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1990: First Canadian-born saint is canonized

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After a lifetime of helping the poor in Quebec, a century of lobbying on her behalf in Rome, and two miracles, Marie Marguerite d'Youville is officially a saint. More than 200 years after her death, the founder of Montreal's Sisters of Charity -- the "Grey Nuns" -- is canonized by Pope John Paul II. In this interview recorded shortly before the canonization, Grey Nuns historian Sister Estelle Mitchell describes the remarkable life and legacy of this "mother of the poor."
• Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais was born on Oct. 15, 1701 at Varennes, Quebec. In 1722 she married François d'Youville. They had six children, but four died in infancy (the other two became priests). Her husband was often absent to illegally trade liquor to the native people, and he died in 1730. Pregnant and heavily in debt, d'Youville began a trading business and ran it from her home for several years.

• Marguerite d'Youville soon devoted herself to working with nuns and helping the poor. On Nov. 21, 1737 she took an elderly blind woman into her home. Three other women soon joined her in working with Quebec's poor, and on Dec. 31, 1737 the four took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This date is deemed to represent the founding of the Congrégation des Soeurs de la Charité (Congregation of the Sisters of Charity) of Montreal, although they were considered only a lay organization.

• The name "Grey Nuns" was originally a derogatory term. In French the word grise also meant "tipsy", a reference to François d'Youville's liquor trafficking (and possibly because they assisted people with alcohol problems.) The sisters later adopted the name as a reminder of their humble origins.

• On Aug. 27, 1747, d'Youville was put in charge of Montreal's bankrupt Hôpital Général. She turned the hospital around, opening it up to "fallen women" and abandoned children.

• Marguerite d'Youville lived in the hospital and kept up her work despite setbacks that included a devastating fire, personal illness, the British conquest of Canada and political efforts to wrest the hospital from her control. She administered to the poor until her death on Dec. 23, 1771, following a paralytic stroke.

• The Roman Catholic church requires a series of specific steps before someone can be declared a saint, a process that can take centuries.

• The first step is an investigation or "opening of the cause" beginning in the candidate's own diocese at least five years after his or her death (this waiting period can be waived, as it was for Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.)

• The second step on the road to sainthood is "beatification", which usually requires the confirmation of a miracle by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The miracle must be an extraordinary event produced by God, acting through others, and verified by witnesses.

• Miracles can occur during the candidate's life, or posthumously, when the candidate is deemed to have interceded in the affairs of the world after their death. Both Marguerite d'Youville's miracles were considered to be of this type. In 1978 a young woman with leukemia was apparently miraculously cured after praying to Marguerite d'Youville. Another woman, nearly blind, was said to have recovered her eyesight in similar fashion.

• Beatification confers the title "blessed", and a feast day is conferred, but the honour is confined to the candidate's own diocese, region or religious order.

• Marguerite d'Youville was beatified on May 3, 1959 by Pope John XXIII, who proclaimed her "Mother of Universal Charity."

• Proof of a second miracle is required for canonization, the final step on the road to sainthood.

• Once canonized, the candidate is called "saint". Pope John Paul II canonized Marguerite d'Youville on Dec. 9, 1990.

• The actual number of Catholic saints is unclear -- as many as 10,000 have been beatified or canonized since ancient times. Other estimates put the number of Catholic saints at about 3,000. Pope John Paul II canonized 484 saints and beatified 1,337.

• The Catholic Church recognizes 11 Canadians as saints. Eight of them -- canonized by Pius XII in 1930 -- were Jesuits whom the Church considered martyrs during the settlement of New France between 1642 and 1649. The other three are d'Youville and Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700), who moved from France to Montreal to lead the congregation of Notre Dame and was canonized by Pope John Paul in 1982. Alfred Bessette (1845-1937, known as Brother André) was canonized in 2010. Marguerite d'Youville was the first to have been born in Canada.
Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Nov. 29, 1990
Guest(s): Estelle Mitchell
Host: Michael Enright, Alan Maitland
Duration: 6:22

Last updated: October 22, 2014

Page consulted on October 22, 2014

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