This Week in History


The Mother of Universal Charity

For the week of Monday May 1, 2000

On May 3, 1959, the Vatican beatified Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, an important step towards her becoming the first Canadian-born saint.

Marie-Marguerite d'Youville

Marie-Marguerite d'Youville
© Archives of the Grey Nuns of Montréal

Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais was born to a notable family in Varennes, Quebec, on October 15, 1701. Although her immediate family suffered financially after her father's death, relatives paid for Marie-Marguerite to attend the Québec Ursuline boarding school. In 1722, Marie-Marguerite married François d'Youville in Montréal. Her marriage was unhappy, a circumstance compounded by the death of four of their six children. In 1727, Marie-Marguerite began devoting herself to religion.

After François' death in 1730, Marie-Marguerite took over his struggling business, determined to give her sons a good life and seminary education. Her free time went to charity work.  In 1737, d'Youville and three other women took vows, devoting their lives to the poor. They became known as les grises, a French term for tipsy women, because of d'Youville's husband's reputation as an illegal liquor trader.

In 1747, d'Youville assumed charge of Montréal's Hôpital Général, which had formerly been run by the Brothers Hospitallers. It was heavily indebted, but d'Youville completed all urgent repairs. Previously a hospital for men, she opened wards for both sexes. Hôpital Général housed abandoned children, "fallen women" and the poor. It only became a hospital in the modern sense during the 1755 smallpox epidemic.

Hôpital Général<br>at the time of d'Youville

Hôpital Général at the time of d'Youville
© Archives of the Grey Nuns of Montréal

In 1750, Intendant Bigot announced the Montréal hospital's closure. He reached this decision despite d'Youville's improvements, claiming that, without the direction of a recognized religious order with an assured income, the hospital would again fail. Les grises did not have this official recognition and King Louis XV opposed the expense of creating new religious communities in the colony. While d'Youville pleaded for help all over New France, it was the head of the Sulpician order in Paris who came to her aid. He commended d'Youville's work and pointed out that the hospital's property belonged to his order. Thus, the institution was saved, its debts soon repaid.

In 1752, d'Youville successfully campaigned for a contract giving her religious community the same rights the Brothers Hospitallers had enjoyed. The sisters received their habits in 1755, adopting the name Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général, or Grey Nuns (Soeurs grises).

Marie-Marguerite d'Youville died in 1771. At her beatification, she was given the title "Mother of Universal Charity". She became a saint in 1990. Saint Marie-Marguerite d'Youville and the Grey Nuns of Montréal are designated of national historic significance.

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