Five Faces of Rosalie Rendu (2)

3.  Intrepid Woman

By all accounts, this tender woman was fearless. Rosalie lived in turbulent times. …She experienced the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, as well as terrible cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849 and 1854.

Rosalie walked among the sick and dying with little fear for her own health. She and the sisters ministered constantly to thousands of cholera victims. They organized the members of the newly-founded Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul to work with them among the cholera-stricken.

The most well-known incidents of Rosalie’s bravery took place during the Revolutions. When Rosalie and the sisters hid revolutionaries, Monsieur Gisquet, the Prefect of Police, signed a warrant for her arrest. But the local policemen warned their chief that her arrest would cause a riot in the whole Mouffetard neighborhood. Gisquet himself went to notify Rosalie of the warrant. She replied: “I am a Daughter of Charity; I have no flag; I help the unfortunate wherever I meet them; I try to do good to them without judging them, and, I promise you that, if you yourself were ever being pursued and you asked my help, I would not refuse it.”[15] The prefect dropped the matter.

Fierce fighting broke out within the city during the Revolution of 1848. The Archbishop of Paris, urged on by Frederic Ozanam, mounted the barricades in an effort to stop the slaughter. He was shot and the fighting became even more intense, with thousands killed. General Cavaignac decided on a massive bombardment of the Mouffetard neighborhood, but first offered the sisters safe conduct out. Rosalie responded to his messenger: “Sir, please thank the General and tell him that we are the servants of the poor and also their mothers and that we want to die with them.”[16] Rosalie and the general, who was later President of the Republic, became friends who deeply admired one another.

The Viscount de Melun attests that during this same Revolution in 1848 an officer of the Garde mobile sought refuge at the sisters’ house. He arrived at the door with rioters in hot pursuit. Rosalie stopped them, shouting: “There is no killing here! … In the name of my devotion over 50 years, of all that I have done for you, for your wives, for your children, I ask you for this man’s safety.”[17] The officer was spared.

4.  Friend of the Rich and of the Poor

On two occasions recently, I have walked to the Cemetery in Montparnasse to visit the grave of Rosalie Rendu. Fresh flowers always lie there. On the simple stone are engraved the words:

To Sister Rosalie

Her grateful friends

The Poor and the Rich

Like St. Vincent, Rosalie knew how to be friend to both. The poor loved her deeply, because they sensed that she lived out precisely what she asked of the sisters who accompanied her. She asked of them, in the words of one of the witnesses: “welcome everyone, speak to the poor with both kindness and dignity, do not make them wait. ‘Treat them,’ she said, ‘as you would treat your father, your brothers, your sisters.’”[18]

But the rich too were attracted to Rosalie. She was the real thing. They found her appeals irresistible. Rosalie knew how to engage their energies and their resources in the service of the poor.

Her correspondence extends to the Archbishop of Paris, to Superiors General, to politicians, to doctors, to young students and to family and friends.

She took on Frederic Ozanam and his companions as apprentices and thus participated in the birth of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

…On February 27, 1852, Rosalie was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor. On March 18, 1854, the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie came to visit her at her house. Sometimes, it would appear, Rosalie’s extraordinary popularity raised eyebrows among her peers and her superiors.

The daily line of those seeking entrance into Rosalie’s salon in the house on rue de l’Epée-de-Bois was long. She worked efficiently, writing little notes to remind herself of their requests. She sought to find some response, even if inadequate, to all the needs presented to her. She did not hesitate to ask the help of those whom she helped. Besides her own sisters, she engaged the poor themselves, young students, priests, religious, and the wealthy too in the service of the poor.

5.  Faithful, Sometimes Misunderstood, Daughter of Charity

Of all the causes for the beatification of members of our Vincentian Family, the one that has interested me most is precisely Rosalie Rendu’s. She was revered in her own lifetime. Those who knew her said that no one resembled St. Vincent so much as she did. While her works were marvelous, her prayerfulness was also striking. While she could be tenacious and unyielding in protecting the poor, she had “infinite tenderness” in relating to them. While she had little formal education, she counseled people of all ranks who came to seek her (a fact that she accepted with a bit of humor).[19]

But in the latter part of her life Rosalie suffered from the disapproval of her superiors. It would appear that the troubles go back to the late 1830s and the conflict that arose during Fr. Nozo’s mandate as Superior General.[20] Because of a financial scandal and the loss of a considerable amount of money for the Congregation of the Mission, strong opposition to Nozo mounted up. Fr.Etienne and Fr. Aladel were among his most formidable opponents. News of the conflict hit the papers, so that much of Paris was talking about it. Finally, the Archbishop of Paris decided to intervene and composed a document of interdict against Fr. Etienne, Fr. Aladel and others. Rosalie, who wanted the matter to end peacefully and had good connections with the Archbishop, went to intercede with him. She remained on her knees and refused to leave, pleading with him to burn the decree of interdict against Frs. Etienne, Aladel, Legot, and Grapain, while pronouncing himself in favor of Fr. Nozo’s cause.[21] After long resistance, the Archbishop gave in. One account states that he finally responded to Rosalie: “Burn it yourself and remember that I hold you responsible before God for what you have made me do!”[22]

Looking back, it seems clear that Rosalie, by her intervention, wanted to mediate a peaceful settlement to a bitter dispute, but Fr. Etienne, elected a short time later as Superior General, remained quite unhappy with her. Only one Vincentian, Monsieur Marion, came to her funeral. He said that he told no one that he was coming, but that he could not stay away because of all he owed to Sr. Rosalie.

 …Those are five faces of Rosalie Rendu. In a rich personality like hers, I am sure that there were many others. Rosalie died on February 7, 1856.

Fr. Robert Maloney, CM

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15. Positio, “Biographie documentee”,  p. 70

16. Ibid. p. 72.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. p. 179.

19. Ibid. p. 170.

20. Cf. ibid. p. 204.

21. Cf. also, Positio, “Sommaire du process ordinaire de Paris”, p. 43.

22. Positio, ‘Biographie documentee’’ , p.204.