Born: October 15, 1701 Varennes, Quebec
Died: December 23, 1771
Beatified: May 3, 1959 – by Pope John XXIII
Canonized: December 9, 1990 – by Pope John Paul II
Feast Day: October 16 (Canada)
Patronage: widows, difficult marriages, death of young children
In this life, we rarely know the impact we will have on others – how God will use us to bring about change, to touch someone’s life, or otherwise make the world a better place. We might set out in one direction, on one path, only to have God lead us somewhere completely different. The life of a Christian is full of unexpected surprises, and this certainly was the experience of St. Marguerite d’Youville of Montreal, the first Canadian-born saint, now a witness to the whole world.
Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais was born on October 15, 1701, in Varennes, Quebec; her family was prominent in New France, and they would have been considered part of the minor aristocracy. Her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Pierre Boucher, was a skilled administrator and negotiator who was ultimately named the governor of Trois-Rivieres. Her father’s family was one of the distinguished, old families of France that had come to Canada in 1687.
Despite such noble roots, Marguerite’s life was less than ideal. Her father died suddenly when she was only 7 years old, and the family was left in great financial difficulty. It was only with the help of her great-grandfather that Marguerite was able to attend a boarding school in Quebec City where she studied with the Ursulines for two years.
After returning home, Marguerite devoted her time to helping her mother in the care and education of her brothers and sisters, and in running the family home. The skills she had learned at the convent – particularly sewing and embroidery – would be an invaluable source of income for the family. Soon thereafter, her mother remarried Timothy Sullivan, an Irish doctor from New England. Yet despite his wealth, he was considered a “commoner,” which ruined Marguerite’s chances of marrying a nobleman.
Married and Family Life
A year later the family moved to Montreal, where Marguerite met François-Madeleine d’Youville. They married on August 12, 1722, at Notre-Dame Basilica with all of high society in attendance. Not a lot is known about the young couple’s early life together, but it wasn’t especially happy. François got involved in some illicit business deals – selling liquor to Native peoples, as well as controlling the movement of furs from the West – and he was constantly away from home. Reports about his unscrupulous practices began to circulate, which only added to Marguerite’s suffering. To make matters worse, she was left at home alone to deal with her disagreeable and demanding mother-in-law.
However, the biggest heartache for the young mother must have been the loss of her children; four of the six died in infancy. When Marguerite was pregnant with their sixth child, François himself became seriously ill. Despite the lack of attention and concern he had shown for his wife, she cared for him devotedly. He died in 1730 at the age of 30, when Marguerite herself was only 28.
For many young women, such pain and loss would have been unbearable. Yet it was evident that, in Marguerite, a deep faith was emerging. “The innumerable trials of her life developed in her a deep spirituality…”1 In all these sufferings, “Marguerite grew in her belief of God’s presence in her life and of his tender love for every human person. She, in turn, wanted to make known his compassionate love to all.”2
Embracing a new vocation
Marguerite began to consider a new path. It seemed that God was calling her to something more, to a deeper understanding of His love for her. She became interested in various religious communities, drawn to their life of prayer and service. But that didn’t mean turning away from her obligations to her family. To make ends meet and to pay off her late husband’s debts, she started a small business. Marguerite also found time to undertake many charitable works, even inviting a blind woman into her home.
On December 31, 1737, Marguerite and a few companions who shared her love for the poor “consecrated themselves to God and promised to serve him in the person of the poor.”3 They wanted to live and work together in common, to share their resources and talents and put them to good use – in whatever way that God might ask. At first, just a few people came to live with them, but soon their ‘house for the poor’ grew.
Not surprisingly, these charitable works were misunderstood, even frowned upon. For Montreal’s social elite, the women and their activities were strange and unwelcome. “It was very new for women to form communities and undertake charitable work in common for the ‘wretched’. [Marguerite] was accused, among other things, of continuing her late husband’s illegal trade in alcohol with the First Nations and of being a drunk herself.”4
The ‘Grey’ Nuns
In fact, this was how the new religious order would get its name. “You and your Sisters are tipsy,” people would yell as they walked down the street. In French, grise has two meanings: ‘tipsy’ and ‘grey’.5 What was meant as a slight and an insult to the women became the inspiration for their name – the Grey Nuns.
Marguerite didn’t set out to do anything extraordinary, but in her compassion and great charity, and through God’s providence, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal was born. They soon gained a new reputation: for opening their arms wide to all. The sisters took in soldiers – both French and English – who had been wounded during the war, they rescued countless abandoned children and even had a ward for prostitutes. It was said of them, “Go to the Grey Nuns, they never refuse anything.”
Because Marguerite was especially well educated for her time, she was chosen to become director of one of the city’s many hospitals that had fallen into disrepair. God had prepared her all along for this great work…to rebuild a house in ruins.
The Grey Nuns would go on to establish dozens of hospitals, orphanages, schools, and community health organizations – following in the Church’s long tradition of working to improve the quality of life for all people. Today, St. Marguerite d’Youville is remembered as Mother of Universal Charity, for as Pope John XXIII pointed out at her beatification, “Her house was open to all those afflicted by poverty, illness, and other needs without respect to age, nationality, sex, or religion; for Marguerite set no limits to her charity.”6
When we see someone like St. Marguerite d’Youville who’s done such great things – starting a new religious order and building hospitals and schools – we might be tempted to believe that therein lies her greatness, that this is why the Church has canonized her. But we must never forget the source, the inspiration for all these actions. Love alone inspires us to put others before ourselves, to renounce the ways of the world and forego a life of luxury.
As a more contemporary saint once observed, “Being a Christian is not simply a way to personal contentment; it implies a mission… [it] means forgetting petty objectives of personal prestige and ambition… It means setting our mind and heart on reaching the fullness of love, which Jesus Christ showed by dying for us… Christian life finds its meaning in God. Jesus has promised us not a life of ease or worldly achievement, but the house of his Father God, which awaits us at the end of the way.”7
At the end of the day, the most influential people aren’t those with great wealth, power, or position; it’s those who are willing to answer God’s call. Only the Lord can transform our hearts – from selfishness to service, from turning inward to reaching out in love, from despair and sorrow to the joy and hope of living in His will.
– Kelley Holy
1 Chronology: From Marguerite d’Youville’s birth in 1701 to her canonization in 1990; The Grey Nuns of Montreal [website]; Internet; accessed September 2016; available from http://www.sgm.qc.ca/en/main-nav/saint-marguerite-dyouville/her-history/
|2 Marie Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771) foundress of the Sisters of Charity; Vatican website; Internet; accessed October 2016; available from http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19901209_youville_en.html|
4 The Grey Nuns of Montreal
|7 Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, chapter 10, #98 [website]; Internet; accessed 2 October 2016; available from http://www.escrivaworks.org/book/christ_is_passing_by-chapter-10.htm|
Other biographical details taken from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dufrost_de_lajemmerais_marie_marguerite_4E.html