July - September 2005, No. 2

Those Who Truly Live, the Saints
(And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.) (Gal. 2:20)

The Mother of Universal Charity

St. Marguerite d’Youville
(1701 -1771)

By Roger Zielke

Roger Zielke


We are about to tell you a wonderful love story… that of Mother d’Youville. Indeed, her charity knew no bounds and her love for the poor was immense. She made great sacrifices to help and comfort the poor and during her life, her physical help or her prayers consoled hundreds and hundreds of people. She sought God in the simplicity of her heart and found Jesus in the poor, and she lived the words of the Gospel to the fullest, Matthew Chap 25 vs. 40: “. . . as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.” But the words that were most engraved in her heart, were those of St. Paul; Chap 13: 4-7 “Charity is patient, is kind; charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Throughout her life, Marguerite put these words of St. Paul into practice to the fullest. By doing this she gained the honor of being called the, “Mother of Universal Charity”.

Marguerite was born on October 15, 1701 at Varennes, Quebec and was baptized the next day at St. Anne’s parish church. After her baptism, her father placed her on the knees of her maternal great-grandfather for the traditional blessing: “May God bless you, my little one, as I bless you!” She was the first child of Captain Christophe Dufrost de Lajemmerais and Marie Renée Gaultier de Varennes. Five other children, two girls and three boys, were born into this happy family. Lieutenant Lajemmerais was promoted to the rank of Captain, in June 1705. This was the highest rank that a soldier of the colonial troops could attain. He was promoted because of his fidelity to his duty, his spirit of self-sacrifice, his prompt willingness to take any assignment.

Ursuline Convent of Quebec
The Ursuline Convent of Quebec (established in 1639)

On June 1, 1708, Marguerite’s childhood was tragically disrupted by the death of her father. This was a time of insecurity. The salary of Captain de Lajemmerais had been large enough to keep his growing family but not sufficient to provide savings for the future. Our young friend learned very early how to think of others as she helped her mother provide for her destitute family. Marie Renée now had to depend on the charity of others for the needs of her children. And worse still – it would be another six years before she would receive a widow’s pension. This was due to complex formalities and slow communication between France and her colony of Canada.

Because she was extremely intelligent, Marguerite was greatly admired by her great-aunt, Mother St. Pierre, an Ursuline nun, and several other persons. So in 1712, in order to pursue her studies, Marguerite was taken in a little rowboat to the boarding school at the Ursuline Convent, in Quebec City; some hundred and fifty miles away. There she received a good education from the nuns and also a good spiritual training. At the convent school, Marguerite was a strong young girl with an attractive personality and she was admired for a goodness and a maturity, well beyond her age. She acquired the habit of meditating daily on some page of a little book dealing with the “Holy Ways of the Cross”. In 1714, at the age of almost 13, after two years at the boarding school, Marguerite received her First Holy Communion. But the girl could not stay in the convent for a lengthy time. Mme. Lajemmerais could not afford to leave Marguerite in Quebec any longer, even with the help of relatives and friends. There were still five other children to be educated. So our friend was obliged to go back to Varennes that same year, to help at home and to teach her brothers and sisters. Marguerite was an invaluable help to her mother. By her handiwork, she contributed skillfully to the support of the family and often, as she was making fine lace, she would tell wonderful stories to her brothers and sisters.

François d’Youville  
François d’Youville (1700-1730)


As a young woman, Marguerite became very popular in the social life of Varennes. At 18, she got engaged to a young man whom she deeply loved. But the promise of a happy marriage ended abruptly when her mother remarried beneath her social class, an act that was unacceptable to the family of Marguerite’s fiancé. We imagine the sorrow this produced in the hearts of the two friends… Two years later, Marguerite moved to Montreal with her family. There she became associated with the aristocracy of old Montreal who in time noticed that she was graceful, well mannered, serious and reserved. Before long, Marguerite met François d’Youville and once again, fell in love. She married him on August 12, 1722, in Notre Dame Church, in Montreal, when she was almost 21 years old. The newly married couple moved in with François’ mother, an avaricious and domineering woman who made life miserable for Marguerite. During the frequent absences of her husband her mother-in-law was most unsympathetic towards her. But worse yet, it soon became evident to Marguerite that François was indifferent, selfish and covetous; he was interested only in making money! During this time she had no idea about her husband’s business; as he was gone for long periods of time. Actually he was engaged in the illicit trading of liquor for the furs of the Indians – he was even absent at the birth of their first child. But in spite of all these sorrows, Marguerite remained faithful to her duties of state, always treating François with respect, and favoring him with all kind of delicate attentions. It was during these sorrowful times, in 1727, that the holy woman received a special grace from God. She came to a deep realization that God is a Father who has every human being in His providential care and that all are brothers and sisters. Through her whole life Marguerite kept this thought in her mind: “I leave all to Divine Providence, my confidence is in it; all will happen which is pleasing to God.”

