Saint Louise de Marillac

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
(Mt 25, 40)

It is not enough to visit the poor and to provide for their needs; one’s heart must be totally purged of all self-interest, (…) we must continually have before our eyes our model, the exemplary life of Jesus Christ. We are called to imitate this life, not only as Christians, but (…) to serve Him in the person of His poor.
(Louise de Marillac, L.217)

Louise de Marillac was born in the 16th century.  Her life speaks to us today in the daily concerns of our life.  In the midst of the difficulties of her life she progressively opened her heart to the light of God.  The Church proclaimed her a saint in 1934.  She was named patroness of Christian Social Workers in 1960.

1591, 12 August Birth of Louise
1604, 25 July Death of her father
1613, 5 February Marriage to Antoine Legras
1613, 18 October Birth of Michel Legras
1623, 4 June “Light” in Saint Nicolas des Champs Church in Paris
1625, 21 December Death of her husband
1625 First encounter with Vincent de Paul
1629 First visits to the Confraternities of Charity
1630 Marguerite Naseau arrived in Paris, first girl to work for the Confraternities of Charity.
1633, February Death of Marguerite Naseau
1633, 29 November Foundation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity
1638 Beginning of the work with the foundlings
1650, 18 January Marriage of her son, Michel
1651 Birth of Louise-Renée, granddaughter of Louise de Marillac
1652 Foundation of the Daughters of Charity in Poland
1652 Resurgence of troubles caused by the Fronde.
  In Paris, soup kitchens and refugee centers.
1653 – 1658 Sending of Daughters of Charity to the battlefields
1660, 15 March Death of Louise de Marillac
1920 Beatification by Pope Benedict XV
1934 Canonization by Pope Pius XI
1960 Declared patron saint of social workers
9 May Feast Day

She was born into a noble family. Several members of the family held important positions connected with the king, Louis XIII.  Her uncle Michel rose to become “keeper of the seals” in 1629.  He was behind the “Day of the Dupes” in November 1630, whose objective was to depose the Prime Minister, Richelieu.  When the attempt failed, Michel was arrested and imprisoned in the château of Châteaudun, where he died in 1632.

Louise’s mother is unknown and her father was a widower at her birth.  He remarried when she was 3 years old.  At a young age she was confided to the care of the Dominicans at the royal monastery of Poissy where she was raised with other children.  There she received a solid education that was intellectual and religious.  At the death of her father she was 13 years old and her uncle Michel became her guardian.  He had her leave Poissy and go to a boarding house for young girls.  There she learned to live simply and poorly.  Here she was trained in domestic tasks.

When she was 15 she wanted to become a religious in an austere order, the Capuchins.  The priest director of the convent would not accept her due to her delicate health.  Louise was extremely disappointed but accepted the decision.  Later, she obeyed her family who presented her to Antoine Legras, a simple squire who was a secretary to the queen.  They were married in 1613 when she was 22 years old.  She became Madamoiselle Legras because the title of Madame was reserved for nobility.  During that year she became the mother of little Michel.  She lived happily in her marriage until 1622 when her husband fell ill and his character hardened.  Louise blamed herself: she had not kept her promise to God to become a religious and now her husband Antoine was sick; wasn’t that her fault?  She went through a period of depression.  She was anguished and overcome with doubts of faith.  She thought she should leave him.  In 1623, on the Feast of Pentecost, God illuminated her heart and her doubts disappeared.  She understood that her place was with her husband and that God was present to both of them.  She realized that one day she would live in community serving the neighbor, “coming and going,” something that she did not understand, in a time when religious were cloistered.

Louise remained with her husband and cared for him until his death in December 1625.  Widowed, lacking financial means, she had to move.  Vincent de Paul lived near her new dwelling.  He became her spiritual director.  Neither one was very enthusiastic about meeting the other, there were such differences between them.  They got to know one another and Vincent helped Louise realize her vocation.  He proposed that she visit the “Confraternities of Charity” to encourage the Ladies in their service of poor persons.  Louise came out of herself and became aware of the realities lived by the poor.  She discovered the difficulties the Ladies had in serving poor persons, how they found it difficult to do menial tasks themselves.

Around 1630 a simple country girl, Marguerite Naseau, offered her service to help the Ladies.  Other girls came after her.  Vincent confided Louise with the practical and spiritual formation of these young women.   Louise questioned and progressively discerned that these women ought to come together in a community.  After long reflection and prayer, the Company of the Daughters of Charity was born on November 29, 1633.

Several local communities of Daughters of Charity were established around Paris and, gradually, they went outside the capital.  In 1638 the Sisters left for la Touraine in Richelieu.  Numerous implantations in France followed.  The Sisters began serving the sick poor at home or in the hospital, abandoned children whom they raised and educated in schools, those wounded in war and galley convicts.  Louise was concerned with the human and spiritual formation of the Sisters.  Each one learned the best techniques of the time in the fields of health care and education to be used with most disadvantaged people.  Each one deepened her relationship with God, seeing the face of Jesus Christ in the poor persons they served.  The Sisters lived together in small communities.  The objective was to form them so that they could be independent and provide for their needs themselves.

The serious trouble of the Fronde, which reached France from 1644-1649, brought about much poverty: famine, sickness, violence.  Louise and Vincent sent Daughters of Charity to all the fronts.  The Sisters went from village to village to rescue and encourage the inhabitants.  This mobility was a major innovation in an era when consecrated women remained in the monastery.

The young community went through a crisis from 1644-1649.  The Sisters left the Company (the service of the poor was too difficult, community life too demanding, the Sisters lost their desire for prayer), projects resulted in failure.  In addition, Louise was worried about her son who didn’t know what to do with his life: to become a priest?  Marriage ?  His future seemed unclear…Louise felt she failed in his education and felt responsible.  With the help of M. Vincent, Louise got through the crisis and found peace in 1650.  Her son was married that year.  Louise became a grandmother the following year.

Louise followed the path of Christ, whom she loved so much, the Lord of Charity who became a man to give his life for humanity.  She became close to the very poor and her Sisters with attention, gentleness, cordiality, compassion.  She knew how to adapt to each one in order to give them the power to find, in their own way, their relationship with Christ.

Louise and Vincent consistently cared for the misery of the very poor for the love of Jesus Christ.  Louise intensely collaborated with Vincent so that the Company of the Daughters of Charity would remain a community of “coming and going”; allowing the Sisters to go to those who were the poorest right where they lived.

Vincent and Louise had very different personalities.  In the course of the thirty years they worked together and not without a period of tension, they learned to appreciate what set them apart and what brought them together.  A deep friendship was born over time where each one respected the unique character of the other.  They placed their energies at the service of the work that united them: the service of God in those who are poor.

Louise died on March 15, 1660, several months before Vincent, surrounded by her family and her Sisters.  Difficulties, doubts and anguish had not spared her.  In her fragility she had welcomed the power of the Spirit and followed the path of Christ, who took on flesh of our flesh and became near to us.  In her turn, she responded to the needs of the very poor so that each one could find his or her human dignity and discover that he or she is a child of God.

Today the Vincentian family is inspired by this woman who lived in the light of her Lord.

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