In 1737, Saint Marguerite d’ Youville and three of her companions made a secret consecration to the task of helping anyone in need. Thus the Grey Sisters (sometimes called nuns) of Montreal were born. Their mission is one of love, respect, and compassion. Why you may ask, are they called the “Grey Sisters?” The first thought is to the grey clothing, or habit, that they wore. Of course that seems logical, but they are not named for their clothing.
According to the Grey Sisters’ homepage, “it was very new for women to form communities and undertake charitable work in common for the wretched. She was accused, among other things, of continuing her late husband’s illegal trade in alcohol with the First Nations and of being a drunk herself. “You and your Sisters are tipsy”, people yelled at them as they walked down the street. In French, grise has two meanings: tipsy, and grey.” When the Grey Sisters finally adopted their habit, they chose grey, and turned an insult into a name that they wore with dignity.
In 1753 the Grey Sisters expanded their mission and took over the Hôpital Général Montreal.
In those days a “general hospital” meant something entirely different than what it means today. The “general hospital” that the Grey Nuns occupied (and still occupy today) was actually a house for the poor and sick that had fallen into disrepair. In 1753, King Louis XV officially signed the patent that named Saint Marguerite, called the Widow d’ Youville at the time, as the official administrator of the General Hospital of Montreal.
“Go to the Grey Nuns, they never refuse anything.” Those are the words that the people of Montreal spoke about Saint Marguerite and her companions. The Grey Nuns are officially classified as “religious sisters.” Since the sisters were not cloistered nuns, they were allowed to visit and care for those in need. The Sisters went out to care for those afflicted during a major smallpox epidemic, and also cared for the people of the First Nations.
The remnants of the 1691 chapel near the Montreal Historic Society caught my eye one evening during an after dinner stroll through Old Montreal. The sign on the door told us that the building is open for tours from 10:00am – 12:00pm on Tuesday and Thursday. I arrived promptly at 10 the next morning, without having any idea what I was going to see. I was buzzed in and invited to sit in furnished waiting area. Little did I know that I was about to go on a personal tour led by an actual Grey Sister!What I thought would be a quick walk around the building turned into a two and a half hour journey into the life and work of Saint Marguerite (canonized in 1990). I wish I could remember the name of the Sister who gave us the tour. She was a veritable encyclopedia into the life of the Grey Sisters, the history of Old Montreal, and the devotion of Saint Marguerite.
The first thing that I learned is that the old general hospital is still a working residence for the Grey Sisters. The second thing that I learned is that there is an entire museum hidden away from public view inside of the hospital. The well curated exhibit is spread out across multiple floors and includes many artifacts from Old Montreal and the life of Saint Marguerite. The corner of the room where Saint Marguerite took her final breath is preserved as a place of prayer and introspection.I am eternally grateful that I discovered this hidden gem in Montreal and had a chance to interact with a Sister who has devoted her life to love, respect and compassion. The Sisters are few in number and do not actively recruit, however there is something inherently appealing to a simple life of love and devotion in a world of chaos.
The tour doesn’t have to be two hours long if you don’t want it to be, but we were the only ones there and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to a Grey Sister talk about her life and the history of the Grey Sisters of Montreal. Admission is free and the address is 138 Rue Saint Pierre Street, Montreal (Quebec) Canada.
“My dear sisters, be constantly faithful to the duties of the state that you have embraced. Walk always in the path of regularity, obedience, and mortification; but above all let the most perfect union reign among you.”