Responding to God’s people- Mother of Universal Compassion

Written on: September 23, 2015

The following was written and delivered by Sister Mary Karen Kelly, GNSH on September 13, 2015.

We’re all born into families with history, traditions and ways of living our faith as family, neighbors, parishioners and members of the Great Family of God.

I am here as a Philadelphia born and bred Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart because of one Canadian woman born 300 years ago in a small village 20 miles upriver from Montreal.

Marguerite Dufrost de la Jemmerais was not yet 7 years old when her father died. She became at that tender age a little mother to her 5 brothers and sisters.  With the support of family members she left home at age 11 to spend two years at the Ursuline Nuns Academy in Quebec.  When she returned she shared much of what she learned  with her siblings.  In time she was happily engaged to a young man in her village until her mother’s marriage to an Irish doctor caused her fiancé’s family to break the engagement. Shortly afterward the family relocated to Montreal. She married  a dashing protégé of the governor General, Francois D’Youville in Notre Dame Church.wedding

Wedded bliss was short lived: the newlyweds moved to his Mother’s house on the marketplace. His mother was difficult, domineering, dour.  Her husband was away for long periods of time, even when their children were born, doing the Governor’s unsavory business. With the help of soldiers, Francois was forcibly stopping the  fur-laden canoes of the natives on their way to Montreal to trade for needed tools, seeds and winter supplies. Francois offered only liquor in exchange for their valuable pelts.  He was very successful at this which made the Montreal merchants justifiably angry.

Francois was seldom at home; he gambled away his earnings and also his inheritance from his mother death. He died after 8 years of marriage, a victim of his own debauchery leaving Marguerite, at twenty-eight, a widow, pregnant with her sixth child. She was left with two small sons to educate, her husband’s unsavory reputation and his considerable debts.

How did Marguerite survive those terrible years? Forty years later she would tell of the extraordinary grace she received during this most difficult period. When she was 26 and at an extremely low point in her life after the death of her baby daughter Louise, she shed bitter tears and questioned the very meaning of her life. In her anguish she cried out to God, who revealed himself to her as a loving, compassionate, provident Father. It was this transforming grace that empowered her to turn her life around, and to commit herself to reveal God’s love to others by her own compassionate love.

After Francois’ death, she opened a small store to pay his debts, to support her children and to help others. She worked hard at the store and also found time to reach out to meet the needs of the poor.  She became a familiar sight among the most destitute, even begging for money to feed the hungry and to bury hanged criminals.

She opened her own home to a poor blind woman.  Her works of charity began to inspire other women. Three women from distinguished families joined her and dedicated themselves to serving the poor. The enlightened people of Montreal did not look favorably upon their devotion to the poor. They were threatened by their works of charity and insulted them. They accused them of selling liquor to the Indians as Marguerite’s husband had done. In derision they called them “Les Soeurs Grises”, which means the Tipsy Nuns. Marguerite never wanted us to forget the difficulties the founding sisters endured. Years later when they received approval as a religious congregation, Marguerite chose the color “Grey” for their habit.  In French “Gris” besides meaning tipsy, also means the color gray. So we became “The Grey Nuns” -Les Soeurs Grises.

Sustained bMarguerite (for Helen Martin)y God’s provident care, Marguerite & her companions continued their works of charity at first in various homes, and then by taking over the General Hospital, a refuge for anyone in need, poor, or physically or mentally sick. During the seven years’ war between France and England, Marguerite cared for the wounded, French, Indian  or British soldiers.  Saving the life of one soldier prevented the Hospital from being bombarded by British troops who mistook the hospital for a French Fort. The word of this soldier convinced his officers to check before firing their cannons. Marguerite and her sisters also cared for the Indians when their village was threatened by a smallpox epidemic.

It was good Pope John XXIII who gave Marguerite the title “Mother of Universal Charity” when she was beatified on May 3, 1959.  One day as she and her sisters were walking, they found an infant in the snow who had been stabbed.  As she picked up the dead baby, she knew immediately that she would open a home for abandoned children.  Even though her funds were minimal, she established the first foundling home in North America. After a life of struggle and triumphs, Marguerite died on December 23, 1771.

For 80 years following St. Marguerite’s death, the Grey Nuns continued to serve the poor, the sick, the homeless and the orphan in Montreal.  However as great needs arose throughout North America they responded. In 1840 they journeyed to western Canada to St. Boniface (Winnipeg) in Manitoba.  The account of their long, arduous journey makes a modern person shudder with incredulity

Requests from various Bishops for sisters resulted in additional foundations of the Grey Nuns: The Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinth in 1840, the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa in 1845, and the Sisters of Charity of Quebec in 1849. In 1855 they went to Toledo, Ohio to establish a hospital and orphanage.

One group in particular, the Grey Nuns of the Cross, traveled by sleigh from Montreal to Ottawa.  Their young superior, was Mother Elisabeth Bruyere, a sister trained as a teacher. These pioneer Grey Nuns who arrived in Ottawa in the winter of 1845 had as their mission not only the care of the poor & needy, but also the charge to educate.  They opened Canada’s first bi-lingual school in the fall of 1845 to accommodate not only the French speakers, but also the English-speaking Irish and English settlers.  During the terrible typhoid epidemics of the late 1840s, Grey Nuns in Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec cared for the stricken. Currently at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut there is an exhibit commemorating this event and highlighting the service of the Grey Nuns in caring for the Typhoid victims.

