A faith response to life’s tragic events echoes through the story of St. Louise de Marillac, a pioneer in religious life and in the provision of human services. With St. Vincent de Paul in 1633, she founded the Daughters of Charity, the first community of non-cloistered sisters, whose 25,000 members now serve around the globe.
Born out of wedlock in Paris in 1581, Louise never knew who her mother was but was acknowledged and raised by her father, a member of the aristocracy. When her father married, Louise had a difficult time adjusting as was sent as a resident student to a Dominican convent where her aunt was a religious. This experience deepened Louise’s introspective ways, her many intellectual skills, as well as her desire to be a religious. When her father died and resources were limited, she lived in a boarding house where she had the opportunity to learn many basic domestic and organizational skills, as well as the secrets of herbal medicine. This experience rounded out her classical, upper-class education and prepared her well for her future service.
Louise married Antoine le Gras, secretary to the Queen of France, but their marital happiness was short-lived because of his poor health. As a young matron, Louise traveled and socialized among both the royalty and aristocracy of France, but she was equally comfortable with the poor, no matter their desperate situations. She held a leadership role in the Ladies of Charity, an organization of rich women dedicated to assisting the poor.
Suffering was never far from Louise. During civil unrest, her two uncles who held high rank within the government were imprisoned. One was publicly executed and the other died in prison. In 1623, when illness was wasting Antoine who died in 1625, depression was overcoming Louise. While at prayer, Louise had a vision in which she saw herself serving the poor and living the vows of religion in community. She wrote this “lumiere” on parchment and carried it on her person as a reminder that despite her difficulties, God was guiding her life. In that vision a priest appeared to her, whom she later identified as Vincent de Paul, her future confidante and collaborator in ministry.
In 1629, Vincent de Paul, who in 1625 had established the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians), invited Louise to assist him with the Confraternities of Charity in the parishes of France. These tasks were therapeutic for Louise and formative for her future work and that of the Vincentian family. She conducted site visits to assure the quality of the service being offered; reviewed financial accounts for stewardship reports; and encouraged the workers and volunteers to see Christ in those whom they served.
Through this work, she gained a deep knowledge of the needs of the poor, developed her own innate management skills and identified effective structures for service. On November 29, 1633 in her own home she began to train young women to address the needs of the poor and to gain support from their life together. From this humble beginning, the community of Daughters of Charity emerged. Louise provided leadership and expert management to the evolving network of services she and Vincent inspired.
Louise, who died on March 15, 1660 just a few months before Vincent de Paul, wa proclaimed a Saint of the Church in 1934. In 1960 Pope John XXIII proclaimed her the Patroness of all Social Workers. As a wife, mother, teacher, nurse, social worker and religious foundress, she stands as a model to all women. She lives today in the 25,000 Daughters of Charity serving throughout the world, as well as in their many lay collaborators.
O Gracious God, Saint Louise devoted her life to helping Saint Vincent de Paul serve the needs of the poor. She often taught: “Be diligent in serving the poor. Love the poor, honor them, as you would honor Christ Himself.” I lift up to You the programs in my church and community that help the needy, and the people who do the work. Multiply the donations. Teach me how to think generously. Give me a heart that desires to care for the poor as if I were serving Jesus directly, and help me to see Jesus in each person that begs on the street corner or church door. Saint Louise, pray for us. Amen.