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By Lawrence S. Cunningham

'Mother of Universal Charity'


She Opened Her Home
She Went About Doing Good
Historical Background

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 priests.

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.


Historical Background

St. Marguerite d'Youville stands in the great tradition of holy women who (in many cases having lost their spouses) turned their energies to the service of God by works of charity and social justice. In the process, they became foundresses of religious congregations.

This kind of activity became possible for women in the 17th century when far-seeing figures like Sts. Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul encouraged and supported women in moving from a strictly cloistered life (the norm in the medieval period) to the larger world outside the cloister. Marguerite d'Youville is a representative example in French-speaking Canada while St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), the widowed convert who founded the Sisters of Charity in 1813, is a prime example in the United States. Women like them modeled a new way of sanctity which may seem quite traditional but was, in fact, revolutionary in its time.


Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 18 books, and is at work on another about St. Francis of Assisi.

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