A Different Road to Sainthood: Building a Religious Community in Eighteenth-Century Montréal

Alanna Loucks

Since 1959, many scholars have written biographies about the life of Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais (d’Youville), who was canonized in 1990 to become the first native-born Canadian to be declared a saint. However, the majority of these studies very briefly examine her early and married life, before she founded the Sisters of Charity of Montréal (the Grey Nuns) and took charge of the Hôpital-Général de Montréal in 1747. Yet by 1747 Marie-Marguerite was forty-six years old and had been a widow for almost two decades. Focusing on this one period of her life overlooks many of the experiences and relationships that shaped Marie-Marguerite’s creation of a religious community in eighteenth-century Montréal.

Unlike Jeanne Mance or Marie L’Incarnation, who traveled from France as religious women with a specific religiously motivated purpose, Marie-Marguerite’s life began as a member of a prominent family involved in territorial expansion and the fur trade. The familial and social contacts that she developed and her experiences during this part of her life shaped her savvy and enterprising approach towards her own commercial activities, encouraged and facilitated the creation of relationships with elite members of Montréal society, and connected her to the channels that were carrying enslaved peoples into the city. Through an examination of some of these early connections and experiences, this research will reconstruct some of the circumstances that influenced the creation of Marie-Marguerite’s enterprising and inclusive religious community, which grew to reflect the diverse and interconnected contours of colonial society in Montréal.

Marie-Marguerite was born in 1701 in Varennes, Québec, into a family with a prominent lineage. Her father, François-Christophe Dufrost de LaGemmerais, was descended from an old noble family in France and her mother, Marie-Renée Gaultier de Varennes, was the daughter of the governor of Trois-Rivières and Marie Boucher, the daughter of Pierre Boucher, who is considered one of the founders of New France.[1] The privileged position of Marie-Marguerite’s family offered her many opportunities. Following Marie-Marguerite’s father’s death in 1712, she was sent to the Ursulines’ boarding school in Québec for two years. Near the end of 1721, Marie-Marguerite’s family moved to Montréal, where she met François-Madeleine d’Youville, the son of prominent French merchant Pierre You de La Découverte. The couple was married in 1722, and many prominent members of Montréal society were present at their marriage.[2] Unfortunately, Marie-Marguerite and François-Madeleine’s marriage was not a happy one. François-Madeleine was an avid gambler, and he spent prolonged periods of time away from his family home where the couple was living, on the Place du Marché, at his father’s remote properties outside of Montréal, specifically on Île-aux-Tourtres, where he traded furs and illegally sold alcohol to passing Indigenous peoples. This left Marie-Marguerite to care for the couple’s six children, only two of whom survived infancy.[3] As a way to cope with these difficulties, during the years before her husband’s death in 1730, Marie-Marguerite had become increasingly devoted to Catholicism. Beginning in 1727, she had begun to join the charitable sisterhoods that were working to ease the suffering of the poor in Montréal. Eventually, seven years after her husband’s death, Marie-Marguerite, with a few other pious women, created a community in her marital home, which was on Rue Notre-Dame, devoted to taking care of the poor, and the women took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1737.[4] This community of women, which became the founding order of the Grey Nuns of Montréal, took control of the Hôpital-Général de Montréal in 1747.[5]

As is evident by her family’s social status and by her marriage, Marie-Marguerite was already a well-connected woman prior to her take-over of the Hôpital-Général in 1747. Marie-Marguerite was born into a very well-connected family. In addition to her parents’ connections, Marie-Marguerite was the eldest of six children, and through her siblings’ activities, she became connected to other institutions and families in Montréal and elsewhere in the empire. For example, two of Marie-Marguerite’s sisters married into the prominent Gamelin family in Montréal.[6] Additionally, Marie-Marguerite’s brother, Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais, played an important role in territorial exploration and the fur trade. Most notably, Christophe accompanied their uncle, Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye, on his western expeditions in the pays d’en haut.[7] Finally, as a result of her marriage, Marie-Marguerite became a part of the expansive commercial networks of her father-in-law, Pierre You, who would frequently travel to the Illinois Country to trade with Indigenous peoples, such as the Miami. The Miami, in turn, traded with other Indigenous peoples, such as the Nipissing, a large portion of whom lived in the mission community located across the Lac des Deux Montagnes on Île-aux-Tourtres, who would frequent You’s remote property near Fort Senneville.[8] Pierre You would also occasionally participate in illegal trade with the English at Albany.[9] François-Madeleine also utilized Pierre You’s networks to participate in the fur trade. Much in the same way that Marie-Marguerite had become connected to numerous families and institutions through the actions of her immediate family members, her marriage allowed her to insinuate herself into the upper merchant class of Montréal.

