Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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September 30, 2001
Saint Jerome

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

During Marguerite d'Youville's canonization ceremony, Pope John Paul II observed that «the foundress of the 'Gray Sisters' gives us a great example; she was able to overcome her disappointments and accept suffering as Christ's cross. Surrendering herself to the hands of Providence, she continued on her way in hope. Confidence did not leave her... Her life was utterly in the Creator's hands.» This attitude was truly wise, for «recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 301). In fact, after creation, God does not abandon His creatures to their own devices, but «at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end» (ibid.). The life of our Saint gives vivid witness to this.

Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lagemmerais came into the world on October 15, 1701, in Varennes, near Montreal, in «New France» (called «Canada» after 1763). Her father, a Breton gentleman who had lived in New France since 1687, was an army officer. Marguerite's mother, Marie-Renée de Varennes, was the daughter of an officer, René Gauthier de Varennes, a knight in the Royal Order of Saint Louis. Marie-Marguerite (custom dictated that she be called «Marguerite»), was the eldest in a family of six children. Orphaned by her father at the age of seven, Marguerite entered the school of poverty at a yet tender age. Her father had never had more than an officer's meager salary to support his family, that is to say, just enough to keep the family from starvation. Upon his death, his widow and her six children were forced into beggary. Six years of painful waiting passed before a derisory pension was paid to Madame Dufrost to raise her family. Thanks to the support of charitable individuals, Marguerite was sent to an Ursuline boarding school for two years in Quebec. She gained a strong religious education there, in keeping with the formation she had received from her family. At the age of twelve, she returned home to help her mother in household tasks and the raising of her brothers and sisters.

On August 12, 1722, she married François d'Youville, who was a handsome knight, but also an adventurer of questionable morals, the son of a fur and alcohol trafficker, and himself also a trafficker. In a few years, he had squandered his fortune and destroyed his health as well as his wife's happiness. He died in 1730, at the age of twenty-eight, after eight years of an unhappy marriage. He bequeathed debts to his wife, leaving her two young children and pregnant with a third—four others had died in infancy. Marguerite accepted all these trials with courage, in a spirit of faith. She knew that Divine Providence's care is tangible and immediate, that it sees to everything, from the smallest matters to the greatest world and historical events. In fact, Jesus asked for filial abandon to the Providence of the heavenly Father, who meets the least of His children's needs: So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?'... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides (Mt 6:31-33).

«Console yourself, Madame...»

Trials were to bear the fruit of sanctification in Marguerite's life, which seemed to have begun so badly. Father de Lescöat, the young widow's confessor, told her, at the beginning of her mourning, «Console yourself, Madame, God has destined you for great works, and you will rebuild a crumbling house.» Indeed, in the city of Montreal, a hospital founded in 1692 and named Charon Hospital, after its founder, was decadent. Two Sulpician priests, Father de Lescöat and Father Normant, successive pastors at Notre-Dame Parish, hoped to recover possession of and save this institution, which was indispensable to the city's poor. Unlike today, the eighteenth century hospitals did not specialize in medical care; rather, they were places of welcome for all manner of poor people. Upon Father de Lescöat's death, Father Normant became Madame d'Youville's spiritual director. He noticed the piety of the young woman, who, with tears of sincerity, mourned the husband who had so little deserved her. He considered the mother sparing no expense for the education of her two sons, François and Charles, future priests. He saw this woman visit the poor and the sick; he saw her go to the general hospital to mend the rags of some neglected and filthy poor; he observed this charitable person's ingenuity and her marvelous spirit of initiative. In addition to the great personal traits that God had given her was yet added an intimate love of God the Father. She entered into a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father! (Rm 8:15), with an almost reckless confidence in the Father's Providence, which is never lacking for those who work for the sanctification of His Name and the coming His Kingdom.

In Father Normant's eyes, this woman was capable of rebuilding the hospital, and to this end God would perhaps make her the mother of a religious family. Filled with these ideas, he suggested to Marguerite d'Youville to take some poor persons into her home; this would be a novitiate suitable for the task to come. The priest then recruited her a fellow worker. Soon, two other young women joined them. They moved into a rented house, with five poor persons who would quickly become ten. And thus was formed the core of a new community. This was in 1737. But this charitable undertaking was to undergo serious trials.

Intoxicated from alcohol?

Certain individuals cast a disapproving eye on the Sulpician Fathers' initiative. They were suspected of wanting to completely liquidate the general hospital, so as to take back the land and buildings, which would then be rightfully theirs. In addition, some elderly Hospitaller Brothers lived there—why replace them with a community that didn't yet exist? Wouldn't that be a flagrant departure from the founders' intentions? A petition signed by the most prominent citizens of Montreal, and sent to Count de Maurepas, the Secretary of State, demanded that Madame d'Youville be expelled from the city. Among the leaders of those who signed the petition were close relatives of Madame d'Youville, still filled with strong resentment against François d'Youville and his father, who, through their trafficking, had ruined many honest merchants, thereby disgracing the family.

