M990.786.19.1-15 | Nun's habit
1940-1979, 20th century
Gift of Musée du Château Dufresne
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Suit (38)
Keys to History
This habit belonged to the Montreal congregation of the Grey Nuns. Although this type of habit was worn between 1950 and 1979, it may resemble the one adopted by the first generation of Grey Nuns in the 18th century.
The habit conceived by the order's founder, the widow Marguerite d'Youville (1701-1771), was very different from the traditional nun's habit, which generally comprised a brown woollen robe, a veil and a wimple (a cloth covering for the neck and the sides of the face). The Grey Nuns' habit was composed of a robe with broad pleats, a camlet (wool fabric) garment, a domino (a short, sleeveless hooded cape) and a black bonnet.
Marguerite d'Youville founded the congregation of the Grey Nuns in 1737 in order to help the unfortunate. Two decades later, in 1753, this community managed the Hôpital général de Montréal, then housed in a building in Old Montreal that now goes by the name of the Maison de Mère-d'Youville. At the hospital, Marguerite pursued her charitable mission by ensuring that orphans, abandoned children and the poor and elderly were admitted along with the sick. In 1755, d'Youville and her fellow sisters officially became the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital général de Montréal, although they were generally known as the Grey Nuns. Since that time, the nuns' charitable works have extended to encompass work in many other establishments.
By opting for a grey habit, Marguerite d'Youville appropriated the somewhat pejorative nickname that some people had given to the nuns in her congregation. "Gris," the French world for "grey," could also mean "tipsy," and a rumour had it that d'Youville and her associates were involved in smuggling alcohol.
The Grey Nuns ran the Hôpital général de Montréal until 1970. In that year, they were in charge of 30 hospitals, 23 homes for the elderly, 66 teaching institutions, 16 social service centres and 3 clinics in Canada and throughout the world.
The community of the Grey Nuns pledged obedience to its bishop. At the request of Monsignor Briand (1715-1794), the sleeves of their original habit, which had been approved by his predecessor, had to be modified. In the bishop's opinion, the sleeves, which were turned back on the upper arm, were not suitable because they left the wrists exposed.
Marguerite d'Youville was married for eight years before devoting her life to God. When she became a widow, she set out to help the poor and the destitute and it was this aim that led her to found the congregation of the Grey Nuns.