She was born Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais in 1701 at Varennes, Quebec, oldest daughter of Christophe du Frost, Sieur de la Gesmerays (1661–1708) and Marie-Renée Gaultier de Varennes. (Pursuant to Quebec naming conventions, she would have always been known as Marguerite, not Marie.) Her father died when she was a young girl.
Despite her family’s poverty, at age 11 she was able to attend the Ursuline convent in Quebec City for two years before returning home to teach her younger brothers and sisters. Marguerite’s impending marriage to a scion of Varennes society was foiled by her mother’s marriage below her class to Timothy Sullivan, an Irish doctor who was seen by the townspeople as a disreputable foreigner.
On 12 August 1722 at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, she married François d’Youville, a bootlegger who sold liquor illegally to Indians in exchange for furs and who frequently left home for long periods for parts unknown. Despite this, the couple eventually had six children before François died in 1730.
By age 30 she had suffered the loss of her father, husband and four of her six children, who died in infancy. Marguerite experienced a religious renewal during her marriage. “In all these sufferings Marguerite grew in her belief of God’s presence in her life and His tender love for every human person. She, in turn, wanted to make known His compassionate love to all. She undertook many charitable works with complete trust in God, whom she loved as a Father.”
In 1737, with three companions, Marguerite founded the Grey Nuns, 1737 a religious association to provide a home for the poor in Montreal. When they took their initial vows; a formal declaration took place in 1745. Two years later she was appointed Directress of the General Hospital in Montreal, which was taken over by the Grey Nuns, and had the rule of the Grey Nuns, with Marguerite as Superior, confirmed by Bishop of Pontbriand of Quebec in 1755. As their actions went against the social conventions of the day, d’Youville and her colleagues were mocked by their friends and relatives and even by the poor they helped.
On February 2, 1745, she and her two early companions pledged themselves to put everything in common in order to help a greater number of persons in need. Two years later, this “mother of the poor” as she was called, was asked to become director of the Charon Brothers Hospital in Montreal which was falling into ruin. She and her sisters rebuilt the hospital and cared for those in most desperate human misery. With the help of her sisters and their lay collaborators, Marguerite laid the foundation for service to the poor of a thousand faces.
Marguerite was one woman, but this daughter of the Church had a vision of caring for the poor that has spread far and wide. Her sisters have served on almost every continent. Today, her mission is courageously carried on in a spirit of hope by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, “Grey Nuns” and their sister communities: the Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinthe, the Sisters of Charity at Ottawa, the Sisters of Charity of Quebec, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart (Philadelphia) and the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (Pembroke).
In 1765 a fire destroyed the hospital but nothing could destroy Marguerite’s faith and courage. She asked her sisters and the poor who lived at the hospital, to recognize the hand of God in this disaster and to offer him praise. At the age of 64 she undertook the reconstruction of this shelter for those in need. Totally exhausted from a lifetime of self-giving, Marguerite died on December 23, 1771 at the General Hospital. She will always be remembered as a loving mother who served Jesus Christ in the poor.
In 1959, she was beatified by Pope John XXIII, who called her “Mother of Universal Charity”, and was canonized in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. She is the first native-born Canadian to be elevated to sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day is October 16. In 1961, a shrine was built in her birthplace of Varennes. Today, it is the site of a permanent exhibit about the life and works of Marguerite.