Saint Marguerite d’Youville
Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais was born in Varennes, Quebec, in 1701. She married François Youville de la Découverte and was early widowed. In 1737, she founded the community of The Sisters of Charity of Montreal. In consideration of her exceptional life of devotion and compassion for her brothers and sisters of the human family, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1990. Her Mortal Remains rest in the Basilica of Saint-Anne in Varennes, where a chapel is dedicated to her.
Marie Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais the Widow Youville
The portrait of Marguerite d’Youville by François Beaucourt was based on a portrait sketched by Philippe Liébert on the day after her death in 1771. Twenty years later, the artist was also inspired by the memories of her companions. He shows us the face of an older woman marked by life.
Marguerite’s son Charles, the author of her first biography, described her thus: “She was one of the most beautiful women of her time. She had light brown hair, a rosy complexion, keen and expressive eyes, and perfectly even features. She was tall and very distinguished looking.” According to Charles, Marguerite d’Youville loved life’s pleasures. Her contemporary the Sulpician Montgolfier, who admired her organizational abilities, said that she possessed an unusual intelligence.
Beyond these traits, the innumerable trials of her life developed in her a deep spirituality that revealed itself in her compassion for the poor. Her letters reveal a gentle firmness, a precise understanding of business matters, and a good judgement; these qualities enabled her to restore and courageously administer the General Hospital of Montreal during the difficult years at the end of the French rule.
Marguerite’s surnames: Lajemmerais or La Gemerais, Youville or d’Youville
In Marguerite d’Youville’s time, the spelling of proper names frequently varied. François Ladécouverte, called Youville, was the son of Pierre You, Sieur de la Découverte, who was thus named because he had taken part with the Cavalier de la Salle in the discovery of Louisiana. On his wedding contract he signed his name as François Youville De la Découverte. It was Marguerite d’Youville’s biographer, the Abbé Étienne-Michel Faillon, who added the “d” to Youville for reasons of euphony.
As for Marguerite’s family name, it was sometimes spelled Dufrost de la Gemerais and sometimes de la Jemerais. Her bursar in Paris asked her to sign it always in the same way; but in the last years of her life, she signed her name as M.M. Lajemmerais, Widow Youville.
The spirituality of Marguerite d’Youville can be situated within the wider stream of Catholic reform in France in the seventeenth century. A number of mystics and theologians came out of this movement, including Saint Jean Eudes, Saint Vincent de Paul, and Jean-Jacques Olier, the founder of the Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice. The members of that Society were the Lords Proprietor of the island of Montreal from 1659. They were in charge of the parish of Notre Dame; and one of them, Louis Normant de Faradon, became the spiritual director of Marguerite d’Youville after Gabriel du Lescöat.
In 1727, like a number of Montreal ladies, Marguerite d’Youville joined the Confraternity of the Ladies of the Holy Family. According to her biographers, it was at this time that she experienced a mystical encounter with God the Eternal Father. She was often alone and mourning the deaths of three of her children. Perhaps she recalled the words of her great-grandfather Pierre Boucher: “God will care for you, and He will be a Father to you.” All her life Marguerite d’Youville had a strong devotion to and trust in God the Father and his Divine Providence. In 1766, she wrote, “The Divine Father has been the object of all my trust for nearly forty years.”
This trust in the goodness of God and his justice towards all enabled her to achieve charitable works of astonishing scope, even by today’s standards. It becomes explicit if are considered that she laid the foundations for the social and community services that we are currently familiar with in our society. In a recent study, Sister Estelle Tardif, SGM, interpreted Marguerite’s thought in the following way: “The cry for help from the poor did not come to her only from without; it arose from within herself, a poor person among poor people. A woman of silence, she experienced a profound communion with the fatherhood of God and was able to hear the cry of the poor without the poor making a sound. For her, the poorest of the poor was the person who had the greatest need of God in order to become a man or woman. Her dream was ‘to liberate the poorest of the poor in an encounter of the poor with the poor, to liberate the poor person by teaching him or her, through action that he or she is loved.”
Marguerite d’Youville left to her contemporaries and to future generations a spiritual legacy marked by an unconditional compassion for the poor and an inextinguishable faith in God the Father and His Providence. Her example will remain forever a source of inspiration for those who are working for the coming of a civilization of love and justice.
The Eternal Father
As a result of a promise Marguerite made to obtain the healing of her spiritual director, Louis Normant de Faradon, PSS, and at the request of one of her companions who wanted to see a representation of the Eternal Father, she ordered from France a painting depicting the Eternal Father. In our century of images, this request might seem a little naive; but in the eighteenth century, the painting served as a focus of meditation for the little community.
For Marguerite, God was a Father on whom she could count. The name given to God under the aspect of his care for us is the Providential God, or Divine Providence. It is the way in which God shows his care in the concrete events of our lives through intermediaries who are attentive to needs of the poor and marginalized.