Anxiety and grief continued to be a constant part of these years. Holding back her tears, Marguerite was left alone to care for her children. Three of her children died in infancy and she was pregnant with the sixth child when François became seriously ill. She cared for him until his death on July 4, 1730. Marguerite was now a 29 years old widow. She not only had to take care for her two surviving sons, who would later become priests, but she also had to pay off the enormous debts left by her husband. In addition to this, she also wanted to have some extra money to help those who were in greater need than her. To accomplish these goals, she opened a store on the first floor of her home where she sold her own handiwork and various household items. And poor Marguerite who had already had so many sorrows received still another sorrow, when a little over a year later, on July 17, 1731, Ignace, her little baby, died. But one day, Marguerite’s spiritual director, Fr. Dulescoat, told her, “Be comforted my child, God destines for you a great work and you will raise up a house from its ruins!” She didn’t know at that time that this work was the formation of the Institute of the Sisters of Charity, and that the house was the General Hospital, she simply continued doing God’s holy will for the time being… God would make His plans fully known to her at a later time. Marguerite continued to visit the poor at the hospital and mended their clothes. She begged for money to bury criminals who had been hung in the market place. Her heart went out to anybody in need of compassion, food, clothing or shelter. In 1734, she started to suffer from a mysterious ailment in her knees. It would only get worse through the years, and will make her suffer greatly, but without stopping her from doing her charitable work. On November 21, 1737, Marguerite took a poor blind woman into her home thus laying the foundation for hospitality in the Institute.

Catherine Cusson,
Louise Thaumur la Source,
Catherine Demers and Marguerite, kneeling before the statue
of Our Lady of Providence

Seeing Marguerite selflessly caring for the poor, inspired three women to join her. On December 31, 1737, Catherine Cusson, Louise Thaumur la Source, and Catherine Demers joined Marguerite. They consecrated themselves to God, promising secretly to serve Jesus in His poor. And so they went to live with our friend. Completely dedicated to her mission of charity, Madame d’Youville rented a larger house to receive the poor. She and her three companions entered this house on October 30, 1738. As they stepped into their new place, their first act was to kneel before the statue of Our Lady of Providence. They placed their work of helping the poor under the protection of Our Lady, and consecrated themselves to God, to serve the poor and most destitute members of her Divine Son, till the end of their lives. Marguerite was 37 years old… Like the saints, the members of the little society were persecuted and contradicted. People were even more disturbed over the opening of this house. Two days after its opening, on All Saints day, they threw stones at Madame d’Youville and her companions on their way to church! Their maliciousness went even further when they heard rumors that Fr. Louis Normant, the Superior of the Sulpicians – and Marguerite’s new spiritual director, wanted her and her companions to take over Montreal’s General Hospital for the poor, established in 1693 by the Charon Brothers! The people had other plans for the dilapidated hospital. Even Marguerite’s own relatives and friends were shocked by what she was doing and questioned her motives – her two brothers-in-law even signed a petition addressed to the Secretary of State, opposing such a move. Class-consciousness was strong in culture, in those days, and Marguerite had started something that was just not done by persons of her standing. Even the local parish priest believed in the calumnies made against the little community, and refused to give its members Holy Communion! But despite these persecutions, Mother d’Youville and her companions remained peaceful, and continued working devotedly and courageously, finding their best support through prayer. It was when things looked the most desperate that Marguerite was most trusting in God’s help, and felt most His closeness to her.

