Born at Varennes, the first native-born Canadian saint experienced extreme changes of fortune in her lifetime. Her father was a Breton army officer, but he died when she was seven. Margaret, the eldest of six children, was educated by Ursuline nuns. She married François Youville (she was born de Lajemmerais) in 1722 in the presence of the Governor-General and other notables. Her husband was a fur-trader who also supplied the Indians with illicit liquor to such an extent that they complained to the Governor-General that they could no longer pray to God because ‘Youville has given us firewater and caused us to drink up all our furs…when the missionary came, we found ourselves hopelessly drunk.’ Margaret was deeply shocked, but worse was to follow. François himself drank heavily, gambled, wasted his mother's legacy, and went into debt. The marriage lasted eight years: they had four children of whom two survived to adulthood. Her husband died in 1730.
She now opened a small shop to pay his debts and provide for her children. But her main inspiration and consolation were religious, both by prayer and daily Mass as well as visiting the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. In 1737 her son entered the seminary and Margaret gave a home in her house to a poor blind woman. Once she begged money to pay for the funeral of a criminal executed in public. With some friends who made money by sewing clothes, including military uniforms, they made profession as Sisters and formed a congregation which came to be known as the Grey Nuns. A disastrous fire gutted their house and the Grey Nuns were offered the charge of the Montreal hospital. In spite of poverty and huge debts they improved conditions and obtained royal approval in 1753. In the difficult times of the war with England (Montreal surrendered in 1759), Margaret treated French soldiers and English prisoners alike: at least once she enabled an English officer to escape an armed Indian; and an English officer became an interpreter for her. In a smallpox epidemic the nuns went out to nurse the sick. Their charity extended to all: Indians, French, English, the poor, the prisoners, negro slaves, and prostitutes. In 1765 they experienced another disastrous fire: this time the hospital was burnt down. Help came however from Indians, the English governor, and other nuns of St Joseph. Eventually the hospital was rebuilt. When Margaret died, one of her companions said of her: ‘She loved greatly Jesus Christ and the poor.’ When he beatified her, Pope John XXIII rightly called her ‘the mother of universal charity.’ She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1990. Feast: 23 December.
Estelle Mitchell, Margaret d'Youville, foundress of the Grey nuns (1965); K. Jones, Women Saints: Lives of Faith and Courage (1999); B.L.S., xii. 180–3 (same author); N.C.E., xiv. 1082.