Mother D’Youville – A Woman of Note

Canada’s Finance Minister says he wants to feature more women on Canadian banknotes. Seizing the opportunity, CBC’s radio show DNTO asked listeners to nominate women they would like to see on the $20.00 bill. I doubt anyone would disagree with the worthiness of any of the 7000 suggestions. They might also agree that the list was biased in favour of English Canada. As far as I can tell Thérèse Casgrain and Michaëlle Jean were the only two Québec women nominated. Fingers crossed DNTO will correct this bias.

Regardless, I have a suggestion to assist the Minister of Finance. Begin at the beginning and focus on women whose contributions have led to the Canada we take for granted. If that were the case Mother D’Youville would be right at the top. She created our first health and social care system. She is also Canada’s original social entrepreneur, social financier and social innovator.

Imagine responding to health and social challenges without any money, without the support of your government, the active opposition of your in-laws while raising your children as a single parent and you have Mother D’Youville’s working conditions.

She founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity in the mid-1700’s. They are popularly known as the Grey Nuns. While deeply spiritual, she had a ‘practical turn of mind’ loved singing and dancing and clearly had a good head for business. The Grey Nuns resuscitated the bankrupt General Hospital in Montreal, turning it into a home and refuge for those discarded by the harsh society of the time. This included babies abandoned in the forest, orphans, unwed mothers, people with disabilities, the elderly, soldiers too injured to ever fight again, prisoners, prostitutes and the poor.

Her work was neither condoned nor supported by the military governor or the bourgeois class who believed coming into contact with the poor offended their good taste. Smallpox epidemics, poor harvests, famine, and war meant that the Grey Nuns had to find inventive ways to survive. Mother D’Youville knew how to turn everything into a profit: needlework, sewing and mending soldier uniforms, making tents and sails, curing tobacco, producing lime, renting plots of lands, offering room and board, growing food, milling flour and selling bread.

Whenever I present on social enterprise, I place a statue of Mother Marguerite D’Youville on the podium in front of me. I’d be happy to donate it to the Canadian Mint if they are looking for an iconic image of what a social entrepreneur in nun’s clothing looks like. Shall we start a petition? #MotherD’Youville. Help us out @TeamDNTO @sookyinlee.

NOTE: I had the good fortune to stay overnight at the original Grey Nuns Hospital in old Montreal a few years ago. It should be a place of pilgrimage for all social entrepreneurs. Guaranteed to make you better!


All my life I have recommended that one must ask questions, take a position and act upon it.

Thérèse Casgrain.

Have a watch and listen to two of the world’s greatest fiddlers, Jean Carignan and Yehudi Menuhin as they play André Gagnon’s Concerto pour Carignan et Orchestra.” A blend of Bach and New France. Can you imagine Mother D’Youville dancing to this? I can. Whose feet wouldn’t move to the violin wizardry of Carignan. This link has better sound quality.


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