The entrance to the Grey Nuns Convent, Montreal, a 19th century picture of a far older edifice, one that exists to the present.
ID #10127
Credit: Bohuslav Kroupa / National Archives of Canada / C-113654

With the foundation of the Grey Nuns and her take-over of the Hôpital-Général in 1747, Marie-Marguerite built on her existing familial and social relationships to expand her network of connections. For example, Marie-Marguerite’s existing relationships and her position in society encouraged interaction and facilitated the creation of connections with other elite members of Montréal society. Following her take-over of the Hôpital-Général, Marie-Marguerite relied on these connections for financial donations. For example, in 1752, when the Hôpital-Général was under threat of demolition, Marie-Marguerite relied on these individuals to petition the courts on her behalf to protect the institution.[10] Marie-Marguerite’s existing connections also contributed to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the community that emerged in the Hôpital-Général. Through her diverse relationships, Marie-Marguerite was a part of the transportation circuits that criss-crossed the continent, bringing slaves of both Indigenous and African descent under her personal ownership and into the Hôpital-Général. For example, due to her brother’s participation in conflicts against Indigenous peoples, such as the Sioux, in the pays d’en haut, Marie-Marguerite obtained a Sioux woman named Marie-Josephe in 1739.[11] Marie-Marguerite was also connected through her father-in-law’s commercial relationship with the Illinois, to the networks that criss-crossed the Mississippi Valley, carrying slaves of Indigenous and African descent.[12] Additionally, through the relationships that Marie-Marguerite constructed with elite members of Montréal society, she sometimes obtained slaves as gifts or as donations to the Hôpital-Général, usually as a sign of thanks for medical treatment or following a prolonged stay at the institution.[13] Finally, unlike other hospitals in New France, such as the Hôtel-Dieu in Québec, especially following Marie-Marguerite’s take-over, the Hôpital-Général de Montréal was more like a long-term care home, which served as a refuge for all members of society, particularly those who had been abandoned or disabled, many of whom were slaves.[14] This aspect of the institution’s mission further diversified the community that emerged. Throughout the entirety of the eighteenth-century, 121 slaves, including 101 Indigenous slaves and 20 slaves of African descent, appear in the Hôpital-Général records, as the personal property of Marie-Marguerite, as the property of the institution, and as patients.[15] Marie-Marguerite’s extensive and varied network of connections grew following her take-over of the Hôptial-Général, and these relationships contributed to the creation of an ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse religious community.

Portrait of Marie-Marguerite D’Youville. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Québec, “Marie-Marguerite Dufrost Lajemmerais, mère d’Youville,” 1880, P560, S2, D1, P1715.

In addition to her connections, which shaped the composition of the religious community that emerged, Marie-Marguerite’s early life experiences had prepared her for the administrative and economic activities that accompanied running a religious community and hospital. Following her husband’s death, Marie-Marguerite inherited an estate burdened with debt.[16] In order to ensure that she and her children would have a place to live, Marie-Marguerite became familiar with the administrative and legal apparatuses that controlled inheritance, marital property, and the rights of widows.[17] Ultimately, Marie-Marguerite was able to retain her marital home, and she gained valuable experience and knowledge, which shaped her financial savvy and know-how later in life. In combination with this experience, her participation, both directly and indirectly, in the trading activities of her brother, uncle, and her husband, prepared her to take-over the bankrupt Hôpital-Général de Montréal. Following her take-over, Marie-Marguerite worked to get the hospital running again. To begin, Marie-Marguerite reorganized large rooms to make them ready for the poor and the sick of both sexes, which was a change in the Hôpital-Général’s previous policy of a male-only institution, and she devoted twelve rooms to ‘fallen women.’[18] This reorganization also included creating space in which female members of the upper levels of Montréal society could board temporarily or indefinitely during the later years of their life.[19] In order to lodge and feed everyone, Marie-Marguerite and the Grey Nuns sold their services, which included needlework, the making of sails and tents, and the curing of tobacco. Additionally, the Grey Nuns rented out plots of their land and sold produce from the Hôpital-Général’s farm.[20] Even among those who were hospitalized, Marie-Marguerite found peoples with different skill sets, and those who had been treated were sometimes hired to help on the farms, or after the conquest, to teach the nuns to speak English. Using her experience, Marie-Marguerite was able to create and sustain an important and inclusive institution, which flourished in Montréal and contributed to the dynamic and interconnected society that grew in the city. An institution that continues to exist in the city today and throughout other parts of North America.