On All Saints' Day, Marguerite and her companions left their house to go to Mass. Immediately, they were met by a crowd of people which railed against them with shouts and screams and then chased them, hurling stones. In the days that followed, similar scenes recurred. Always consisting in invented fabrications, the slander went at a good pace: the Sulpician priests were accused of furnishing Madame d'Youville and her assistants with alcohol, which they secretly sold to the Indians, only after having drunk some of it themselves. Consequently they were called, ironically, the «Soeurs grises,» which is both «Gray Sisters» and «Tipsy Sisters» in French, meaning the women were «grisées,» or drunk, from alcohol.

At the same time, one of Madame d'Youville's most devoted companions died on the job. Father Normant, practically the only supporter of the growing community, likewise was struck down by a fatal disease. Marguerite d'Youville herself was confined to a chair by stubborn knee pain. On top of that, on January 31, 1745, a fire forced the little community out of its home, and left their half-clad group in the snow. Gossips did not fail to see in this a «righteous punishment from Heaven.» But by Divine Providence's merciful plan, a charitable woman made her home available to Marguerite d'Youville so that she might continue her work.

A question as pressing as it is unavoidable

The reversals this goodly undertaking met with allowed the following question to arise: «If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all His creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable, as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question...» (CCC, 309). «God is infinitely good and all His works are good. Yet no one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures: and above all to the question of moral evil... 'I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution,' said Saint Augustine, and his own painful quest would only be resolved by his conversion to the living God. For the mystery of lawlessness (2 Thess 2:7) is clarified only in the light of the mystery of our religion (1 Tim 3:16)» (CCC, 385).

«In time, we can discover that God in His almighty Providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by His creatures: It was not you, said Joseph to his brothers, who sent me here, but God... You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive (Gn 45:8; 50:20)» (CCC, 312). Saint Augustine wrote, «For almighty God..., because He is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in His works if He were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself» (CCC, 311). «From the greatest moral evil ever committed—the rejection and murder of God's only Son, caused by the sins of all men—God, by His grace that abounded all the more (Rm 5:20), brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good» (CCC, 312). «The revelation of Divine Love in Christ manifested at the same time the extent of evil and the superabundance of grace (cf. Rm 5:20). We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on Him who alone is its Conqueror» (CCC, 385). By His Passion and Death, Christ gave redemptive value to suffering and death, and made them into means of sanctification. United to His, the many crosses borne by men and women lead to the Resurrection.

An unenviable taking of possession

Saint Marguerite d'Youville considered her trials in the light of Christ. In 1747, faced with the hospital's effective bankruptcy, the regional administration made an unexpected and nearly unbelievable decision—to temporarily entrust the establishment's administration to Madame d'Youville. The taking of possession was put into effect on Saturday, October 7, 1747, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The foundress, who was sick that day, had to be transported there on a mattress laid in a cart. Her five companions and nine poor persons followed. The building entrusted to her was in a pitiful state—the walls were full of cracks, the roofs had holes in them everywhere, 1,226 windows were missing... Two very elderly Hospitaller brothers lived there, serving four poor, sick persons. Thanks to help from many individuals, Marguerite and her companions gradually rectified the situation. However, it remained precarious.

The idea to merge the hospital in Montreal with that in Quebec dawned on the Canadian administration. One fine morning in 1751, Madame d'Youville learned from a town crier that the 1747 contract that entrusted her with the administration of the hospital had been nullified, and that she was to give up her position to the nuns of Quebec. But Marguerite did not see things that way—with fearless eloquence, she pleaded her case before the civil and religious authorities. From then on, she was able to depend on public opinion. For four years, the people had observed the work carried out by her companions in the hospital. They had seen how the women were peaceful and good, merciful towards all human misery. In addition, Marguerite, with her feminine intuition, found the means of making opposition fall—she offered to pay all the state's debts in the business, down to the last penny, and these debts were enormous. In 1753, she could finally take the hospital back into her hands. Two years later, the bishop elevated Marguerite's little group of companions to the status of a religious community. In the spirit of humility and forgiveness for the ridicule endured at the beginning of the foundation, the name chosen for the Sisters was «Gray Sisters,» (Soeurs grises), and their chosen habit was, indeed, the color gray. They had had to endure sixteen years of hard work, bitter struggles, and trials of every kind in order to arrive at this official recognition.

Overwhelming activity

Madame d'Youville did everything possible to help the hospital grow. She accommodated women pensioners. She and her daughters busied themselves with all sorts of sewing work, including clothing for the king's troops, dress for the Indians, ornaments for the tribal chiefs. They embarked upon the production of hosts and candles, the restoration of an abandoned brewery, the sale of lime, building stone, sand... All the poor in the hospital who could help were occupied in some sort of useful work. At the restored farm at Saint Charles' Point, pastures for animals were set up. A boat for voyages and excursions was brought into commission for the public, with profits going to the hospital. All this activity bore fruit. The Brothers' debts were paid in full, and money was put into savings to ensure the security of the poor. Many buildings were constructed; the hospital was expanded, and its church was completed. Its doors were open to all the poor, and to all those who were accepted nowhere else: epileptics, lepers, women of ill-repute to be rehabilitated, wounded or sick English prisoners. In 1761, Mother d'Youville established a nursery for foundlings and received 328 of them in eleven years. For these poor little ones, wet-nurses were located and paid.

