DUFROST DE LAJEMMERAIS, MARIE-MARGUERITE (Youville), founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général of Montreal (Grey Nuns); b. 15 Oct. 1701 at Varennes (Que.); d. 23 Dec. 1771 in Montreal.
Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais belonged to one of the great families of New France. Her mother, Marie-Renée Gaultier de Varennes, was the daughter of René Gaultier* de Varennes, governor of Trois-Rivières, and Marie Boucher, the daughter of Pierre Boucher*. Her father, François-Christophe Dufrost de La Gemerais, who descended from an old noble family in France, had come to Canada in 1687. Marguerite, the eldest child, had three brothers: Charles and Joseph, who became priests, and Christophe*, who accompanied his uncle, Pierre Gaultier* de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, on his expeditions in western Canada. Her sisters, Marie-Clémence and Marie-Louise, married respectively Pierre Gamelin* Maugras and Ignace Gamelin, two prominent Montreal merchants.
Marguerite was not yet seven when her father died, leaving his family financially insecure. With the aid of relatives she was nevertheless admitted in August 1712 to the Ursulines’ boarding-school at Quebec, where she spent two years. Returning to Varennes, she shared the heavy family responsibilities with her mother until 1720, when Mme Dufrost married Timothy Sullivan*, a doctor who although a commoner was well off. The marriage, a mésalliance at that period, stood in the way of a projected marriage between Marguerite and a young nobleman.
Towards the end of 1721 the family moved to Montreal, where Marguerite became acquainted with François-Madeleine d’Youville, the son of Pierre You* de La Découverte. On 12 Aug. 1722 they were married in the church of Notre-Dame. Their marriage contract, which had been signed the day before, is interesting because its signatures show that nearly all those eminent in the colony were present, among them Governor Philippe de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil, Claude de Ramezay*, governor of Montreal, and Charles Le Moyne* de Longueuil, first Baron de Longueuil and the governor of Trois-Rivières. The contract guaranteed Marguerite a jointure of 6,000 livres and an additional legacy with first claim on the estate for 1,000 livres as well as rings and jewels. It was a great deal for a period when people in average circumstances usually had a jointure of 300 to 500 livres and an additional legacy of 200 to 300 livres.
The young couple went to live on the Place du Marché, in the home of Mme You de La Découverte, who perhaps was miserly, as some have claimed, but who nonetheless lived in quite a comfortable house, as the inventory made after d’Youville’s death in 1730 reveals. Little is known of the couple’s eight years together, but there seem to have been two distinct periods. At the beginning, from 1722 to 1726, two boys and two girls were born in close succession; all died in infancy except François, who would later be parish priest of Saint-Ours. These early years were marked by repeated complaints from Indians and merchants against d’Youville’s trading practices at Île aux Tourtres [see Pierre You de La Découverte], and by Mme You de La Découverte’s almost constant presence in the house. Apparently, however, the couple sometimes resided at the farmhouse in Sainte-Annedu-Bout-de-l’Île (now Sainte-Anne de Bellevue) which belonged to the You de La Découverte family, since one of their infant daughters was buried not far from there, at Saint-Joachim-de-la-Pointe-Claire. The second period in their married life, from 1727 to 1730, was strongly marked by Marguerite’s concentration upon the practice of religion. The year 1727 seems particularly important; her son writes that she was then seen “to renounce vain adornments and to embrace the way of piety”; in a letter written to Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu in 1766 she herself traced her devotion and her “confidence in the Eternal Father” back to this time. Moreover, it was in 1727 that she began to join different religious sisterhoods. During this period d’Youville’s mother died, leaving him the means to live comfortably, and a fifth child, Charles-Marie-Madeleine, was born in July 1729.
When d’Youville himself died on 4 July 1730, Marguerite was 28. She had to take care of two infants and was expecting a sixth child, who was born on 26 Feb. 1731 and died less than five months later. She inherited an estate burdened with debts – since d’Youville had wasted no time in squandering his inheritance – and had no better course open to her than to renounce it. By a court lease she was, however, awarded the house she was living in, and from its premises she carried on a trading business for several years.