Marie-Marguerite’s life, connections, and approach to creating and sustaining her religious community were shaped by and reflected her experiences living in a city where mobility, interconnection, and diversity were the norm. In a manner that reflected the character of Montréal, the Hôpital-Général became a space in which ethnic, social, cultural, and gender boundaries were blurred, as diverse individuals came together and interacted within a single space. This community encapsulated the diverse, integrative, overlapping, and adaptive character of this city at a crossroads, and examining its development provides insight into the inner life of colonial Montréal.

Alanna Loucks is a PhD student at Queen’s University. Her current project examines the familial and economic connections developed by four French families over three generations, between 1650-1763, in order to understand the various ways that their lives and interests reflected Montréal’s position as a crossroads within the larger webs of colonial North America. You can find her on Twitter at @alannaloucks.

[1] The majority of the genealogical research included here was made possible by the birth, baptismal, marital, death, and burial records contained in the Université de Montréal’s database, “Programme de Recherche en Démographique Historique,” hereafter referred to as PRDH. PRDH Individual #17653, Individual #17654, Couple #91728.

[2] The marriage contract of Marie-Marguerite and François-Madeleine attests to the significance of the match and includes signatures from many prominent members of French colonial society, including the Governor of Montréal, and Charles LeMoyne de Longueuil, who was serving as the Governor of Trois-Rivières at the time. See; Rev. D.S. Ramsay, Life of the Venerable M.M Dufrost de Lajemmerais, Mde D’Youville, Foundress of the Sisters of Charity (Called the Grey Nuns) of Montréal Canada (Montréal, QC: The Grey Nunnery, 1895), 6; Library and Archives Canada (LAC), “Liste et qualité de ceux qui ont signé la requête…” 1725, Correspondance générale; Canada, Série C11A, fol. 436-437, P236-237.

[3] Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Québec (BANQ-Q), “Tutelle des enfants mineurs de feu François Madeleine (You), d’Youville et de LaDécouverte, et de Marie-Marguerite Dufro de la Gemmeray (Marie Marguerite Dufrost Lajemmerais),” 4-5 avril, 1731, CC601, S1, SS1, D716. The two children who survived, Joseph-François and Charles-Marie-Madeleine, both became priests in Montréal. See; Claudette Lacelle, “Charles-Marie-Madeleine D’Youville,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/youville_charles_marie_madeleine_d_4E.html.

[4] BANQ-Q, “Donation par Marguerite [Catherine] Damien…” 30 août 1741, CR301, P2168. New religious communities could not officially be founded in New France at this time, so the association was formed in secret. Existing communities came from France and relied on the King for funding. Therefore, it would not have been seen as acceptable to ask the King for money to start a new organization.

[5] Claudette Lacelle, “Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/ Université Laval, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dufrost_de_lajemmerais_marie_marguerite_4E.html; Newton Bosworth, Hochelaga Depicta: The Early History of Montréal and Present State of the City and Island of Montréal (Congdon & Britnell, 1839),140; Ramsay, Life of the Venerable M.M Dufrost de Lajemmerais, 19. BANQ-Q, “Ordonnance du gouverneur de Beauharnois…” 27 août, 1747, E1, S1, P3767; BANQ-Q, “Lettres patentes de Sa Majesté à la dame d’Youville pour l’Hôpital general de Montréal,” 3 juin, 1753, TP1, S36, P925.

