St. Louise de Marillac
Servant of the Poor
Louise de Marillac has remained behind the shadows of her mentor and friend, Vincent de Paul for the last 350 years.
Who was Louise? What motivated her dynamic and revolutionary spirit? What forces urged her to respond with fresh insight and undaunted courage to the harsh demands of the poor and the needy? What wars did she wage within herself as she journeyed to God?
Louise de Marillac was a wife, mother, widow, teacher, nurse, social worker and founder. She was an organizer, a radical thinker who lived her life intensely and enthusiastically. She was a woman whose quest in life was to do the will of God with a deep faith in divine providence. She knew suffering but she also knew love. Through this suffering and love, she became a mystic in action.
Joseph Dirvin, C.M.states in the first fully documented biography of Louise (Louise de Marillac, 1970) that, throughout the centuries, it was assumed:
“that the dynamic Vincent de Paul had taken a weak woman and made her an automaton in carrying out, obediently, humbly and without a thought of her own, his charitable plans. Such an assumption does little honor to Vincent, who grasped the potentialities of this woman from their first meeting, or to God, who had prepared her for that meeting by an exquisite refinement in the furnace of suffering.”
INFANCY AND CHILDHOOD
Louise, daughter of Louis de Marillac, was born on August 12, 1591. The true identity of her mother remains unknown because baptismal records from the years 1590 to 1595 have disappeared. Most likely, Louise was born out of wedlock and, by law, was illegitimate.
As an infant, Louise was placed in a Dominican convent-school at Poissy, situated some six miles from Paris, overlooking the Seine River. During her years there, Louise received a solid education in philosophy, theology, Latin, Greek and literature as well as Dominican and mystical spirituality.
Her father died when she was twelve and she was placed in a boarding school near Paris. Here she received a practical education that included sewing, cooking, and housekeeping. In a providential way, these studies prepared her for her future as educator and co-foundress of the Company of the Daughters of Charity.
During these years, France was undergoing a religious renewal which awakened in her a desire to consecrate herself to God. At the age of 20, she asked permission to enter the community of the Daughers of the Passion. However, due to her preacarious health, the superior of the Capuchins denied her request with a very prophetic advice:
“God has other designs on you.”
It was common during this era for families to arrange marriages for their children. Michel de Marillac, Louise’s uncle and guardian, arranged for her to marry Antoine le Gras, secretary to the queen, Marie de Medici. Louise and Antoine came to love each other deeply. With Antoine, Louise found the joy and warmth of a family home, which was brightened by the birth of a son whom they named Michel Antoine.
Seven years after their marriage, Antoine became sick, most probably with tuberculosis, making him despondent and angry. His mood changes and frequent bouts of impatience greatly disturbed her. Many times she asked herself whether all that was happening was a punishment from God for her failue to keep her vow to enter the cloister. On Pentecost Sunday in 1623, the Holy Spirit enlightened and inspired her. She was to remain with her husband and that a time would come when she would be in a position to make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience with a small community where others would do the same. For over two years, Louise remained constantly at his side until his death.
Grief, loneliness and feelings of abandonment nearly overwhelmed Louise and to add to that, she worried about her twelve-year-old son and his future. She felt responsible for much of Michel’s instability so she surrounded him with excessive and overprotective love.
VINCENT DE PAUL
Bishop Camus was Louise’s spiritual director but because he lived far from Paris, he appointed Vincent de Paul to take his place. Vincent and Louise had little appreciation for each other in the beginning. Louise felt that Vincent’s simplicity was far removed from the refinement of Bishop Camus. For his part, Vincent had just established the Congregation of the Mission and had reluctantly accepted the spiritual direction of this young widow.
It was only later that both acknowledged that the providence of God had sent Vincent to Louise to be her guide and friend. As Vincent grew to know Louise, he discovered in her a great desire to know and to accomplish the will of God. He taught her to trust God and herself:
“Be, then, quite humble, submissive, and full of confidence, and always waiting patiently the manifestations of his holy and adorable will.”
SERVICE TO THE POOR
Through Louise’s frequent contacts with Vincent, she gradually immersed herself in the work of the Confraternities and Ladies of Charity. The Confraternities had been established by Vincent in 1617 and their work was focused on organizing people in parishes to help alleviate the misery of needy parishioners. One principle guided them: The poor are Jesus Christ. Vincent required that the personal service given be compassionate, gentle, respectful, devoted and from the heart. The Ladies of Charity was a coalition of wealthy women, mostly from the nobility, serving poor people through their time and money.
As Vincent and Louise worked as a team, they discovered and appreciated their complementarity. Vincent and Louise combined daring initiative with prudent planning and constancy. Vincent provided the original vision of service to the poor shaped by the love of Jesus Christ. Louise helped transform that vision into a reality. As God led Louise to the poor, charity burned in her heart so that she found and treasured Christ in the broken hearts, spirits and bodies of the destitute people she served.
