Rosalie Rendu was an extraordinary woman. Even though many of the biographies written about her are poor in quality. Rosalie’s energy, creativity, fidelity, courage shine out in the accounts of those who knew her.Long before her death she had become famous. An immense crowd, estimated at 40-50 thousand people, from all strata of society flocked to her funeral on February 9, 1856. …let me present to you today five faces of Rosalie Rendu.
1) Prodigious Worker and Organizer
Rosalie was born on September 9, 1786, in Confort, a village in Savoy. At just 15 years of age she set off for Paris. There she spent more than 50 years of her life in the Mouffetard neighborhood. Her works were prodigious. They included a primary school where Rosalie originally taught and which she later ran. Though Rosalie herself had little formal education (biographers tell us that she never managed to write French very well), she and others labored strenuously to teach children to read, to write, to do basic mathematics, and to learn their catechism.
For young girls and needy mothers, Rosalie soon organized courses in sewing and embroidering. She later founded a day-care center and a nursery school where working mothers could have their children cared for during the day. For these same people, she founded the Children of Mary with a branch for Christian mothers and a branch dedicated to Our Lady of Good Counsel. Though Rosalie was not an advocate of orphanages, in 1851 she took over the running of one; in 1852, she began a home for the elderly.
Besides these, she and the sisters ran a center for the distribution of food and firewood, with a pharmacy, a clinic and a clothes dispensary. She helped in establishing and counseling the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul. She assisted in the reestablishment of the Ladies of Charity in 1840. She cared for the sick and the dying in the recurring cholera epidemics and, perhaps most of all, throughout her life she visited the poor and infirm in their homes. In the epidemics from 1849-1854, as many as 150 persons died in a day in the parish where Rosalie and the sisters worked. They attended to the living, accompanied the dying, and buried the dead.
The secret of Rosalie’s prodigious energy and numerous works was precisely the secret that St. Vincent confided to all his followers: she saw the face of Christ in the person of the poor. …One of the sisters who lived with her cites Rosalie as she encourages the community: “Let us love the Good God very much. Let us not be sparing with our duty; let us serve the poor well, always speaking to them with great kindness. If you do not act in this way, you will be punished: the poor will insult you. The ruder they are; the more dignified you must be. Remember, Our Lord hides behind those rags.”
A seemingly sickly Rosalie was sent away from the novitiate when she was not yet 17 years old with the hope that a change of air would improve her health. It is hard to imagine that the air was much better in inner-city Mouffetard, but as she completed her novitiate and lived and worked in the community there, she thrived. At the same time she quickly won the hearts of the sisters of the house. She returned to the Motherhouse for “habit taking” with a word for the Superioress General from the then local superior, Sr. Tardy, “I am very happy with this little Rendu. Give her the habit, and send her back to me.” And so it was that Jeanne-Marie Rendu, now Sr. Rosalie, took her first steps toward becoming the “Apostle of the Mouffetard District,” perhaps the most miserable quarter of Paris, where she would spend the remainder of her life. In 1815, when she was 29 years of age, she became the superior. She carried out this service for the next 41 years, until her death.
2) What was Rosalie like as a superior?
As I read the accounts of those who gave firsthand testimony about her, three things strike me:
1. Her cousin uses this phrase in describing Rosalie’s relationship with the sisters in the community: “infinite tenderness.” Rosalie was very sensitive to what went on around her. This is evident both in her contacts with the poor and in her relationship with the sisters.
…Her cousin witnesses to having seen her break down in tears at the departure of sisters whom she cared for deeply. Once she spoke about her tears to a person she trusted, who responded: “Rest assured, if you did not so love your sisters, you would not love the poor so much.”
2. The house where Rosalie was superior became a “formation house,” so to speak, to which many young sisters were sent. From her they learned firsthand how to serve the poor. Twenty-two postulants lived with her over the years. Eighteen sisters prepared for vows under her direction, starting in 1832. Twelve sisters lived in her community at the time of her death; half of them had less than four years in vocation.
Her attitude toward the formation of young sisters is evident in a letter that she wrote in 1838 to a young novice for the Daughters of Charity: “Learn to become a child of St. Vincent, that is, Daughter of Charity, heiress of the promises he makes to give everything to one who gives without reservation.”
Apparently she waged war against pride. One of the sisters in the house states: “In spiritual direction, she pursued this latter fault relentlessly: ‘It’s our number one enemy,’ she said, ‘look for it, you will find it at the base of everything, it disguises itself to trick us and confuse us, but we must grab it by the throat and choke it.’”
The community she animated rose each morning at four and prayed faithfully. Among the things that Rosalie read as a source for prayer were The Imitation of Christ and the writings of St. Francis de Sales, whom she called her dear friend and compatriot from Savoy. One of her companions writes: “if we had to leave God for God and accompany her on a charitable visit, she said to us: ‘Sister, let’s begin our meditation!’ She suggested the plan, the outline, in a few simple, clear words” and entered into prayer. The Viscount of Melun quotes her as saying to a sister: “I never pray so well as I do in the street.”nder Rosalie’s animation, this incredibly active house was also, quite notably, a house of prayer.
Father Robert Maloney, C.M.
to be continued…
[1.] The fundamental biography was written by the Viscount Armand de Melun entitled, Vie de Soeur Rosalie, Fille de la Charité (Paris, 1857). It went through 13 editions. Later biographies (for a list of these, cf. Positio, “ Biographie documentée”, p. 306ff.), basically, follow the work of this close collaborator and friend of Sr Rosalie.
[2.] Unless otherwise noted, all citations in this conference are from the Positio Super Virtutibus et Fama Sanctitatis (Rome, 1993).
[3.] Ibid. p. 56-57.
[4.] Visconte de Melun, Vie de la Soeur Rosalie (Paris : J. De Gigord, 1929) 29.
[5.] Positio, “Biographie documentee”, p.195.
[6.] Ibid. pp. 196-197.
[7.] Ibid. pp.179-180.
[8.] Ibid. p. 180.
[9. Ibid. p. 181.
[10.] Ibid. p. 208-209.
[11.] Ibid. p. 201.
[12.] Ibid. p. 199.