  The Eternal Father
The Eternal Father
painted by Challe in 1741

On February 20, 1741, Sr. Catherine Cusson died of tuberculosis at the age of 32. During the three short years of her religious life, she was distinguished by her charity to the poor and by her exact observance of the rule. To Marguerite, the loss of this spiritual daughter was as painful as that of her natural children had been. And even while the weight of Sr. Catherine’s death weighed in the hearts of the nuns, another threatened loss of far greater weight sent the Sisters to their knees in urgent prayer. Fr. Normant, their Superior, had become so dangerously ill that any hope of his recovery was almost abandoned. Pounding on the doors of Heaven, Marguerite solemnly promised that if Fr. Normant were restored to health, she would have a votive light burned before the Blessed Sacrament every year on the Feast of the of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – a feast of deep significance to the Sulpicians. Moreover she promised to have a special painting made of the Eternal Father by an artist in France. This was a promise that would be quite costly for the struggling community, but no sacrifice was too great for the life of their beloved director. Fr. Normant recovered his health – and since then, a beautiful painting of the Eternal Father, painted by Challe in 1741, hangs in the vast community room in the Motherhouse in Montreal. For some time our friend was also praying for the healing of her knees, not because of the suffering, but rather of the impossibility she had to continue to work. Here again, she was miraculously healed one day.

Marguerite helping the poor  
Marguerite helping the poor


Marguerite and her companions were now sharing their home with three boarders and ten destitute persons. All were living happily in their cramped quarters but suddenly their joy turned to sorrow when during the night of January 31, 1745, a fire completely destroyed their home. It was devastating to the residents, but Marguerite promised them that she would not abandon them. With unwavering trust in Divine Providence, she resolved to start over. While the fire was raging, a group of bystanders were heard to shout: “Look at those purple flames! … Those women are drunk!” (N.B. In French the word “grey” is translated “gris”, and it not only means the color, but also the fact of being drunk. So from the day of the fire, people started calling the sisters “Grey Nuns”, meaning “Drunken Nuns”. By humility, and to show her nuns should be inebriated by the love of God and neighbor, Marguerite kept that nickname for her community). After all was Marguerite not the widow of François d’Youville, who had dealt in illegal liquor trading with the Indians? Marguerite knew that the people suspected her and her companions of manufacturing alcohol in their home, but she held no grudges – God was watching over all! After the fire, Marguerite asked herself, “What can we learn from this? … Perhaps we have been too well off. Now we will have to live more poorly!” This resolve was carried out two days later on February 2, 1745, when Marguerite, then aged 44, and the other Sisters, signed the “Original Commitment”. Part of this founding document reads: … “for the greater glory of God … for the relief of the poor … we are united in pure charity to live and die together … to consecrate without reserve our time, our days, indeed our entire life, to labor … to receive, feed and support as many poor as we can take care of …” And since that day, every Grey Nun has signed her name to this commitment!

Our Lady of Providence  
Our Lady of Providence


On October 7, 1747, a small procession made its way toward the General Hospital of Montreal. Marguerite had been appointed temporary director of the General Hospital, which was falling into ruins. It was a last resort; as nobody could be found to administer this neglected institution. The founder, who was too weak to walk, was seated on an old mattress in a cart. She had to travel this way as she was exhausted after the stress of the recent fire and the frequent moves that followed. Her companions, some aged people and an orphan followed her on foot. And at the same time poor Marguerite had to endure the laughing of the people they passed by. Arriving at the hospital, Marguerite found that four elderly men and two aged Brothers were living there under deplorable conditions. After attending to their urgent needs, Marguerite’s creative ingenuity and the energetic activity of her sisters made the hospital livable. After only three years as Director of the General Hospital, Marguerite had completely renovated it.

She was therefore sadly surprised when she was in the market place one day, and heard by a public announcement that the General Hospital was to be merged with the one in Quebec, where its poor people was to be transferred! The authorities had decided that there was need for only one hospital of this kind. But Marguerite is convinced: The General Hospital belongs to those who need it badly: the poor! She therefore tries all she humanly can to have the decision changed. But the opposition of Intendant François Bigot, representative of the King of France, and the disapproval of Bishop de Pontbriand of Quebec, was a heavy blow to Marguerite. She tried to soften its impact on her sisters and their charges: “If God calls us to govern this house, His plan will succeed; the impediments and opposition of men should not trouble us.” She will also write: “Divine Providence is truly admirable. God has a way of comforting those who depend on Him, no matter what happens. I place all my trust in Him!” And Marguerite’s hope was not in vain… prominent citizens joined her in filing objections to the Ordinance. Among them were many who had put their names to the earlier document repudiating “Les Soeurs Grises.” The Sulpicians who had always supported Marguerite’s work, asked their members in France to appeal to the Royal Court and on May 12, 1752, the Ordinance of October 1750 was retracted. And in 1753, King Louis XV of France, signed the “Letters Patent” which sanctioned the appointment of Marguerite d’Youville as Directress of the General Hospital of Montreal. More importantly, the document also established, for the civil part, the new institute of the Sisters of Charity, known as the Grey Nuns. Another great joy was soon to follow these…