This faith in Divine Providence made Marguerite bold in her choice of life. Through storm and tempest, she stood firm, knowing that God’s help was assured to her since she was seeking the well-being of the poor. She testified to this frequently.
“Providence is wonderful, it has means we cannot understand to relieve those who trust in it, it provides for everything, in it is my trust.”
17 October 1768
“Blessed be God! Divine Providence provides for everything; all my trust is in it.”
21 September 1771
The Archives of The Grey Nuns of Montreal contain many of the letters written by Marguerite d’Youville since she kept copies of the letters she sent. One part of the letters is the epistolary evidence of the famous quarrel she had with Intendant Bigot, who wanted to close the General Hospital of Montreal and move the residents to Quebec City.
Throughout her letters, Marguerite defended her Hospital with great intelligence and determination. She replied to all the arguments put forward by Bigot, who was contesting the amount of money spent on the renovations for the maintenance of the boarders. One can feel her skill as an administrator and her determination to save her work.
Letter to Intendant Bigot:
“You do me the honour, Sir, to remark that I should have the fields sown before turning them over to the sisters of Quebec City. I can assure you that when I came here I found no fields sown nor a single furrow of fallow land ploughed. It is I who had the ploughing and sowing done. Therefore, Sir, I am bound to leave things only as I found them.”
16 February 1751
Another part of the letters is addressed to her bursars in France who were trying to recover the money lent to the King during the War of Conquest. She also wrote to members of her family who had returned to France. There is a great deal of humanity in her words.
Letter to her niece Josephte Gamelin:
“Let us hear the news of yourself and your dear daughters. The only consolation we have in our having been abandoned by France is to have news of our friends.”
23 July 1763
It is through her letters that one gets a better sense of her spirituality and her compassion for the poor:
“O Lord, my poverty is extreme. I have no worldly goods to give away, but I shall give myself, my time, and my work. I shall sow but a little, it is true, but your mercy will make of that little an infinite harvest.” 1727
“The Divine Father has been the object of all my trust for nearly forty years.”
12 October 1766
“Providence is wonderful, it has means we cannot understand to relieve those who put their trust in it, it provides for everything, in it is my trust.”
17 October 1768
“Blessed be God! Divine Providence provides for everything; all my trust is in it.”
21 September 1771
Sometimes, she felt a little overwhelmed by events, but she was never discouraged.
“There is a great deal of good we could do if we had anything. Every day poor people who are truly in need come to us. We do not have any more room to accommodate them, and it is with a heavy heart that I turn them away, but I have to do so. […] Had I known where I could get [the amount needed] without stealing it, I could have quickly erected a building that would accommodate close to two hundred, but I have nothing.”
22 September 1769
Her spiritual testament
“My dear Sisters, be constantly faithful to the duties of the state that you have embraced. Walk always in the path of regularity, obedience, and mortification. But above all, let the most perfect union reign among you.”
Words of Mother d’Youville, 14 December 1771
Let us entrust our intentions to Saint Marguerite d’Youville
O Saint Marguerite d’Youville,
you who spent your life
helping people in need,
please help me
in my present need.
I know that your prayers are powerful
before God the Father,
and I rely on you
to obtain this petition
that I am making in complete trust.
Mother of Universal Charity,
may your example encourage me
to seek God before all else
and to serve Him
in my brothers and sisters in need.
In the footsteps of marguerite d’Youville
Many people have committed themselves to following the example of Marguerite d’Youville “to love Jesus Christ and the poor”. Even today, God is still calling people to this way of life. The Grey Nuns of Montreal are open to collaborating in the Church with the vocational ministry to encourage young people and not-so-young people to recognize God’s calling.
Religious life is undergoing a process of renewal in its way of life and its participation in the Church and the world. There is deep questioning of what can emerge from these new kinds of life projects.
How can we follow in the footsteps of Marguerite d’Youville?
We can do so as persons consecrated by vows, as men and women Associates of Saint Marguerite d’Youville by promises made, or as partners in her charitable works.
The Associates of Saint Marguerite d’Youville
The Associates of Saint Marguerite d’Youville was founded by a committee of laypeople and Sisters in 1983. The Associates are committed to sharing the spirituality and mission of the Grey Nuns in their own lives. They are inspired by the principle of God the Father’s compassionate love as revealed by Marguerite d’Youville. Their goal is to help people in difficulty around them, in addition to healing people in their family and professional lives. Each year, they renew their commitment and take part in activities of spiritual renewal and other apostolic projects.
A number of laymen and laywomen from different backgrounds share the mission and values of The Grey Nuns of Montreal. Thanks to them, the spirit of Marguerite d’Youville is very much alive and thriving. Whether they are Associates, volunteers, or co-workers, these people are following the example of the Foundress. Like her, they are serving the most deprived people with the same devotion and the same vision.
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