Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the Saints, Saints at Heart, and Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
Today, Bert profiles St. Marguerite d’Youville, whose feast day is today. She is the patron of widows, difficult marriages, and the death of young children.
Name a trouble, and St. Marguerite d’Youville suffered it: her father’s early death, poverty, an unfaithful husband, a nasty mother-in-law, infant deaths, bankruptcy, fire, ridicule, persecution and more. Yet Marguerite seems joyfully to have trusted God to carry her through these terrible circumstances.
When Marguerite’s father died in 1714, she left school to help her mother support her family. At 21, she entered a disastrous arranged marriage with François d’Youville, a dashing but irresponsible young fur trader. He got Indians drunk and ripped them off, slept around and squandered the family fortune. On top of this, four of Marguerite’s six babies died. However, sometime in 1727 Marguerite had an extraordinary personal experience of God the Father’s love for her. That grace enabled her to endure François and his domineering mother without complaint, until his death in 1730 released her.
Marguerite devoted the rest of her life to caring for the poor. In 1737, she and three companions made a private commitment to serve the destitute. They rented a house as a place to welcome indigent boarders. When fire destroyed the building in 1745, Marguerite knelt in the ashes, prayed a thankful Te Deum and promised the poor she would never abandon them. Shortly after, she and her companions signed the “Original Commitment” which became the basis for her religious order. Here is an excerpt from the document:
“We, the undersigned, for the greater glory of God, the salvation of our souls and the relief of the poor, sincerely desiring to leave the world, renouncing everything we own to consecrate ourselves unreservedly to the service of the poor, have joined together in the bonds of the purest charity…. We have unanimously agreed and have freely promised…:
“To live together for the remainder of our lives in perfect union and charity, under the guidance of those superiors who will be given to us, in the practice and faithful observance of the rule prescribed for us;… in poverty and complete renunciation,… placing everything we now own and will own in common, not retaining ownership nor any right to dispose of it, making a pure, simple and irrevocable gift of it to the poor by this document….
“To devote unreservedly our time, our days, our effort, our life itself to work, and, putting the income in common, to provide for the support and maintenance of the poor.
“To shelter, feed and support as many poor people as we can either by our own means or by the alms of the faithful.
“All those who will be taken into the house will bring everything they own with them—linens, clothing, furniture and silver, to put everything in common not excepting or retaining anything, renouncing all rights of ownership and of retention, by the voluntary and irrevocable gift they will make of it to the members of Jesus Christ….”
So, Marguerite began to formalize her little band of associates into a religious community. In 1755 the bishop of Quebec approved the congregation as the Sisters of Charity. They adopted a grey habit and so were called the Grey Sisters. Because drunks often flopped on their doorsteps, persecutors mockingly tagged them “the tipsy sisters,” as the French word gris could mean “drunk” as well as “grey.” After Marguerite’s death in 1771, the Grey Sisters extended her ministry throughout the world, especially to the Inuit people of North America.
Sometimes we hold to the dumb idea that when God puts his hand on us everything will move forward with ease. The life experience of saints like Marguerite d’Youville should dispel that false notion once for all.