Submissive to the designs of Providence, she left her daughters the legacy of unconditional docility to the divine plan, setting alight in the firmament of the Church a star of action united with contemplation, in the feminine religious orders.
On the day of St. Sebastian, I was in the church at Montmartre when I felt a strong calling to give myself to God so as to do his most holy will for my entire life,”1 declared St. Louise de Marillac.
This mother of a multitude of spiritual daughters left them the legacy of unconditional docility to the will of the Father, to follow the footsteps of Christ, dedicating their lives to visiting cities and villages doing good for the souls and bodies of the neediest: “The people of Charity know the happiness of having this relationship with Our Lord, of being with Him wherever they go to help their neighbour.” 2
These words perfectly describe our saint, who with St. Vincent de Paul, was the cofounder of the Daughters of Charity, a benevolent arm of the Church since the seventeenth century in aiding the poor, sick and children, and entering the twenty-first century with over 24,500 sisters throughout approximately 90 countries. 3
Discerning the will of God from an early age
Louise, a Frenchwoman, was born in Paris on August 12, 1591. Her family, of noble lineage, was deeply Christian. In France, the name de Marillac is associated with prelates, abbots, priests, abbesses and religious.
She was only a few days old when her mother died. At 15 years of age, her father, Louis de Marillac, Lord of Ferrière and de Villiers, also passed away. Thus began a series of trials and sufferings for the young girl, by which Providence wished to unite her to Himself: “At a very early age God made his will known to me—that I go to Him through the cross. Since my birth and at all times, He almost never left me without an occasion to suffer.” 4
She received an excellent education, and was versed in literature, philosophy and Latin. Gifted with evident artistic sense, she enjoyed painting. It is noteworthy that one of her works, painted as an adult, is kept today as a relic in the Daughters of Charity motherhouse: “Our Lord Jesus Christ standing, almost life-size, with his Heart glowing upon his chest, and with his pierced hands outstretched, […] and with an expression of kindness.” 5 The fact that the Divine Model appeared in exactly this way to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, nearly 50 years later evokes admiration!
It is a representation of Him whom she adored in her heart and for whom all the operations of her soul converged: “Having read the Gospel of the good sower, and not finding any good earth in myself, I desired to sow in the Heart of Jesus all the works of my soul and the actions of my body, so that, with his merits, I only acted for Him and in Him.” 6
The loss of her father showed her the fragility of worldly things. Taken in by her uncle, Michel de Marillac, Councillor of the Royal Parliament, fervent Catholic and benefactor of several religious congregations, she expressed a desire enter a Capuchin convent. However, because of her weak constitution and fragile health, she was dissuaded from this by her confessor, Friar Honoratus de Champagny, who had discerned that she was to follow another path: “My daughter, I believe that God has other plans.” 7
A mystical grace reveals her future
Prevented from becoming a religious, in 1613 she married Antoine Le Gras, secretary of Queen Marie de Médicis, a pious man of blameless conduct. From this marriage a son was born: Michel, the object of her exceeding affection.
Louise lived at court as an exemplary spouse and mother, a prudent, humble, strong and unselfish woman. She received Communion frequently, which was very uncommon in those times so influenced by Jansenism. One of her directors was Bishop Francis de Sales, an intimate friend of her uncle Michel. After the death of the holy Bishop of Geneva, she received wise guidance from the Bishop of Belley, John Peter Le Camus.
The year 1623 brought on many trials. On one hand, she felt her soul engulfed with the desire to surrender herself more fully to the service of God and neighbour. On the other hand, such a desire seemed to her incompatible with her obligations as spouse and mother. Added to this perplexity, other anxieties besieged her soul; she feared she was too attached to her spiritual director and was even assailed by doubts of faith.
The Feast of Pentecost restored her peace of soul, and drew aside the veil to reveal her future and her vocation. This is how she related the grace that she received as she attended Mass in the Church of Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs: “In a flash, an interior voice told me […] that I would soon be in a position to make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, together with others who would do the same. I understood that I would be in a place where I could help my neighbour; but I did not understand how this would be possible, for I saw people coming and going from this place. Regarding a director, I could rest assured that God would provide me with one.” 8 At this moment she felt certain that the revelation had come from God Himself, leaving her no reason to doubt.