While Vincent was preaching a mission in 1630, a peasant woman of about thirty-two years of age named Marguerite Naseau came to him asking to serve poor people. So, he sent her to Louise who directed her to work with the Ladies of Charity in the Parish of Saint Sauveur in Paris. Marguerite’s example was contagious and soon other young women came. Louise knew that these young women would need a strong formation, rooted in prayer, in order to persevere in their service. It would be by faith alone that they would find God in the poor and the poor in God. She was convinced that a community dedicated to the service of poor, abandoned, orphaned, sick and illiterate people had to be formed.
So, on November 29, 1633, the Company of the Daughters of Charity was born. Without consciously doing so, the Daughters dramatically changed religious life because up to this point, religious communities of women had been confined to cloistered convents. Vincent spoke thus of the Daughters’ way of life:
“Having for their convent the houses of the sick…for a cell a hired room…for a chapel their parish church…for a cloister the streets of the city…for enclosure, obedience…with an obligation to go nowhere but to the houses of the sick, or places that are necessary to serve them…for a grille, the fear of God…for veil, holy modesty…making use of no other form of profession to assure their vocation than the continual confidence they have in divine providence and the offering they make to God of all that they are and of their service in the person of the poor.”
The Daughters of Charity was a community of laywomen. In the early days of the commuity, they did not take vows but later they began taking simple and private vows for one year at a time.
YEARS OF NEW FOUNDATIONS AND INNOVATIVE SERVICE
In 17th century Paris, an estimated 300 to 400 infants were abandoned each year in the streets or under the porches of churches. These babies were brought to an institution called La Couche to be fed and reared. But the wet nurses and staff were few so the children were given drugs to keep them from crying at night. Some children were also sold to beggars who broke the infants’ arms and legs so they would extract more pity from passersby.
In 1638, Louise organized the Ladies and Daughters to take proper care of these orphans. It became their central work.
At the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, 1,200 sick, poor people were forced to sleep several to a bed because of shortage of space. The epidemics that frequented Paris taxed the hospital beyond its capacity and supplies were always lacking.
In 1634, the Ladies and Daughters began ministering and reforming the Hôtel-Dieu, being cordial and patient with the poor people. Five years later, Louise negotiated for the administration of the Hospital Saint Jean in Angers. The conditions were so bad in this hospital that the poor avoided it unless they were dragged there bodily.
The ministry in these first two hospitals established a tradition of hospital ministry that continues today.
The Galley Slaves
The king of France had appointed Vincent de Paul to be chaplain of the galley slaves. Galleys were long, narrow, low-slung boats that were propelled by oar and sail. Convicts, wearing heavy chains, suffering from hunger, fevers, vermin and lack of adequate clothing, were pressed into rowing these boats.
In 1640, the Daughters started ministering to these outcasts: cook their food; wash, mend and replace their clothes; air and clean their cells; clean and treat their sores.
Louise knew that the work with the galley slaves could be dangerous and repugnant and so she admonished the sisters to:
“never reproach them nor speak rudely to them…treat them with great compassion…not to make matters worse by showing favoritism to any prisoner, listening to pleas for help in escaping, ignoring any prison rules…”
In 1641, Louise inaugurated free schools for the poor little girls of Paris. She also sent the Daughters into homes and even farm fields to teach the children who were needed to help at home or work on the farm. At the same time, she was also teaching the sisters, many of whom were illiterate. Louise taught them reading, basic knowledge of religion, simple arithmetic, writing as well as instruction on the duties of a good Christian woman.
The Elderly Poor
In 1653, Louise organized the Hospice of the Holy Name of Jesus, a home for poor, elderly people. Each person worked according to his or her strength and ability: men wove and made shoes; women made gloves and lingerie. The work mitigated the residents’ loneliness, provided for their maintenance and gave them a sense of dignity.
Years of chronic illness and hard work finally brought Louise to her death on March 15, 1660. Louise de Marillac’s legacy to her sisters sums up her life:
Ministry: “Take good careof the poor.”
Community: “Above all, live together in great union and cordiality.”
Prayer: “I continue to ask God for His blessings…Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin that she may be your only Mother.”
Love of Christ urged her to go to the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the imprisoned, the uneducated and the underprivileged. The poor did not lead Louise to God. Jesus led her to the poor. Hence, her motto for the Daughters was: “The charity of Christ urges us.”
LOUISE FOR TODAY
Like Louise, we experience a fragmented world, a world filled with confusions and contradictions, a world of suffering, frustrations, difficulties, deceit, pessimism, injustice, futility and loneliness.
Louise welcomed the grace of God, which transformed her fretful heart into a courageous, generous and compassionate heart that loved intensely. She offers us the courage to face ourselves squarely, to overcome our insecurities and our inadequacies, to band together with Christ, and bring healing and hope to our broken world.