In many locations the Grey Nuns worked closely with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In 1857 Mother Bruyere accompanied five sisters to Buffalo, NY where they would work with the Oblates at Holy Angels parish, caring for the poor, the sick, visiting those in prison and teaching at the Holy Angels Grammar School. In 1861 they would also open Holy Angels Academy for young ladies, which enjoyed a rich and enduring history until 2013.

In 1863 the Grey Nuns traveled to Ogdensburg, NY on the St. Lawrence River to serve in education and health care capacities.

In 1869, the Grey Nuns began their ministry in Plattsburg, NY on Lake Champlain, first in a parish school, St. Peter’s, then in 1871 at D’Youville Academy, a private girls’ boarding school. The need for a hospital to serve the local community and surrounding area was evident. When all funding sources had been exhausted, Sister Ann of Jesus Whalen and Sister St. Melanie Tierney, traveling by horse and buggy, went door to door throughout the forty towns of the surrounding area soliciting funds for the hospital. One of our Archival treasures is a note Sister St. Anne wrote to Saint Joseph, promising to name the chapel for him and to keep a vigil light constantly burning before his statue if he would provide the needed funds.  Shortly afterward, the needed funds arrived and Champlain Valley Hospital was built. Of course, Sister Ann kept her end of the bargain.

In 1880, eight Grey Nuns traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts to the Immaculate Conception Parish School: four to teach the girls and four to teach the boys under the age of twelve.  Again they worked with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

The longer the Grey Nuns ministered in the United States, the greater the number of American women wishing to join them. Bilingual women had little difficulty adjusting to the French Canadian Novitiate.  American women who spoke only English found living and absorbing the spirit and principles of the spiritual life in a totally French environment very difficult. Their formation as religious women suffered because of the language barrier.

Cardinal Dougherty

Cardinal Dougherty

There were many appeals to the Ottawa leadership, even an appeal by Archbishop Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia to found an English-speaking novitiate in the United States. These appeals went unanswered. Dougherty was Bishop of Buffalo before being made Archbishop of Philadelphia.  His successor, Bishop Turner, urged the Sisters to appeal directly to the Holy See to form a separate American Grey Nun Congregation.  Archbishop Dougherty supported them, and personally shepherded the separation which took place in the summer of 1921. On August 24, 1921, 155 former members of Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa became the pioneer members of the new American Congregation: The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. Because of his great support of the new congregation, the sisters voted to move the new Congregation’s headquarters to Philadelphia where the former Bishop of Buffalo was now Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia.

When Cardinal Dougherty built Little Flower High School in 1939, The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart were among the congregations of women religious who ministered there.  A good number of Little Flower graduates entered the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart following graduation.  I am one of their number, a proud Little Flower graduate, class of 1955, who first met the Grey Nuns at my alma mater more than 60 years ago. This morning I joined other women religious at a special liturgy in the Cathedral celebrating our religious jubilees. You know I prayed in gratitude for the gift of my call to consecrated life, and my particular call to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.

Good Pope Francis has encouraged us “to look to the past with Gratitude, to live in the present with Passion and to embrace the future with HOPE.”  What is our future?  Let me quote our President, Sister Julia Lanigan,

“As Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart we are also walking together into “something new” in the life of our community: leaving our “Motherhouse” as we have known it.

We are letting go of the space that has anchored our life and mission, providing shelter, security and a sense of “home” for us communally.  We mourn this loss even as we choose to respond to the invitation to build community with each other in new spaces and to expand the circle of our community to include all those from different walks of life with whom we will share life in new ways.

We have the joy of the Gospel to accompany us to greet all we will meet.  Rooted in the Compassionate Heart of Jesus, we have a mission to fulfill as we are sent.”

We Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart count on your prayers to support us. You can follow our progress on our website: www.greynun.org.


Sister Mary Karen Kelly spoke at Daylesford Abbey on Sunday, September 13 as part of their series of talks in celebration of the Year for Consecrated Life.  Sr. Karen is currently the archivist for the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.  


8 thoughts on “Responding to God’s people- Mother of Universal Compassion

  1. Nancy Gormley Schaub says:

    I remain eternally grateful to my parents for sending me to Melrose Academy, and then to D’Youville College. The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart have blessed and enriched my life. Many years ago I made a special trip to Montreal to visit the original Motherhouse as well as the one at Guy and St. Catherine. So many changes, some harder than others to accept. I have long mourned the closing of Melrose, and then Yardley. The Sisters are ever in my prayers. This is a beautiful history. My only daughter’s name is influenced by St. Marguerite’s as well as Mother Elisabeth’s names. She is Megan Elisabeth.

  2. Fr. John Madigan, O.M.I. says:

    I am a Missionary Oblate from Holy Angels in Buffalo, New York. Like many of my maternal and paternal families we love and respect all of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. I also served at the Immaculate Conception in Lowell where the Grey Nuns were remembered with great appreciation!

  3. Bill and Anne Kelly says:

    We have enjoyed your article immensely. Thank you for helping us to understand about the formation of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart and their foundation. I now know how the Grey Nuns came to teach at my school, Little Flower Catholic High School. We are so very proud of you and happy to be your family.

    1. Mary Karen Kelly says:

      Thanks Anne and Bill.

  4. David says:

    wonderful and Awesome job Sister

    1. Mary Karen Kelly says:

      Thanks, David. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Mary Elizabeth Looby says:

    Thanks, Mary Karen! Great job! Marguerite is such a wonderful role model to many and so are you!

    1. Mary Karen Kelly says:

      I appreciate your comment.

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