[6] PRDH Individual #76089, Individual #76090, Couple #149699; PDRH Individual #92542, Individual #92543, Couple #146546.

[7] Antoine Champagne, “Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dufrost_de_la_jemerais_christophe_2F.html. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de La Vérendrye and his Sons: With Correspondence Between the Governors of Canada and the French Court, Touching the Search for the Western Sea, ed. Lawrence J. Burpee (Toronto, ON: The Champlain Society, 1927), 8, 71, 76, 104; LAC, “Documentation relative au commerce du castor pendant la période 1718-1744…” 1744, Correspondance générale; Canada, Série C11A, fol. 181v; Marcel Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français (Montréal, QC: Hurtubise HMH, 1990), 81; Pierre-Georges Roy, La Famille Dufros de Lajemmerais (Levis, 1937), 9; LAC, “Le president du conseil de marine à M. de Beauharnois…” 20 avril 1734, Série B. Lettres envoyées, fol. 529. Based on the information that La Vérendrye had obtained from different Indigenous peoples, such as the Cree, who had come to trade at the postes du nord, La Vérendrye gained permission to establish French trading posts in the region of Lake Winnipeg. The establishment of these posts extended the French presence, to help deter the expansion of English settlement, and benefitted French commerce since the area was occupied by Indigenous communities with access to large numbers of beaver pelts.

[8] LAC, “Lettre de Vaudreuil au Conseil de Marine – commente les…” 15 octobre, 1722, Correspondance générale; Canada, Série C11A, fol. 346v-347; LAC, “Lettre de Ramezay au minister avec commentaires dans la marge…” 15 octobre, 1723, Correspondance générale; Canada, Série C11A, fol. 333v-334; Lionel Groulx, “Un Seigneur en Soutane,” Reuve d’histoire de l’Amérique français 11, no. 2 (1966): 210; “La Barre au ministre, 12 novembre 1682,” Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York: Procured in Holland, England, and France (NYCD), 9: 798. Pierre You de La Découverte participated in the clandestine trading networks that worked to connect Montréal to Indigenous communities and to other European colonial settlements, such as Albany. In addition, Pierre You’s first wife was a Miami woman, which brought Pierre into the existing trade networks that connected the Miami to other Indigenous communities, such as the Nipissing. For more about the mission communities that developed around Montréal see; Jean François Lozier, Flesh Reborn: The Saint Lawrence Valley Mission Settlements Through the Seventeenth Century (Montréal & Kingston: McGill & Queen’s University Press); Jan Grabowski, “The Common Ground: Settled Natives and French in Montréal, 1667-1760” (PhD. Diss., Université de Montréal: Montréal, QC, 1994).

[9] Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves, 58; Albertine Ferland-Angers, “Pierre You de La Découverte,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/ Université Laval, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/you_de_la_decouverte_pierre_2E.html; Brett Rushforth, ““A Little Flesh We Offer You”: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” The William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2003): 799; Marcel Trudel, Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage, trans. George Tombs (Chicago, IL: Independent Publishing Group, 2013), 73; Bosworth, The Early History of Montréal, 50; Peter Kalm, Travels Into North America: Containing its Natural History, and A Circumstantial Account of its Plantations and Agriculture in General, with the Civil, Ecclesiastical, and Commercial State of the Country, the Manner of the Inhabitants, and Several Curious and Important Remarks on Various Subjects, trans. John Reinhold Forster (Warrington: W. Eyres, 1770),, 322, 332.Many scholars have written about the illegal trade that developed between Montréal and Albany. For a particularly illustrative examination of this illegal system see; Eugene Richard Henry Tesdahl, “The Price of Empire: Smuggling Between New York and New France, 1700-1754” (PhD. Diss., University of Colorado: Boulder, CO, 2012).

[10] Alex Jodoin and J.L. Vincent, Historie de Longueuil et de la famille de Longueuil (Montréal, QC: Impr. Gebhardt-Berthiaume, 1889), 241; Bosworth, The Early History of Montréal, 142.

