When Pope John Paul II canonized St. Marguerite d’Youville on December 9, 1990, Catholic Canadians were delighted. They had long honored as a saint this native daughter who allowed no obstacle to stand in the way of her helping others.
Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais, born near Montreal in 1701, came from a notable French-Canadian family. After two years of convent schooling, she returned home to help her widowed mother raise the five younger children.
At 20, Marguerite married François d’Youville, a confidential agent of the Governor. She bore him six children. But it was a sad marriage. Four of the children died young. Furthermore, her husband treated her with cool indifference. Meanwhile, he was incurring the hatred of French-Canadians and Indians by his unethical business practices. He died young, but Marguerite fell heir only to his debts. She had to open a small shop to earn enough money to discharge the debts and to educate her two surviving sons who were eventually ordained priests.
Mme. d’Youville’s own poverty only sharpened her natural sympathy for the poor. As a widow she devoted ever more time to the corporal works of mercy. She gave alms to the poor of her own meager funds, and mended their threadbare clothing. She visited the sick and jailed, and begged money for the burial of criminals. Three other laywomen, impressed by her good deeds, asked to join her in this labor of love. In 1737 all four made a profession to serve the needy. A year later they began to live together, and welcomed several homeless persons as permanent guests. But they remained laypersons.
At the outset, these “ladies of charity” were unpopular, mostly because the avarice of François d’Youville was all too well remembered and his innocent wife was considered tarred by his misdeeds. They were shouted at and stoned in the streets, and sometimes priests even denied them Holy Communion. But the Widow d’Youville would not let her companions grow discouraged.
By 1749, the Montreal authorities, finally recognizing Marguerite’s goodwill and talents, begged her to take over the management of the faltering General Hospital. King Louis XV confirmed the appointment. Her duty involved paying off the whole great debt of the institution, and this she achieved. Then she opened the hospital not only to whites and Indians but to epileptics, the mentally ill, lepers, the blind, the victims of contagious diseases, foundlings and the aged.
In 1766, fire destroyed the hospital and all she had made it, but she accepted the disaster with resignation to God’s will, and instead of complaining, led her associates in the recitation of a Te Deum in praise of God. Then they started all over again.
In 1754, Mme. d’Youville took the now inevitable step of forming her women auxiliaries into a new religious order. Their official title was “The Sisters of Charity of the General Hospital.” For their religious habit she chose a grey material. One reason for the choice was rather witty. In their early years their enemies had sometimes called these women “les soeurs grises,” which meant, “the drunken sisters.” But it can also mean “the grey sisters.” So ever since its foundation, Mother d’Youville’s large congregation, today divided into several distinct communities, has been called by the nickname she adopted, the “Grey Sisters.”
They rapidly expanded throughout Canada, always welcome because they were ready to undertake not only all the corporal works of mercy but also the spiritual works of mercy, including school teaching at all levels. This comprehensive order eventually branched out into both Americas, Africa, and the Far East. (They made a foundation in Buffalo in 1857. Out of this came D’Youville College.)
From the start, the Grey Nuns were mission-minded. In 1755, when the Indians of the Quebec Province were suffering a severe smallpox epidemic, Mother d’Youville and all 12 of her sisters volunteered to go nurse the Indian victims, willing to risk their own lives by so doing. The Indians were touched by this devotion.
These same Native Americans had earlier complained to the Governor about François d’Youville, who was disobediently selling them liquor. “We cannot pray God because d’Youville made us drink every day. If you don’t expel him from this island, we don’t want to go there again.” Thus did Mother d’Youville make reparation for the sins of her husband. Her nuns continued this restitution by becoming pioneer missionaries among the natives of Canada’s West and Northwest.
One cannot know St. Marguerite d’Youville without admiring her. She was one of the most remarkable Catholic women in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
–Father Robert F. McNamara