Marguerite was born in Varennes (Quebec), one of 10 children,
in 1701. Her father died when she was seven. This loss left the family destitute.
At the age of 21, she married François d'Youville, a shady fur trader
who was frequently absent from home. He also had an unsavory reputation as a
womanizing alcoholic. François died in 1730 while Marguerite was pregnant with
her sixth child. Only two of her children survived infancy; both sons became
After her husband's death, Marguerite saw to educating her children
while serving the poor in her parish. She also paid off her husband's outstanding
debts by managing a small store.
She Opened Her Home
On the last day of December in 1737, she and three other women vowed to serve
the poor and began taking the destitute into their own homes.
Her late husband's terrible reputation (he had defrauded
both Indians and merchants) caused her work to suffer.
For a time she was insulted in the streets, pelted with stones and
even refused Holy Communion. Despite such a difficult beginning, the small
group grew into the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, known
more familiarly—from the plain color of their habits—as the Grey Sisters.
Within a decade Marguerite was known as the "Mother of the Poor."
In 1747 she took over the administration of a near-ruined hospital, which she
not only revitalized but also made into an institution famous for its care of
the sick, elderly and abandoned poor. When the hospital burned to the ground
in 1765, the 64-year-old sister saw to its restoration.
She started the first home for orphans in North America, maintained
farms for the needy, instituted private retreats for women and raised funds
to support poor seminarians. Worn out from her labors, Marguerite died two days
before Christmas in 1771.
From the little circle of friends who first committed themselves
to the religious life in 1737, a whole family of religious sisters branched
out in Canada, the United States and other missions. They are particularly known
for their labors among the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Far North.
She Went About Doing Good
Marguerite's life exemplifies an important but simple truth:
Great things can be done by a combination of God's grace, immense love and perseverance.
To paraphrase Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement: She stepped
outside the door and began doing good.
The extraordinary thing about her life is that she began where she
was, being who she was. Out of that simple condition, like the leaven in the
dough, a great and glorious work flourished.
A saint, it is said, is one who does the ordinary in an extraordinary
fashion. A saint also does the ordinary in a great spirit of faith. After 40
years in service to the poor and destitute, St. Marguerite once said, "I have
never lost confidence in our Eternal Father."
In 1959 Pope John XXIII, calling Marguerite the "mother of universal
charity," beatified her. In 1990 she was canonized by Pope John Paul II.