[11] Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves, 81. In a manner similar to the persistent enslavement of the Fox nation during the Fox Wars, by the mid-1730s and during the 1740s, those allies of the French who had depleted the Fox population now turned to enslave the Sioux of the upper mid-west.

[12] Two months after the official legalization of slavery in New France, the first notarized sale of a Panis slave took place. On June 15, a notary drew up the first known contract for the sale of a Panis – Madeleine Just, the wife of Pierre You de la Découverte, sold her Panis Pascal for the sum of 120 livres to a Lieutenant. See; Trudel, Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, 47.

[13] Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves, 347. For example, an anonymous Panis was given to the Hôpital-Général in 1763 from the household of Marie-Catherine Duverger D’Aubusson, who was the widow of the nobleman Paul-François Raimbault de Saint-Blin. Another Panise, Marie-Marguerite, who was given to the Hôpital-Général in 1764, came from the household of André-Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, who was a successful merchant in Montréal and served as the secretary to the Governor.

[14] Many slaves who were either disabled or who could no longer remain in the homes of their owners were admitted to the Hôpital-Général, where they would remain until their deaths. Typically, the family that a slave had served would send their slave, at the expense of their owner, to the Hôpital-Général to stay for the remainder of their lives. The Hôpital-Général also opened its doors to abandoned slaves. See; Trudel, Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, 135-136. Numerous examples of these types of circumstances appear throughout Trudel’s Dictionnaire, for some specific examples see; Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves, 55, 95. For another example of a similar religious institution see; Nancy E. van Deusen, “The ‘Alienated’ Body: Slaves and Castas in the Hospital de San Bartolomé in Lima, 1680 to 1700,” The Americas 56, no. 1 (1999): 1-30.

[15] The total number of slaves that appeared in the Hôpital-Général is based on the records contained in Marcel Trudel’s Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Montréal (BANQ-M), “Testament de Marie-Marguerite Dufros de Lajemmeraye…” 14 décembre 1771, Greffes de Notaires, M620-327, P1437-1456. This last will and testament also included the slaves that Marie-Marguerite had inherited from her husband following his death, including a Panis around ten or eleven years old, and the slaves that had been donated to the Hôpital-Général de Montréal. See also; Ferland-Angers Albertine, Mère d’Youville: Première Fondatrice Canadienne (Montréal, QC: Libraire Beauchemin, 1945), 286.

[16] (BANQ-M), “Clôture d’inventaire des biens de la succession et de la communauté de Marie-Marguerite Dufrost de Lajemmerais et de défunt (François-Madeleine You) Youville de la Découverte,” 7 mai, 1731, CV601, S1, D183; BANQ-Q, “Arrêt qui appointe les parties en droit à ecrire et produire dans les délais de l’ordonnance…” 28 février, 1735, TP1, S28, P18120.

[17] For discussions about inheritance laws and regulations related to marital property see; Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Montréal (Montréal & Kingston: McGill & Queen’s University Press, 1992); José Eduardo Igarthua, “The Merchants and Negociants of Montréal, 1750-1775: A Study in Socio-Economic History” (PhD. Diss., Michigan State University: East Lansing, MI, 1974).

[18] For an example of the breadth of the peoples welcomed at the Hôpital-Général see; BANQ-M, “Procés contre (Naveau?) Gouriou dit Guignolet, mère, (Bibi?) Gouriou dit Guignolet et la femme de Michel Ruparon dit Sanspoil, accusées de vie scandaleuse,” 17-18 decembre, 1748, TL4, S1, D5404.

[19] For example, the Baroness de Longueuil raised her children in the Hôpital-Général immediately following the death of her husband. See; Louis Lemoine, “Marie-Charles-Joseph LeMoyne de Longueuil,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/ Université Laval, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_longueuil_marie_charles_joseph_7F.html.

[20] BANQ-M, “Procès- verbal d’arpentage, de mesurage et de bornage, en vertu d’un accord avec Madame d’Youville…” 30 julliet, 1757, CA601, S57, SS1, D20; BANQ-M, “Procès-verbal d’arpentage et de bornage, à la requête de Madame d’Youville…” 18 mai, 1767, CA601, S54, SS1, D6.

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