A new stage in her life was beginning which would lead Mme d’Youville, again in two phases, to assume responsibility for the Hôpital Général of Montreal. She devoted the first period, from 1730 to 1737, to prayer, good works, and the education of her two sons; François entered the Séminaire de Québec in 1737 and Charles followed him in 1742. Under the direction of Sulpician Jean-Gabriel-Marie Le Pape* Du Lescöat, who had been her adviser since 1727, she worked actively within sisterhoods and applied herself to easing the lives of the poor. Her lively awareness of the surrounding poverty prompted her to increasingly concrete acts, in which she had the encouragement of Sulpician Louis Normant* Du Faradon, her spiritual director since Le Pape Du Lesctöat’s death in 1733. Thus, on 21 Nov. 1737, she took Françoise Auzon, a blind woman in her sixties, into her home. On 31 December Marie-Louise Thaumur de La Source, Catherine Cusson, and Marie-Catherine Demers Dessermont pledged with Mme d’Youville to devote themselves to the service of the poor. Although theirs was still only a lay association, they apparently took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and this moment is considered the date of the founding of the order.
In October 1738 they moved into a house large enough to lodge them all and to allow them to receive other unfortunates, whom they looked after with the proceeds from various endeavours. Marguerite d’Youville’s work was started, but the next ten years had harsh labour and painful suffering in store for her. She had to face her family’s lack of understanding; indeed in November 1738 her two brothers-in-law, along with others, signed a petition against the Sulpicians’ alleged intention to put Mme d’Youville and her companions in charge of the Hôpital Général in place of the Brothers Hospitallers of the Cross and of St Joseph. She had to put up with the hostility of the populace, which looked on the little community with disfavour. Some people called them “les grises,” meaning tipsy women; they were accused of getting drunk and continuing the illicit sale of liquor to the Indians which Mme d’Youville’s father-in-law and her husband had carried on. The slander spread quickly, and a Recollet even went so far as to refuse them communion. From 1738 to 1744 Mme d’Youville, who suffered from a bad knee, had to stay in her room. When she was better again and everything seemed to be more in order, a raging fire destroyed the house on 31 Jan. 1745. She experienced many difficulties in finding lodgings for her inmates and the community, which by now had five members, until 1747, when she assumed charge of the Hôpital Général. Two days after the fire Mme d’Youville and her companions signed a deed drawn up by Normant Du Faradon, called “Engagements primitifs,” in which they promised formally to live and die together in submission and obedience to the one person who would be entrusted with the administration of the house, to divest themselves of all belongings except landed property and put them into a common fund, and to devote themselves unreservedly to the welfare of the poor. This deed formed the basis of the community founded by Mme d’Youville, and a copy was included in the earliest collection of its rules, published in 1781 by Étienne Montgolfier.
The ten years of difficulty had not, however, been unprofitable: with Mine d’Youville’s strength of character, practical turn of mind, and tireless devotion to duty, the community had been consolidated and had managed to continue its chosen work. Consequently the Sulpicians persuaded Governor Charles de Beauharnois*, Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil*], and Intendant Hocquart, who were all trustees of the Hôpital Général, to charge her with its management. An ordinance promulgated on 27 Aug. 1747 appointed her director of the hospital “temporarily and at His Majesty’s pleasure and until he has given other instructions for it.”
Mme d’Youville was taking in hand a bankrupt institution [see Jean Jeantot*; Louis Turc* de Castelveyre, named Brother Chrétien]. Founded in 1692 by François Charon* de La Barre, the Hôpital Général was burdened with a debt of nearly 40,000 livres, and its building was in a lamentable state. The last period of Mme d’Youville’s life was devoted to getting the hospital running again, administering it with limited financial means, and establishing on a permanent basis the community she had formed. After completing an inventory of the hospital’s possessions, which gives some idea of its dilapidated condition, Mme d’Youville had it cleaned up and had the most urgent repairs done. On 7 Oct. 1747 she moved into it with six associates, two of whom had not yet been admitted into the community [see Agathe Véronneau*], and eight inmates. She found two old Brothers Hospitallers and four sick old men in the hospital. Soon large rooms were ready for the sick and poor of both sexes, a change in the policy of the Hôpital Général which until then had been reserved exclusively for men. At the request of Sulpician Antoine Déat*, Mme d’Youville had 12 rooms made ready to receive those then called “fallen women.”
