Marguerite d'Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns of Montreal and the namesake of numerous hospitals and assisted living residences in New England, lived during the 18th century in Montreal. Left a poor widow at the age of 30, she defied the gender and class boundaries of her time, always advocating for the needs and rights of the most marginalized members of society. In the midst of a smallpox epidemic, Marguerite and her associates provided care for a group of sick Native Americans in the woods when no one else would. She advocated for the burial rights of executed criminals and even begged for money to pay to have them buried. Faced with financial worries of her own, she consistently focused on those who had even less than she did.
Marguerite's commitment to serving the poor was matched by a willingness to take on responsibilities rarely assumed by women of her class. Nowhere is her tenacity more apparent than in the saga of her management of the General Hospital of Montreal.
The story begins with displacement. On Jan. 31, 1745, a house rented by Marguerite and three other pious women burned to the ground. The women had formed a religious association that ministered to the sick and the poor. They had used the house to provide shelter for the needy as well as for themselves. They were known derisively as "soeurs grises," which means both "tipsy nuns" and "grey nuns" in French, because Marguerite was the widow of a notorious bootlegger.
After the fire, the fledgling group of sisters spent years on the move, without a permanent home, until Marguerite was named temporary director of the General Hospital of Montreal. At the time, the hospital was in a state of severe neglect. Shattered windows, moldy wood, broken doors and collapsing infrastructure were among the challenges facing Marguerite when she moved in. According to "A Journey of Love: The Life Story of St. Marguerite," by Sister Marie Cecilia Lefevre, SGM and Sister Rose Alma Lemire, SGM, Marguerite's temporary appointment as hospital director was "a last resort, as no one could be found to administer this neglected institution ... At that time, four elderly men and two aged religious brothers were living at the hospital under deplorable conditions. After attending to their urgent needs, Marguerite's creative ingenuity and the energetic activity of her sisters soon made the house livable."
Marguerite and the sisters breathed new life into the hospital. They raised funds for much needed renovations and were soon able to care for more patients. In spite of the Grey Nuns' success, in 1750 the hospital faced an external threat. Authorities deemed that the General Hospital in Montreal was superfluous, and should be merged with a hospital in Quebec. Fearing that this would mean the displacement of many of her patients, Marguerite inspired influential members of the community to protest the ordinance. By this time, her transformation of the General Hospital and her many additional works of charity had begun to earn Marguerite a reputation around town. With the support and intervention of Sulpician priests, the ordinance was appealed to the Royal Court in France (Canada was still a French territory) and finally overturned in 1752.
This legal decision helped solidify the influence and legacy of Marguerite and the Grey Nuns. Prior to the controversy, the Grey Nuns were a self-assembled religious group without official standing, and their management of the hospital was seen as temporary. In 1753, in addition to appointing Marguerite as permanent "Directress of the General Hospital of Montreal," King Louis XV of France signed Letters Patent that officially recognized the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns). The Bishop of Quebec granted canonical approval to the Grey Nuns a year later.
As if their previous challenges with the General Hospital had not been enough, on May 18, 1765, a massive fire completely destroyed it. At the age of 64, Marguerite began the formidable tasks of rebuilding her hospital from the ground up. Donations flowed in from those she had inspired, including her sisters, the Sulpician priests, and the Native Americans whom she had helped during the smallpox epidemic. By the time of her death at the age of 70, she had rebuilt the hospital and was ministering to 170 dependents.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II canonized Marguerite d'Youville, making her the first Canadian to become a saint. Oct 16 is the Feast Day of St. Marguerite d'Youville -- this year marks the 28th anniversary of her canonization.
Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.