It was a prevision of the institute of active life that she would found, formed by “people coming and going;” an important innovation for the epoch, which we will later see.
The meeting with St. Vincent de Paul
By the design of Providence, Bishop Le Camus could not go to Paris the following winter, and so he sent his spiritual charge to a priest friend, St. Vincent de Paul.
The latter had founded the Congregation of the Mission, for priests dedicated to the evangelization of the poor and needy people from the countryside. Father Vincent did not normally take on noble ladies for spiritual direction, but he made some exceptions. Thus, at the request of another close friend, St. Francis de Sales, founder of the Visitation Order, he had accepted the responsibility of directing the Visitation nuns of Paris, governed by St. Jane de Chantal. The holy bishop entrusted to him the direction of his spiritual daughters, declaring that he did not know a more fitting priest.
From the moment of their first meeting, St. Louise de Marillac cannot be spoken of without referring to St. Vincent de Paul.
Monsieur Le Gras, after many sufferings, died a Christian death in the arms of his wife, on December 21, 1625. The young woman, widowed at 34 years of age, could now dedicate herself entirely to the service of God and neighbour. She abandoned society life and placed herself in the wise hands of St. Vincent.
During the first four years of her holy director’s guidance, he sought to prepare her temperament for the challenges that awaited her, following a threefold principle: “To love God with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow; to see Jesus Christ in our neighbour, loving and serving Our Lord in each one, and each one in Our Lord; not running ahead of Divine Providence, but calmly awaiting his word of command.” 9
Respectful and deep union between two saints
By the action of grace, an unbreakable spiritual bond formed between her and St. Vincent de Paul. Always affable and vigilant, the two exchanged visits and letters until old age, leaving a legacy of the sweet aroma of true friendship based on the love of God. Correspondence between the two shows the mutual affection and respect they shared. She, humble and filled with filial veneration; he, simple, affectionate and above all, religious and serious, revealing at each step “his soul of a priest, his heart of a father, and his zeal of a saint.” 10
One of Louise’s concerns was her son. The intensity of her motherly love bespoke a somewhat human attachment. The young Michel, after the death of his father, and now also deprived of maternal kinship, was not adapting well to life in the seminary where he boarded to complete his education. Moreover, the political problems in France were implicating the Marillac family because of their influence and presence at court. Such circumstances affected the young man’s behaviour, causing his mother great anxiety.
With a firm and paternal hand, St. Vincent de Paul came to the aid of both. He admonished the mother for her excessive attachment, which she accepted with complete docility. “Oh, what joy to be a child of God! For this Lord loves his own with an affection even greater than yours for your son, although this love is so great that I have never seen anything like it in any other mother.” 11 As for Michel, he treated him with understanding, welcoming him into his own community. And as the young man did not have a vocation to the priesthood, he even helped him to contract a marriage.
A new concept of religious life emerges
Carrying out his apostolate with the rural population by preaching missions, St. Vincent founded a small association called “Charity”, operated by affluent women of the region. Known as the “ladies of Charity”, they saw to the ongoing care of the needy, especially the sick. Nevertheless, lacking direct connection with their founder, such associations soon faced serious problems, such as unwise decisions, authority disputes, misuse of resources and personal clashes. Someone was needed to visit each of these “Charities” and re-establish order and harmony with firmness and skill.
It was the light of Providence opening the path of Louise’s vocation, as she became this visitor of St. Vincent. With the feminine touch of the strong woman of Scripture (cf. Prv 31:10-31), she organized and gave shape to the apostolic fruits of the untiring Mission priests.
Additionally, an even more pressing need was felt. Since the “ladies of Charity” did not take on the heaviest tasks, such as the direct and personal care of the sick, there was an urgent need for a dedicated group willing to assume the most humble responsibilities, who would be the “servants of Charity”. St. Vincent met several young women with such dispositions in his activities, and he sent them to St. Louise to have them formed according to his spirit. The members of this budding community soon came to be called “sisters of Charity”.