Things were going well and Mme d’Youville had every reason to think that she would succeed in re-establishing the Hôpital Général. But the court opposed the creation of new religious communities in the colony; the king considered them a source of expense since when they received official recognition they became entitled to an income to provide for their continuing existence. Intendant Bigot, Bishop Pontbriand, and the new governor, La Jonquière [Taffanel*], were afraid that, without this assured income, the community would disintegrate when the founder died and the Hôpital Général would fail for a second time. Therefore in October 1750 Bigot issued an ordinance terminating the provisional contract of 1747 and uniting the Hôpital Général of Montreal with the one in Quebec. The hospital nuns of Quebec were authorized to sell the institution’s buildings and dependencies and the furniture they did not want to keep, “in return for assuming the responsibility for feeding and keeping the infirm, elderly, disabled, and orphans of the Government of Montreal,” who would be taken to Quebec. Because of the lateness of the season, however, Mme d’Youville could remain in the hospital and continue her work until the following July. This ordinance dismayed Montrealers, who had come to appreciate the work done by Mme d’Youville and her sisters. Normant Du Faradon sent the minister of Marine a petition signed by 80 citizens, among them the governor of Montreal, Charles Le Moyne* de Longueuil, second Baron de Longueuil, which recalled that at the founding of the Hôpital Général in 1692, the “letters patent contained the clause and express reserve that the aforesaid establishment should serve in perpetuity without the possibility of being changed either as to place or into any other pious work.” Marguerite d’Youville and her sisters also drew up a petition in which they described the improvements made to the Hôpital Général since they had taken over and indicated the irreparable harm that would be done the poor of Montreal in depriving them of a place “where they are assured of finding certain help in their old age.” Finally they offered to repay Brother Chrétien’s debts if they were themselves confirmed in “the rights, favours, and privileges” granted to the Brothers Hospitallers at the time the hospital was founded. Mme d’Youville went in person to Quebec to carry this petition to Bishop Pontbriand and Bigot, who both received her coldly. They had no confidence in the community’s permanence, and like many of their contemporaries they saw its founder as an instrument of the Sulpicians, whom they suspected of wanting to gain control of the Hôpital Général. Consequently they refused to support her petition. Only Governor La Jonquière was sympathetic towards her and promised her his help.
Athough Mme d’Youville found little support in Quebec, Jean Couturier, the superior of the Sulpicians in Paris, took up her defence at the court and stressed her offer to repay the hospital’s debts on condition that the king recognize her community by letters patent and put her definitely in charge of the Hôpital Général. He also brought up a clause in the contract between the Sulpicians and François Charon which stipulated that if the hospital ceased to exist, and if the Brothers did not buy the land, the land would revert to the seminary, along with all the buildings on it. As the Brothers had never bought it, Bigot could not dispose of a property that belonged to the Sulpicians. On 14 Dec. 1751 the intendant was obliged by royal order to issue an ordinance revoking the union of the Hôpital Général of Montreal with that in Quebec and leaving Mme d’Youville in charge of the institution. On 12 May 1752 the king in council ordered the trustees of the hospital to sign a contract with Mme d’Youville determining how it would be administered. This contract, which was made public by an ordinance of 28 Sept. 1752, was prompted by a memoir that Mme d’Youville had delivered to the trustees on 19 June in which she set out the methods she intended to adopt to discharge the hospital’s debts – methods that reveal an administrative ability the government and merchants of the time might have envied. As a prudent woman who had almost lost everything, she also set out her conditions: she and her sisters would be dispensed from teaching and would close the school that the Brothers Hospitallers conducted in the hospital; they would have all the rights and privileges granted the Brothers; if the king one day decided to take the administration of the institution away from them, the 18,000 livres they were sacrificing to pay off the debts would have to be repaid them. The letters patent, dated 3 June 1753, in which the king recognized the community as a legal entity and placed Mme d’Youville and her companions officially in charge of the administration of the Hôpital Général, reached Quebec in the autumn and were registered in the Conseil Supérieur on 1 October. In June 1755 Bishop Pontbriand made his pastoral visit to the community and officially approved the rules drawn up by Normant Du Faradon at the beginning of their life in common. On 25 August, 11 of those who had already made their profession received the habit from the hands of the Sulpician. They took the name Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général, or Grey Nuns (Sœurs Grises), in memory of the sobriquet given them by the people of Montreal. In France in the mean time, thanks to Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu’s successful handling, the creditors of the Hôpital Général were paid off and the institution’s debts finally settled in 1756.
