care for the sick, they offered retreats for women, supported needy seminarians, and took in abandoned babies.
Once, after checking her accounts, Mother d’Youville discovered that she had only one small silver coin left. At that moment, a poor woman came to claim her payment for nursing a baby in their care—a payment of exact amount of the coin. Marguerite reached into her pocket, only to find a whole handful of coins! Amazed, she reached into her other pocket and brought out yet another handful! At another time, when the sisters and their patients were close to starving, six barrels of flour inexplicably “appeared” in their dining room. The Eternal Father never failed to care for these daughters and for the poor they served.
A Mission Fulfilled. When Montreal was devastated by the great fire of 1765, Indians whom Marguerite and her sisters had nursed during a smallpox epidemic sold many of their treasured possessions and gave the money toward rebuilding the hospital. Public collections were also taken up by the people of London to relieve the suffering Montrealers, who were now under British rule. “To adore the designs of God and to submit to God’s will—that is what we have all tried our best to do!” Marguerite wrote as she took up the enormous work of building a new hospital.
During the last years of her life, Mother d’Youville delighted in the harmony and affection she saw in the growing congregation that surrounded her: “All the riches in the world cannot equal the happiness of living together in unity,” she wrote. A warm and loving mother, she was gratified to see that she had taught the sisters well.
At Marguerite’s death in 1771, one of her first companions remarked, “When we write her epitaph, we must remember first our Mother’s mission of love. We must entrust her secret to those who will follow us, and tell them that, yes, she loved greatly. . .She loved greatly, Jesus Christ and the poor!”
Mother Marie-Marguerite d’Youville was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1990, the first native-born Canadian to be declared a saint. Today Marguerite’s spiritual daughters continue her mission serving the poor and sick throughout Canada, the United States, Africa, Haiti and South America.
At Sisters of Charity Health System, the mission and vision of Marguerite d’Youville lives on in the 21st century. Through direct service to children, the sick, elderly, the disadvantaged. . . and through outreach to both local and global communities, her spirit continues to thrive.
Adapted from an article entitled “She Loved Greatly” by Jeanne Kun which appeared int he August, 2002 issue of The Word Among Us. Used here with permission.