Thus a new congregation was born: the Company of the Daughters of Charity. The maternal instinct of these young religious was channelled toward the care of the sick and needy, for the love of God. These virgins became mothers of the poor and underprivileged, initially in rural regions, but soon in the cities as well, including Paris. They served the sick in hospitals, or sought them out in their own homes, and sheltered abandoned children in orphanages. Their beneficent works were soon solicited in perilous situations, such as places devastated by bloody combat, where they attended the wounded and dying.
Ready for any sacrifice, they were aware of not being religious according to the models of the time—not being an institute of cloistered nuns. St. Vincent made this point very clear to them: “You are not nuns.” However, he strove to confirm them in their unique vocation: “I assure you that I do not know religious more useful to the Church than the Sisters of Charity, because of the service they render to their neighbour.” 12
Clearly, they could not omit contemplation taken in the sense of a vigorous life of piety, which was the foundation for their apostolate: doing everything for love of God, seeing Our Lord in each poor and sick person, within obedience to a well-defined rule. The new institution joined this interior spirit to the active life, a profound innovation for the time: “The Daughters of Charity had a hospital for a convent, a rented room for a cell, and the streets of the city or infirmaries for their cloister, obedience as their enclosure, the fear of God as a their grille and holy modesty as their veil.” 13
Unconditional obedience to the founder
It is impossible to narrate, in these few lines, the immense good done by these two saints. There were no shortage of struggles, setbacks and trials, both material and spiritual; but these were confronted with courage and perspicacity, certain of fulfilling the Father’s will.
Faithful in every trial, St. Louise de Marillac led the new institute in unconditional obedience to its founder. Given their union of souls, she knew that the will of God was found in his will. For his part, he knew how to distinguish, with deep discernment, young women with a true vocation, and he helped the saint in forming the ever-growing number of these daughters. Together they developed the rules and gave canonical form to the Congregation, which was approved by the Archbishop of Paris in 1655, after 30 years of arduous apostolate.
Moved by his paternal zeal, and acquiescing to the desires of St. Louise, St. Vincent strove to consolidate the newborn work. He did this especially through a series of conferences full of passion and enthusiasm, in which he encouraged his spiritual daughters in the way of sanctity, according to the foundation’s charism: “Humiliate yourselves much, my dear Sisters, and work to become perfect and to make yourselves saints” 14—he insisted.
Louise was one of the first to take down and carefully preserve the words of her father and founder. Including notes from conferences and letters, her records came to constitute three volumes, a total of 1,500 pages. This manuscript collection, entitled Maxims and Counsels, is kept until today in the Company’s archives. This entire treasure represents the “most authentic and pure deposit of doctrine and spirit” 15 which would animate the Daughters of Charity of every epoch.
“You go on ahead, I will see you soon in heaven”
St. Louise de Marillac kept her baptismal innocence intact. The testimony of St. Vincent in this regard is unquestionable: “What did I see in her for the 38 years that I knew her? Some small mosquitoes of imperfection come to my mind, but grave sin, never! Never!” 16 Of this innocent soul, Jesus Christ asked the ultimate suffering: to be deprived of contact with her venerated founder. She fell seriously ill and could no longer visit him; and he, for his part, already having reached 85 years of age, could neither leave his bed nor write. For her, there could be no greater sacrifice to ask. A message from him was the last contact between the two: “You go on ahead, I will see you soon in heaven.” 17
After receiving the Sacraments, she surrendered her soul to God on March 15, 1660, at 68 years of age. And indeed, six months later, St. Vincent went to meet her in eternity.
Her body is buried in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Congregation, on Rue du Bac, in Paris, where Our Lady, acknowledging this work so beloved by her Divine Son, appeared in 1830 to one of her daughters, St. Catherine Labouré, to pour out torrents of grace from there upon the entire world, by means of the Miraculous Medal. ◊