The Hôpital Général, which took in poor men and women, fallen women, and abandoned children, was in fact a hospice; but in 1755 a smallpox epidemic transformed it into a real hospital. The following year Bigot called on Mme d’Youville to attend to the sick soldiers and prisoners, at government expense. The intendant was stingy with payments and cut them down, and the hospital had to assume the major share of the costs. Marguerite d’Youville proved remarkably ingenious at lodging and feeding all these people. She knew how to turn everything to profit: needlework, the making of sails and tents, production of consecrated wafers and candles, curing of tobacco, burning and sale of lime, renting of plots of land, and sale of produce from the sisters’ farms. She also received ladies of quality who paid board and lodging. Able to make herself both feared and loved, she succeeded in turning everyone’s skills to profit. Even among those hospitalized were found persons with strength enough to work as occasional tailors, shoemakers, and bakers. She hired British prisoners who had been treated at the hospital, either for labour on her farms or as hospital attendants to help the nuns who had little knowledge of English. The community continued its tasks despite epidemics, poor harvests, the war, and then the new régime.
For the founder the trials multiplied. In 1757 illness almost carried her off and she drew up her first will, leaving everything she owned to the hospital. Later she had the grief of separation from the friends and members of her family who returned to France after the conquest. There was the devaluation of the currency, at a time when France owed the hospital 120,799 livres. The year 1765 brought the heaviest trial, for on 18 May, in the space of a few hours, fire destroyed the Hôpital Général, which then was sheltering 18 sisters, 17 ladies paying board and lodging, 63 poor persons, and 16 illegitimate children. She wrote to Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu: “My dear Father, pray that God will give me the strength to bear all these crosses and to make saintly use of them. So much at one time: to lose one’s king, one’s country, one’s possessions.”
She had no choice but to rebuild, and the last years of her life were as active as the early ones. With the help of the Sulpician seminary – Étienne Montgolfier advanced her 15,000 livres – she began the rebuilding, and seven months after the fire the poor were able to return to their lodgings. She sold a piece of property at Chambly which was producing little income, and from one of her boarders, Marie-Anne Robutel de La None, bought the seigneury of Châteauguay, which was still largely uncultivated but whose possibilities she foresaw. She had a large water-mill and a bakehouse built there, had several acres of land cleared and sown, and an orchard planted, supervising everything herself despite the fatigue of the trips by cart and canoe between Montreal and Châteauguay. Marguerite d’Youville saw to everything, with the result that on the eve of her death she left a house that was firmly established, both spiritually and materially. In a second will she bequeathed half of her possessions to her two sons and the remainder to the Hôpital Général on condition that if the occasion arose her sons could retire to live there for nothing. She died on 23 Dec. 1771 after a paralytic stroke, remembered by all as an exceptional woman. To Sister Marguerite-Thérèse Lemoine Despins fell the task of continuing her work.
If Mme d’Youville possessed remarkable administrative talent, her unselfishness was equally evident. And the indomitable courage which enabled her to stand up to her many trials, to defend herself against the unfair accusations of those in power in Canada, and to put up with the insults and calumnies of the populace, should not obscure the sensitivity of this woman, who was moved by the misfortunes as well as by the moments of happiness of her relatives and friends and whom every form of human affliction touched deeply. Her correspondence reveals the intensity of her spiritual life, and tradition attributes miracles and certain prophetic utterances to her.
