A bright future seemed to lie ahead for Marguerite when she became engaged to a young man of nobility. However, this marriage prospect ended abruptly when her mother married an Irish doctor whom Varennes society considered as a foreigner of doubtful reputation.
After moving to Montreal (then Ville-Marie) with her family, Marguerite met François d’Youville whom she married on August 12, 1722. They lived with his mother who was a domineering woman. Marguerite was soon to discover that her husband was self-centered and indifferent. His lengthy absences and illegal liquor trading with Aboriginal people caused her much suffering. After eight years of marriage, François died leaving Marguerite pregnant with their sixth child. Four of their children died in infancy.
The young mother
A widow at 28, Marguerite was left with two small sons to raise, her husband’s debts and a marred reputation. She opened a small store in order to repay these debts, educate her sons, and provide for the needs of Montreal’s poor who came across her path.
When she was 26, God gifted her with a special grace which was to be the turning point of her life. She came to the deep realization that in the great human family we are all sisters and brothers loved by a providential and compassionate God.
Marguerite welcomed her first resident, a blind woman, into her home on November 21, 1737. She also begged for assistance to bury criminals who had been hung in the market place. Seeing her selflessly caring for the poor inspired three women to join her. On December, 31, 1737, they consecrated themselves to the service of the poor in whom they saw the person of Jesus. This decisive moment is considered the founding date of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, “Grey Nuns”.
The “Grey Nuns”
“Grey Nuns” was a name given in mockery to this small group. In French the word for “grey” can also mean “tipsy” and it had been shouted in contempt at Marguerite and her sisters, whom people associated with François’s liquor traffic. Later, when the sisters were well respected, Marguerite chose this name to remind them of their humble beginnings.
The following years were marked by one trial after another: destruction by fire, personal illness, extreme poverty, conquest by the British. All was accepted within a spirit of prayerful trust in Divine Providence. Marguerite and her companions never faltered from the promises they made on February 2, 1745, the day after fire destroyed their home, when they signed the Original Commitment “to receive, feed and support as many poor as we can take care of…”
The General Hospital of Montreal, built in 1693 by the Charon Brothers, was in ruins. Marguerite was appointed the temporary director and she and her companions moved into the hospital on October 7, 1747. Within three years they had completely renovated the place to become “home” to all those in need. “Go to the Grey Nuns, they never refuse.”
Unknown to Marguerite, the authorities decided that the Montreal General Hospital would be merged with the one in Quebec. With her usual trust in God she said: “If God calls us to govern this house, his plan will succeed; the impediments and opposition of men should not trouble us.”
In 1753, Louis XV of France signed the “Letters Patent” which sanctioned the appointment of Marguerite as Director of the General Hospital. Soon the hospital was filled to capacity, sheltering the elderly, orphans, prostitutes, the mentally ill, physically handicapped, chronically ill and abandoned infants.
Marguerite lived in the General Hospital from 1747 to her death on December 23, 1771. She opened her heart and home to every type of human misery. Marguerite fought for the rights of the poor and frequently disregarded the social conventions of her day. Her primary concern was to spread the Good News of God’s compassionate love for every human being. Marguerite’s last words are still today a source of inspiration for Grey Nuns.
Her last request was that her sisters remain faithful as they journeyed along the path laid out for them by God; that they go forward in a spirit of obedience to God’s will; and, above all, she urged them to live in perfect union and charity. Pope John XXIII beatified Marguerite on May 3, 1959, proclaiming her “Mother of Universal Charity.” She was the first Canadian woman to be called “Blessed.” On December 9, 1990, Pope John Paul II canonized this “Mother of the Poor” and presented her to the entire world as a model of compassionate love.
The Church celebrates her liturgical feast on October 16. Today, in addition to the Sisters of Charity (the Grey Nuns) of Montreal, five other autonomous Congregations continue the mission of Marguerite d’Youville: