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September 30, 2001|
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 thirdfour 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...»
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?
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
«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 committedthe rejection and murder of God's only Son, caused by the sins of all menGod, 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
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 waywith 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 fallshe 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.
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 numerousfamine, 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.
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' pocketsProvidence'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
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 mortificationbut 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
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.