Saint Louise de Marillac

Way of Life : Wife, Mother, Widow, Foundress, Social Service worker
Patroness of : disappointing children, loss of parents, people rejected by religious orders, sick people, social workers, Vincentian Service Corps, widows
Traditional Catholic Feastday : May 19
Modern Feastday : May 19

Saint Louise de Marillac, D.C., (August 12, 1591 - March 15, 1660) was the co-founder, with St. Vincent de Paul, of the Daughters of Charity. She is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Louise de Marillac was born out of wedlock on August 12, 1591 near Le Meux, in the Department of Oise, in the Picardy region of France. She never knew her mother. Louis de Marillac, Lord of Ferri res, claimed her as his natural daughter yet not his legal heir. Louis was a member of the prominent de Marillac family and was a widower at the time of Louise’s birth. Her brother, Michel de Marillac, was a major figure in the court of Queen Marie de' Medici and, though Louise was not a member of the Queen’s court, she lived and worked among the French aristocracy. Thus Louise grew up amid the affluent society of Paris, but without a stable home life. When her father married his new wife, Antoinette Le Camus, she refused to accept Louise as part of their family. Nevertheless, Louise was cared for and received an excellent education at the royal monastery of Poissy near Paris, where her aunt was a Dominican nun.

Louise was schooled among the country’s elite and was introduced to the arts and humanities as well as to a deep spiritual life. She remained at Poissy until her father’s death when she was twelve years old. Louise then stayed with a good, devout spinster, from whom she learned household management skills as well as the secrets of herbal medicine. Around the age of fifteen, Louise felt drawn to the cloistered life. She later made application to the Capuchin nuns in Paris, but was refused admission. It is not clear if her refusal was due to her continual poor health or other reasons, but her spiritual director’s prophetic response to her application was that God had “other plans” for her.

Devastated by this refusal, Louise was at a loss as to the next step in her spiritual development. By twenty-two years of age, her family had convinced her that marriage was the best alternative. Her uncle arranged for her to marry Antoine Le Gras, secretary to Queen Marie. Antoine was an ambitious young man who seemed destined for great accomplishments. Louise and Antoine were wed in the fashionable Church of St. Gervaise on February 5, 1617. A year later, the couple had their only child, Michel. Louise grew to truly love Antoine and was an attentive mother to their son. Along with being devoted to her family, Louise was also active in ministry in her parish. She held a leadership role in the Ladies of Charity, an organization of wealthy women dedicated to assisting persons oppressed by poverty and disease.

As a mystic

Aided by her directors, young Louise had entered into profound prayer in the tradition of the Rhenish-Flemish spiritualists or the abstract mystics. She had been initiated in the spirituality of Pierre de Bérulle (a French cardinal and mystic) and as a result entered into mysticism. Even though Louise was living what today might be called a Vincentian spirituality (a result of the influence of Francis de Sales and her encounter with the poor) Louise was aware of the Rhenish-Flemish spirituality because she had experienced it. The Incarnation became the center upon which Louise’s theology and spirituality rested. In this manner Louise, like Duns Scotus, viewed the Incarnation as the moment in which men and women were saved. In the 17th century in France there was discussion about the condemnation of Quietism. For this reason, from the time of Louise’s death, mysticism was viewed with suspicion and a mystical woman was seen as suspect. In light of this, her biographer, Nicholas Gobillon, removed any traces of mysticism from Louise’s writings and rewrote her meditations. 

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. Around 1621, Antoine contracted a chronic illness and eventually became bedridden. Louise nursed and cared for him and their child. However, depression caused her to question her continuing as a wife and a mother. In 1623, when illness was wasting Antoine (who died in 1625), depression was overcoming Louise She suffered for years with internal doubt and guilt at having not pursued the religious calling she had felt as a young woman, and she prayed for resolution. Louise was fortunate to have a wise and sympathetic counselor, St. Francis de Sales, who was then in Paris, and then his friend, the Bishop of Belley, France. 

In 1623, at the age of 32, she wrote, "On the feast of Pentecost during Holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was completely freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that the time would come when I would be in the position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same." She continued, “I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God; I should not doubt the rest.” She vowed not to remarry should her husband die before her. Louise also received insight that she would be guided to a new spiritual director whose face she was shown. When she came to meet Vincent de Paul, she recognized him as the priest from her vision.

Three years after this experience, Antoine died. She now focused intently on her own spiritual development. Being a woman of energy, intelligence, determination and devotion, Louise wrote her own "Rule of Life in the World" which detailed a structure for her day. Time was set aside for reciting the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attending Mass, receiving Holy Communion, meditation, spiritual reading, fasting, penance, reciting the rosary and special prayers. Still, Louise managed to find time to maintain her household, entertain guests and nurture Michel, her 13-year old son, with special needs. Throughout all this activity, Louise realized she needed guidance and a tempering of her intensity and drive. This was to come from her relationship with Vincent de Paul.

Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul

Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul met around the time of Antoine's passing in 1625. Widowed and lacking financial means, she had to move. Vincent de Paul lived near her new dwelling. At first he was reluctant to be her confessor, busy as he was with his Confraternities of Charity. Members were aristocratic ladies of charity who were helping him nurse the poor and look after neglected children, a real need of the day. But the ladies were busy with many of their own concerns and duties. His work needed many more helpers, especially ones who were peasants themselves and therefore close to the poor. He also needed someone who could teach and organize them.

