Foundress with St. Vincent de Paul of the Daughters of Charity
"Work hard in the service of the poor…love the poor, honor them, my daughters, and you will honor Christ himself."
Feast: March 15
Born in Paris in 1591, daughter of Louise de Marillac, lord of Ferrieres. She lost her mother at an early age, but she had a good education, thanks, in part, to the monks of Poissy, to whose care she was entrusted for a time, and in part to the personal instruction of her own father who died when she was a little more than 15 years old. Louise had desired to become a Capuchin sister, but her confessor, a Capuchin himself, discouraged her on account of her weak health. Finally she found a worthy husband: Anthony Le Gras, a man who seemed destined for a distinguished career and who she accepted. They had a son. During the time that Anthony was very ill, she cared for him with great devotion and complete dedication. Unfortunately, Louisee succumbed to the temptation of considering this illness to be a punishment for not having showed her gratitude to God who had filled her with blessings, and her troubled conscience was the reason for long periods of doubts and spiritual aridity. Nevertheless, she had the good fortune of knowing St. Francis de Sales, who spent some months in Paris during the year 1619. She received the most wise and comprehensive direction from him, but Paris was not the place of the saint.
Shortly before the death of her husband, Louisee made a vow never to marry again and to dedicate herself totally to the service of God. Later, she had a strange spiritual vision in which she felt her doubts dissolve and she understood that she had been chosen to fulfill a great work in the future, under the guidance of a director who she had not yet met. Anthony Le Gras died in 1625. But by that time, Louisee had met "Mr. Vincent," who at the beginning showed a certain hesitation to be her confessor, but in the end he consented. St. Vincent, at that time organized his "Conferences of Charity", with the object of remedying the widespread misery that existed among farm workers, for which he needed a good organization and a great number of collaborators. The supervision and direction of someone who would infuse absolute respect and who had, at the same time, sufficient tact to win hearts and show them the right path by his example.
To the extent that he came to know "Madame Le Gras" more deeply, St. Vincent discovered that he had in his reach precisely the instrument that he needed. She was a dedicated and courageous woman, gifted with clear intelligence and a marvelous constancy, despite her weak health, and perhaps more important than anything, she had the virtue of forgetting herself completely for the good of others. As son as St. Vincent spoke to her of his plans, Louise understood that it was a work for the glory of God. Perhaps there had never existed a religious work so grand or so firm, brought to fulfillment with less sensationalism, than the foundation of the society which was known as the "Daughters of Charity" and which had gained the respect of men of the most diverse beliefs in all parts of the world. Only after five years of working personally with "Ms. Le Gras", Mr. Vincent who always had the patience to wait for the opportunity sent by God, sent this devout woman in May of 1629, to make what could be called a visit of "charity" to Montmirail. This was the precursor to many similar missions, and despite her frail health, which St. Vincent always took into account, she did not shrink before inconveniences and sacrifices.
In 1633, it was necessary to establish a kind of training center or novitiate on the street that was then known as Fosses-Saint-Victor. There was the old mansion that Le Gras had rented for herself after the death of her husband where she gave hospitality to the first candidates that were accepted for the service of the poor and sick: four simple people whose real names remain anonymous. These, with Louise as directress, formed the mustard seed which had grown into becoming the organization known around the world as the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Its expansion was rapid. Soon it became evident that it would be necessary to have some rule of life and some guarantee of stability. For some time, Louise had wanted to unite this service with a vow, but St. Vincent, always prudent and awaiting a clear manifestation of God's will, had contained her ardor. But in 1634, the desire of the saint was fulfilled. St. Vincent had complete trust in his spiritual daughter and she herself composed a kind of rule of life that the members of the association must follow. The substance of this document forms the heart of the religious observance of the Sisters of Charity. Even though this was a great step forward, the recognition of the Sisters of Charity as an institute of nuns was still distant.
In reality, the white cap and blue habit to which her daughters have remained faithful for almost 300 years, immediately call attention in any crowd. This habit is only the copy of the dress formerly used by women who worked in the fields. St. Vincent, the enemy of all pretension, opposed that any of his daughters would reclaim any distinction in dress that would bring the respect that a religious habit provokes. It was not until 1642 when he permitted four members of his institute to make annual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and only 13 years later, he obtained the formal approval of the institute from Rome and definitively placed the sisters under the direction of the congregation of St. Vincent. Meanwhile, the good works of the daughters of charity had been increasingly multiplying. In the development of all these works, Ms. Le Gras bore the greatest part of the burden. She had given a marvelous example in Anger in taking charge of a terribly uncared for hospital. The effort had been so great, that despite the enormous help of collaborators, she suffered a severe depression that was misdiagnosed as a case of infectious fever. In Paris she had cared with great dedication to those affected during an epidemic and, despite her frail condition, had born the trial. The frequent trips, imposed by her obligations, would have been a trial for the most robust; but she was always at hand when she was needed, full of enthusiasm and creating an atmosphere of joy and peace around her. As we know from her letters to St. Vincent and others, she was only worried about two things: one was the respect and veneration that she received on her visits; the other was anxiety for the spiritual wellbeing of her son, Michael.
In the year 1660, St. Vincent was 80 years old and was already very weak. Louise would have given anything to see her beloved father one more time, but this consolation was denied her. Nevertheless, her soul was at peace; the work of her life had been wondrously blessed and she had sacrificed herself without any complaint, saying to those around her that she was happy to be able to offer God this last privation. The preoccupation of her last days was, as always, as she said to her grieving sisters: "Work hard in the service of the poor…love the poor, honor them, my daughters, and you will honor Christ himself." St. Louise de Marillac died on March 15, 1660, and St. Vincent followed her to heaven only six months later. She was canonized in 1934.
St. Vincent about St. Louise:
"In fact I have not met anyone who has demonstrated a greater prudence that her. She possessed it to the highest degree and I would whole-heartedly desire that the Congregation be outstanding in that virtue."
I have the security that she loved poverty enormously. You yourselves have seen how poorly she dressed. She possessed this virtue to such a degree that time after time she asked me to permit her to live in absolute poverty. And as much as the Congregation, she always desired to have the spirit of this virtue that Our Lord exercised to such a high degree on earth and that he wanted to instill in his apostles.
If on any occasion, by human weakness, any vehemence was shown, we must not distance ourselves; the saints themselves affirm that there is no one who does not have their imperfections.