Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 16, 2006
The Grey Nuns ministered to all
St. Marguerite's care for the soldiers saved her hospital
St. Marie Marguerite d'Youville – October 16
- WCR photo by Ted Fitzgerald
Statue of Mother d'Youville stands at the entrance to her sanctuary.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
The statue can't be missed by anyone driving riverside rue Sainte-Anne in the south shore gem of Varennes.
Larger than life, St. Marie-Marguerite d'Youville stands tall on a pedestal, her back to the great St. Lawrence, gazing determinedly up the dramatic straight walkway that leads to the place of her birth, now the site of the modern Sanctuaire de Mere d'Youville.
This shrine, dedicated to the founder of the famed Grey Nuns, honours a New World pioneer and is much-visited by pilgrims seeking the intercession of the first Canadian-born saint.
The sanctuary is just east of the parish church, Sainte-Anne Basilica in the riverside town about 20 km north of Longueil.
For most, a visit will begin at the river's edge where the saint's statue can be examined closely. Following her gaze down the long entry to the shrine brings pilgrims to a modern glass-fronted chapel that serves, by way of artwork, to tell the story of Marguerite's life and accomplishments.
Enclosed by a fieldstone wall and topped by a complimentary tower and a luminous cross, the building was dedicated in 1961.
On the tower, carved in bas-relief is the image of the saint, "the Open Hearted Lady" by sculptor Louis Parent with the inscription "Mother of Universal Charity," a title bestowed on her by Pope John XXIII at her beatification in 1959.
Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais was born in 1701, the oldest of six and was just seven when her mother was widowed.
Visitors to the shrine can view a copy of her baptismal record and the first of an impressive series of stained glass windows, the work of Claude Bettinger, that portrays Marguerite's christening.
Another window shows her sharing household duties and the care of her siblings.
Following an education by the Ursulines in Quebec, she married Francois d'Youville in Montreal, an irresponsible trader of liquor to the native people. At his death in 1730, she was left destitute with two children.
Eking out a living as a seamstress, she became seriously concerned about the town's poor and disenfranchised.
With a few companions and a sense of humour, she founded a community called Les Soeurs Grises (The Grey Sisters), a play on words adopted from epithets flung at her group by people who called them soeurs grises (tipsy sisters).
In 1747, her congregation assumed responsibility for the Montreal General Hospital, accepting the elderly and handicapped, then prostitutes and eventually orphans, as well as the sick and injured.
Some of her activities are illustrated in the other windows of the sanctuary, for example, the commitment of Marguerite and three associates to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Providence.
Mother d'Youville endured a turbulent existence in youthful Montreal.
Her sisters were reviled on the street and accused of selling liquor to native people, contended with epidemics, recovered from two devastating fires and had their loyalty questioned when they treated English prisoners in their hospital.
All were welcome
Her faith and courage were tested to the limit when, during the conquest, she and her staff ministered to all the injured and sick equally, whether French, English or native.
In the end, her compassion and care for soldiers saved the hospital from destruction during the war. Marguerite's single-minded purposeful efforts to aid society's rejects gained the admiration of all who knew Les Soeurs Grises.
The foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns) (SGM) died on Dec. 23, 1771 and is buried at the congregation's Montreal motherhouse.
She was canonized in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. Her spirit survives in the names of many Catholic institutions across Canada.