Over the next four years, Vincent and Louise communicated often through letters and personal meetings, with Vincent guiding Louise to greater balance in a life of moderation, peace and calm. In 1629, Vincent invited Louise to get involved in his work with the Confraternities of Charity. She found great success in these endeavors. Then, in 1632, Louise made a spiritual retreat seeking inner guidance regarding her next step. Her intuition led her to understand that it was time to intensify her ministry with poor and needy persons, while still maintaining a deep spiritual life. Louise, at age 42, drawn to focus on mission, communicated this aspiration to Monsieur Vincent. By the end of 1633, he too had received the guidance needed for them to bring the Daughters of Charity into existence.

Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul

Until 1964, the traditional religious habit included a large, starched cornette. In 17th-century France, the charitable care of the poor was completely unorganized. Many underprivileged people were victims of non-existent care or poor hospital conditions. The Ladies of Charity, founded by Vincent years earlier, provided some care and monetary resources, but this wasn’t enough. For, though the wealthy Ladies of Charity had the funds to aid poor people, they did not have the time or temperament to live a life of service among the poor. Vincent and Louise realized that the direct service of poor persons was not easy for the ladies of nobility or of the bourgeoisie. It was difficult to overcome the barriers of social class. These women took meals, distributed clothing and gave care and comfort. They visited the slums dressed in beautiful dresses next to people they considered to be peasants. The tension between the ideal of service and social constraints was real. The families of the ladies did not always favor these works. It soon became clear that many of the ladies were unfitted to cope with the actual conditions. The practical work of nursing the poor in their own homes, caring for neglected children and dealing with often rough husbands and fathers, was best accomplished by women of similar social status to the principal sufferers. The aristocratic ladies were better suited to the equally necessary work of raising money and dealing with correspondence.

The need of organization in work for the poor suggested to de Paul the forming of a confraternity among the women of his parish in Châtillon-les-Dombes. It was so successful that it spread from the rural districts to Paris, where noble ladies often found it hard to give personal care to the needs of the poor. The majority sent their servants to minister to those in need, but often the work was considered unimportant. Vincent de Paul remedied this by referring young women who inquired about serving persons in need to go to Paris and devote themselves to this ministry under the direction of the Ladies of Charity. These young girls formed the nucleus of the Daughters of Charity.

Louise found the help she needed in young, humble country women who had the energy and the proper attitude to deal with people weighed down by destitution and suffering. She began working with a group of them and saw a need for common life and formation. Consequently, she invited four of these country girls to live in her home in the Rue des Fosses‐Saint‐Victor and began training them to care for those in need. She also taught them how to deepen their spiritual life. "Love the poor and honor them as you would honor Christ Himself," Louise explained. This was the foundation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity, who received official approbation in 1655.

At first the Company served the needs of the sick and poor in their homes. Louise's work with these young women developed into a system of pastoral care at the Hôtel-Dieu, the oldest and largest hospital in Paris. Their work became well known and the Daughters were invited to Angers to take over management of the nursing services of the hospital there. This was the first ministry outside Paris for the fledgling community, so Louise herself made the arduous journey there in the company of three Sisters. After completing negotiations with the city officials and the hospital managers, Louise instituted collaboration among the doctors, nurses and others to form a comprehensive team. This model was highly successful and is still in use today by the Daughters of Charity. Under the guidance of Louise de Marillac, the Daughters expanded their scope of service to include orphanages, institutions for the elderly and mentally ill, prisons, and the battlefield. This mobility was a major innovation in an era when consecrated women remained in the monastery. The Daughters of Charity were unlike the established religious communities at that time. Up to this point, all religious women were behind cloister walls and performed a ministry of contemplative prayer.

Their distinctive habit, a grey wool tunic with a large headdress or cornette of white linen, was the usual dress of Breton peasant women of the 17th century and later.

In working with her sisters, Louise emphasized a balanced life, as Vincent de Paul had taught her. It was the integration of contemplation and activity that made Louise's work so successful. She wrote near the end of her life, "Certainly it is the great secret of the spiritual life to abandon to God all that we love by abandoning ourselves to all that He wills."

Louise led the Company of Daughters until her death. A present-day observer might surmise that Vincent de Paul was the heart of the Daughters of Charity, while Louise was the head. This isn’t quite true, for Louise had a big heart, too. However, this statement is made to give tribute to Louise’s strong intellect, organizational skills and her ability to get things accomplished. Louise was positive and exuberant in her energy, always urging her Sisters to do more and do it well. But along with the activity, she also modeled love. Nearing her death, she wrote to her Sisters: “Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of our Lord. Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, that she might be your only Mother.”

After increasingly ill health, Louise de Marillac died on March 15, 1660, six months before the death of her dear friend and mentor, Vincent de Paul. She was 68 years of age. By the time of her death, the Daughters of Charity had more than 40 houses in France. Her Sisters have always been held in high repute and have made foundations in all parts of the world.

Louise de Marillac 
Louise de Marillac was beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1920 and, on March 11, 1934, she was canonized by Pope Pius XI. Her feast day is March 15. To this day, her remains are enshrined in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity at 140 rue du Bac, in Paris, France. She was declared Patroness of Christian Social Workers by Pope John XXIII in 1960.

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