Bishop Henri de Pontbriand  
Bishop Henri de Pontbriand


Indeed, Bishop de Pontbriand, although for some time an admirer of the nuns, hesitated to approve officially their Constitutions and costume: he thought the sisters were so fervent they would never need such rigid rules. But two years later, in 1755, he went along with their wishes and gave his canonical approval. That same year on August 25th, Fr. Louis Normant, co-founder of the Institute, bestowed on Mother d’Youville, who was now 54, and her companions, the religious habit – a simple grey dress and black head covering, similar to a widow’s bonnet. They also wore a silver cross with a heart in relief, at the centre. A fleur-de-lis at each corner of the cross commemorated their French origin. Because of their grey habit, the Sisters were now affectionately called: the Grey Nuns. They were now respected by the people and were regarded as Mothers and Sisters to the poor, the elderly, orphans, and prostitutes, the mentally ill, physically handicapped, chronically ill and abandoned infants. Their work was now recognized for what it was: a mission of charity and love. In this same year, Mother d’Youville and her companions began their work as nurses during an epidemic of chicken pox. The disease also spread to the Indian missions around Montreal. Since they were not cloistered nuns, Marguerite and her companions would go into homes and take care of the sick that could not be hospitalized.

In 1756, war was officially declared between France and England. It was the famous “Seven Years War”, and it extended to the colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Canadians, under the leadership of the great General Montcalm were at first victorious and seized many English forts. But after a while, lacking support from the central government in France, they lost them, and even some of their own forts. Inexorably the war was transporting itself to the core of Canada: the St. Lawrence River Valley. The young but able English General Wolfe came in June 1759 with a fleet transporting several thousand men, and anchored in front of Quebec City. He soon took the town of Lévis and Orleans Island. He besieged Quebec City and took her in September. Then it was Montreal’s turn. From the beginning, the Grey Nuns had extra work, taking care of the wounded from both sides, and of the widows and orphans. Marguerite will even help some wounded English prisoners to escape the wrath of the Indians allied to the French! The situation in the Canadian colony was very difficult. All able-bodied men were in the army; consequently the fields were not cultivated and food was in short supply. Sounds of rifle fire mingled with cries of anger, frustration and sorrow were heard day and night.

General Louis Joseph de Montcalm   General James Wolfe

General Louis Joseph de Montcalm (1712-1759)

General James Wolfe

One of the greatest consolations Mother d’Youville had during her life was her two sons becoming priests. But during the siege of Quebec, Father Charles, the younger of Mother d’Youville’s sons, was imprisoned aboard an English frigate along with his parishioners. Marguerite feared for his safety. Four months later at the surrender of Quebec, the prisoners were released, unharmed. When Montreal surrenders, in 1760, the end of a world is happening: that of a Catholic Canada. In 1763 the Catholic King of France will officially give away his colony of Canada to the Protestant King of England. Mother d’Youville shares her suffering with us: “To lose our King, our country, our possessions, and worse still: to fear to see our Holy Religion vanish, it is all very difficult to bear!”Indeed the British Military Regime starts then, and soon harasses and persecutes the Catholic Religion and its clergy. It will take many years of struggle, diplomacy, and persevering prayer to obtain freedom of Religion from the new masters. But this is another story… Many French and Canadian citizens returned to France rather than live under English rule. The small people, attached to a land they had worked for generations remained, together with a few members of the nobility. Mother d’Youville found it hard to say goodbye to those close to her, but for Marguerite there was no question of leaving. Those in need of the Grey Nuns had never been so numerous.

Caring for Injured Soldiers  
Caring for Injured Soldiers
during War of 1758-1760


On May 18, 1765, a fire started which threatened to destroy the entire city of Montreal! Marguerite sent all those she could, to help control the blaze. But tragically, the wind turned direction and the General Hospital was completely destroyed! Several hours later, Marguerite stood before the smoking ruins; she gathered everyone around her and said, “We are going to recite the ‘Te Deum’ on our knees, to thank God for the cross He has just sent us!” God will reward her with the promise that never again will any fire touch the General Hospital, and this came to be. The great stonewalls were still standing, though, and Marguerite regarded it as a sign of God’s Providence when she found the painting of the Eternal Father unharmed among the ruins. The statue of Our Lady of Providence, before which she and her early companions had made their consecration, had also been preserved. Fortified by these signs of God’s love, Marguerite, now 64 will start with great and communicative energy the rebuilding of the General Hospital. In the meantime all the Grey Nuns, and those they had under care, were lodged at the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Thanks to the numerous donations of the people - even those of the Indians, who did not forget Marguerite’s generosity during the 1755 smallpox epidemic - the General Hospital was soon back “on its feet”.

