Merci to Marguerite d’Youville and the Grey Nuns

Visiting the d’Youville Pavilion located on the St. Mary’s Medical Center campus in Lewiston, Maine, was pleasing opportunity to observe families who were visiting loved ones and friends, being well cared for at this facility, during the frigidly cold New Year’s holiday.

Marguerite d'Youville

Marguerite d’Youville commemorative poster located in the foyer of the d’Youville Pavillion of St. Mary’s Medical Center

A friend was temporarily a patient at the St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavillion, while receiving extended rehabilitation care, following orthopedic surgery. The visit raised a renewed awareness about the health facility’s name. In fact, the “d’Youville”, as it is locally called, is an important reminder about the compassionate contributions of the Grey Nuns and their founder, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, provided to the Lewiston and Auburn areas of Maine.  They were a French-Canadian religious order that dedicated their energies and resources to improving the well being of Androscoggin County’s people, particularly for the 18th and 19th century immigrants, who came from Canada.

In the foyer of the health care center, a picture of Saint Marguerite d’Youville caught my eye. It was a commemoration poster, recognizing the 25 year anniversary of the beatification of Marguerite d’Youville. She was the foundress of the “Grey Nuns”, the friendly name of the religious order formally named The Sisters of Charity of Montreal. It was their dedicated care for French Canadian immigrants and the people in the community that created St. Mary’s Hospital, as well as other charitable institutions in Androscoggin County.  Saint Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1777) was canonized by Pope John-Paul II in 1990, the first native-born Canadian to be declared a saint. In fact, the historic poster is a reminder about her journey toward canonization, when she was declared to be “blessed”, one of the steps toward canonization..

Saint Marguerite d'Youville

Saint Marguerite d”Youville was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in 1990, by Pope John Paul II

Her biography describes how she was born Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais in 1701, at Varennes, Quebec. 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. On August 12, 1722 at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, she married François d’Youville, a bootlegger who sold liquor illegally to Indians in exchange for furs. They had six children before 1730, when her husband died. 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. She overcame many challenges to organize the religious sisters and to provide health care for all who needed help. Saint D’Youville’s vision to provide health care for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, is credited with giving rise to the Canadian health care system, as it provides universal coverage for all their nation’s citizens today.

Lewiston’s Franco-Americans recognize the Grey Nuns as the dedicated group of religious women who came to the area from Quebec in 1878, to provide charitable social services, health care and children’s welfare programs. There was a need for these caring programs to be available to the thousands of French-Canadian immigrants who were moving to the Lewiston area, to find work in the area’s mills.

A permanent exhibit about the history of the Grey Nuns and their services to the people of the Androscoggin County is open to the public at the Franco-American Heritage Center, on Cedar Street, in Lewiston.

The first Grey Nuns arrived in Lewiston in 1878 at the behest of the Reverend Pierre Hevey, a Roman Catholic priest and native of Saint Hyacinth, Quebec, who saw the many dire needs of the local working poor, the majority of whom were from French-speaking from Canada. Although the first French-speaking immigrants to the industrial cities of Maine arrived in the 1860s, French-Canadians seeking work came in increasing waves from the 1880s until the 1930s, mostly via the Grand Trunk Railroad..

In 1878,  Father Hevey saw the rising need to help people living in Lewiston’s Little Canada, where the immigrants established French-speaking communities. He turned to the Sisters of Charity, of Saint Hyacinth, Québec for good reason. Marguerite d’Youville’s own life experience as a fatherless child, a neglected wife, a widow and single mother supported the mission of the Sisters of Charity ~ to serve the poor in whatever way necessary.

In her lifetime, she worked with disabled soldiers, the elderly, the mentally ill, foundlings and orphans. When the Sisters of Charity of Saint Hyacinth, Québec accepted Father Hevey’s request, they were willing to take on new tasks such as education, in addition to their work as sister-nurses. The Grey Nuns grew the institutions they founded as Lewiston’s community developed.

Mary Rice-DeFosse is a Bates College professor and a Board member of the Franco-American Collection, a special archives located at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College, in Lewiston. She researched the biographies of people who were helped by the Grey Nuns. Her interviews are taped in an audio-visual history of the Grey Nuns- “Les Soeurs Grises: Elles Son Venues-Elles Ont Servi”, a documentary and oral history about the Sisters, available for viewing at the Franco exhibit, on Cedar Street.

Merci to Saint Marguerite d’Youville and the Sisters of Charity of Montreal and Saint Hyacinth!

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.