Yet, the series of ordeals had not come to an end. In 1756, the French and Indian War began between France and England, who had long fought over the New World. It ended with British victory, sanctioned by the Treaty of Paris, in 1763. The evils stemming from the war were numerous—famine, price increases in Montreal which was flooded with refugees, fear for the future and for the survival of religious communities, an exodus of protectors, friends, and relatives to France, resulting in a perceptible decrease in collections despite the increasing numbers of poor to relieve, the devaluation of currency, etc. Marguerite d'Youville and her Sisters sacrificed themselves to the best of their ability.

«Be calm...»

But another calamity struck: the blaze of May 18, 1765 which, after having consumed more then one hundred homes in the city, reached the hospital, destroying it and forcing 118 individuals onto the streets. In this desperate situation, Mother Marguerite d'Youville drew from her faith the courage to set to work again without any fuss. First, she gathered her frightened daughters and told them, «My children, we are going to thank God on our knees for the cross He has just sent us, by reciting the Te Deum (prayer of thanksgiving).» After that, as she was getting up, she said these words, inspired by Heaven: «Don't worry, the house will not burn again.»

Saint Marguerite d'Youville's attitude in the face of this disaster is an heroic example of faith in Divine Providence, which overlooks nothing. Saint Catherine of Sienna said to those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them: «Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.» And Saint Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter: «Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best» (cf. CCC, 313). Saint Francis de Sales wrote to one of his correspondents, who was afflicted with trials: «You must throw yourself with utter self-abandonment into the arms of Providence, for this is the desirable time for it. Practically everyone knows how to entrust himself to God amid the comfort and peace of prosperity; but to commit oneself to God in the midst of storms and tempests is proper to His children. I say, to commit oneself to Him with complete abandon.»

Marguerite d'Youville's confidence would yet again bear astonishing fruit. Less than a month after the fire, reconstruction on the hospital had begun. Four years later, in 1769, everything was once again in place, and Mother Marguerite d'Youville was completely free of debt. Many miracles followed the disaster, such as the multiplication of necessary wine in a barrel come across under the debris, and the inexplicable presence of coins in the foundress' pockets—Providence's comforting responses to the Mother's total submission and confidence. Again through concern for the poor, in order to arrange means for them, she acquired an immense piece of land, where she built a water mill. To operate it, she had a three-meter-high barrier and a canal built in the rapids. During a difficult time in Canadian history, while others lost heart and faith, giving themselves over to discouragement, this foundress demonstrated through her works the inexhaustible reserves of Christian energy.

On the verge of having nothing

A year before her death, Mother Marguerite d'Youville wrote, «We are eighteen Sisters, all disabled, who direct a house where there are one hundred seventy people to feed, and nearly as many to look after... always on the verge of having nothing, we have everything, or at least we have everything we need. Every day, I praise Divine Providence, which wishes indeed to make use of these poor subjects to do some small good!»

At the end of her life, Mother said to her daughters, «My dear Sisters, constantly remain faithful to the state which you have embraced: always walk the paths of steadfastness, obedience, and mortification—but above all, make the most perfect union reign among you.» Then she added, «Ah! How happy I would be if I saw myself in Heaven with all my Sisters!»

On December 9, 1771, she suffered a stroke. On the 13th of the same month, she had a second attack. She died on the 23rd, at the age of seventy. The testimony of numerous individuals worthy of faith reported that at the moment when her soul departed from her body to enter into Heaven, a bright light shone, in the shape of a cross, above the hospital. Seeing this, and not knowing of the foundress' death, a learned and distinguished citizen exclaimed, «Ah! What cross will the poor Gray Sisters have? What is going to happen to them?»

Rooted in the Cross

The holy foundress' congregation, deeply implanted by her life's work, fertilized by her merits, has received, through her intercession before God, the abundance of heavenly fecundity. It extends from the Atlantic to the frigid Arctic Ocean, and from Canada to southern Africa. It continues today through the religious communities born of Mother Marguerite's initiative and formed in her spirit: the Sisters of Charity of the Montreal Hospital («Soeurs grises,» founded in 1737, now approximately 700 Sisters); the Sisters of Charity of Saint-Hyacinthe (founded in 1840, now about 230 Sisters); of Ottawa (founded in 1835, now about 840 Sisters); of Quebec (founded in 1849), of Nicolet (founded in 1886, merged with Montreal in 1941), of Philadelphia, USA (founded in 1921, now around 180 Sisters); and of Pembroke (founded in 1926, now approximately 180 Sisters). Pope Leo XIII solemnly approved the Congregation of Gray Sisters on July 30, 1880.

We firmly believe that God is the Master of the world and of history. In eternal life, we will fully know the wonderful ways of Providence. Here on earth, these ways are often unknown to us, but the Word of God assures us that all things work for good for those who love God (Rm 8:28). May this certainty light our path to Heaven, under the protection of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help!

We pray to Saint Joseph for all your intentions, including your beloved deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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