Three years later Marguerite will complain that she doesn’t have enough resources to welcome all those who are in need. It was certainly not for lack of keenness and industry, because she indeed was a remarkable businesswoman! For instance, she acquired in 1768 the Seigniory of Chateauguay and St. Bernard Island. She also supervised the construction of a building at Pointe St. Charles. Nevertheless, the burden is terrible: alone with 17 aging nuns, Marguerite had to shelter, feed, clean, 170 patients and poor! She writes, “There is so much good we could do if only we had the means. Everyday the poor who are in need come to us, and I cry bitterly that I have to send them away. If I knew how to obtain funds without stealing, I would have a new building, large enough to house 200 people, but I have nothing! Nevertheless, I must believe that God is satisfied with our good intentions.” Her trust in God’ Providence was rewarded one day, when there was practically nothing left in the house: They found one morning several barrels of fine wheat flour in their refectory. No one ever discovered where they came from.

  Fire Destroys General Hospital
Fire Destroys General Hospital (1765)

In the last remaining years of her life, Mother d’Youville continued correcting the sisters and teaching them the ways of God. She didn’t let any occasion slip by; knowing how important it was to make sure that the virtue of charity was running in their veins, charity between themselves and also for the poor and destitute. But Marguerite could not live forever in this world – working day and night to serve the poor, and the sisters in her charge, her health could not hold out. During the autumn of 1771, Marguerite’s health began to fail, and in early December she suffered a stroke. When later she had another stroke and became paralyzed, she knew that her service to the poor would soon come to an end. She also knew that her last words would make a permanent impression on those whose lives were intertwined with her own. To her spiritual daughters, she bequeathed her great spirit of charity, recommending that they should “remain faithful to the duties of the life they have embraced… and always follow the paths of regularity, obedience, mortification, but most of all, the most perfect union should always reign among them.” On December 23rd, around 8:30 in the evening, Mother d’Youville passed into the arms of God. She was 70 years old. At that very moment, a luminous cross appeared in the sky above the hospital. With astonishment, the passers-by noticed the strange sight and considered it miraculous. One of them, named Jean Delisle, understood Marguerite had just left this world and exclaimed: “Oh! What a cross for these poor Grey Nuns!”

Saint Marguerite d’Youville  
Saint Marguerite d’Youville


Indeed, this was a great loss for the community, and for Canada. But joy replaced sorrow in their hearts, because they were certain Marguerite was a Saint. Had she not shown, during all of her life, the example of all virtues? Yes. And what made Marguerite walk with unfaltering steps in fulfillment of the mission God had given her? It was truly her faith and trust in Divine Providence, her sincere love of the poor and her communion with God in prayer. Each morning she offered herself to God the Father, in union with Jesus, to spend the day in His love. In simplicity of heart, she sought God in the poor. In the events of daily life and in every opportunity to respond to unmet needs, she saw God’s great plan of universal love. One of the greatest traits of Marguerite d’Youville’s character was that she did not permit herself to dwell inordinately on the misfortunes of her life. She kept sorrow in its place, and never let it get the best of her. By doing this Marguerite was able to keep abreast of all her troubles and woes, and concentrate on doing good works and carrying her cross with joy. Recognizing her heroic practice of virtue, Holy Mother Church decided to place her on the altars. On May 3rd 1959, Pope John XXIII beatified her, and gave her the title “Mother of the Universal Charity”, and on December 9th 1990, Pope John Paul II canonized her, proposing her to our veneration and imitation. Surely we can all follow Marguerite’s excellent example of being submitted to God’s Holy Will, or at least we can make greater efforts to do this – for in doing so, we begin to have heaven on earth; and what’s more, peace of soul goes with this. Let us pray then to good Mother d’Youville to help us in our daily efforts to practice charity – she who knew so well how to practice this beautiful virtue. ←

Saint Marguerite d’Youville Pray for Us!