[A great deal has been written on Marguerite d’Youville and her work. Three bibliographies cover the period before her beatification in 1959 and they list 808 titles: Catherine Barry, “La vénérable Mère d’Youville et les Sœurs de la Charité de Montréal (sœurs grises)” (thèse de bibliothéconomie, université de Montréal, 1938); Sœur Sainte-Fernande [Albina Côté], “Bibliographie, 1950–1958, de la bienheureuse Marguerite d’Youville” (thèse de bibliothéconomie, université Laval, Québec, 1963); Sœur Saint-Hyacinthe [Gertrude Pelletier], “Bienheureuse Marguerite d’Youville; bibliographie canadienne, 1938–1949” (thèse de bibliothéconomie, université Laval, 1963). Much has been written since 1959. In the majority of the studies, however, the years before she took charge of the Hôpital Général are treated only briefly, since it was not until 1747 that she began a sustained correspondence. At that time she was 46 and had been a widow for 18 years; two-thirds of her life, then, remains obscure. Nevertheless, recent studies based on notarial acts illuminate these years to some degree. Only the most useful primary and secondary sources are listed here. c.l.]
AN, Col., C11A, 90–96; F3, 13, 14 (copies at PAC). ANQ-M, Chambre des milices, 1–5; Greffe de J.-C. Raimbault, 24 avril 1731; Greffe de Pierre Raimbault, 11 août 1722. ASGM, Dossier: Maison mère, Historique, Doc., 146–253; Mère d’Youville, Corr.; Famille; Antoine Sattin, “Vie de madame Youville, fondatrice et première supérieure des Sœurs de la Charité de l’Hôpital Général de Montréal, communément nommées sœurs grises, dédiée à cette même communauté, 1828”; C.-M.-M. d’Youville, “Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Mde Youville et tirés pour la plupart des dépositions des sœurs Despins, Lasource, Rinville et de Mde Gamelin, et d’une autre sœur”; “La vie de madame Youville, fondatrice des Sœurs de la Charité à Montréal.” PAC, MG 8, E6, 1–5; MG 17, A7-2-1, 3, pp.877–82, 971–75; A7-2-3, 8, pp.88–91; A15, 1, pp.15–124. Bégon, “Correspondance” (Bonnault), ANQ Rapport, 1934–35. Édits ord. (1854–56), II, 404. La Rue, “Lettres et mémoires,” ANQ Rapport, 1935–36, 1936–37, 1937–38. [M.-R. Côté], Une disciple de la croix, la vénérable Marguerite d’Youville, Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de La Jemmerais, veuve d’Youville, 1701–1771, fondatrice à Montréal en 1737 du premier institut canadien, les Sœurs de la Charité (sœurs grises) ([Québec], 1932). [É.-M. Faillon], Vie de Mme d’Youville, fondatrice des Sœurs de la Charité de Villemarie dans l’île de Montréal, en Canada (Villemarie [Montréal], 1852). A. Fauteux et Drouin, L’Hôpital General de Montreal, I. Albertine Ferland-Angers, Mère d’Youville, venerable Marie-Marguerite Du Frost de Lajemrnerais, veuve d’Youville, 1701–1771; fondatrice des Sœurs de la Charité de l’Hôpital-general de Montreal, dites sœurs grises (Montreal, 1945); Pierre You et son fils François d’Youville ([Montreal, 1941]). A.-H. Gosselin, L’Église du Canada après la Conquête, I; L’Église du Canada jusqu’à la Conquête, II, III. Estelle Mitchell, Le vrai visage de Marguerite d’Youville (1701–1771) (Montreal, 1973). M. Trudel, L’Église canadienne. Albertine Ferland-Angers, “Varennes, berceau d’une sainte,” RHAF, XIII (1959–60), 3–17. É.-Z. Massicotte, “La famille Dufrost de la Gemmeraye,” BRH, XXII (1916), 71–76.
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Cite This Article
Claudette Lacelle, “DUFROST DE LAJEMMERAIS, MARIE-MARGUERITE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dufrost_de_lajemmerais_marie_marguerite_4E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Claudette Lacelle|
|Title of Article:||DUFROST DE LAJEMMERAIS, MARIE-MARGUERITE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||May 30, 2023|