Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
In our continuation of the series on Medieval Christian Women Mystics we come to the life of Louise de Marillac of France, foundress of the Daughters of Charity.
Louise de Marillac stands as a model for all women. Wife, mother, teacher, nurse, social worker, mentor, spiritual leader, mystic, and foundress of charitable organizations, Louise let her light shine in the darkness.
In her excellent book, “Louise de Marillac: A Light in the Darkness”, Kathryn LaFleur explains that Louise was born in a very dark time in France’s history. Unless we understand just how bad the times were, we may miss how amazing Louise’s life of spirituality and devotion to the poor was. Louise’s life, a span of sixty-nine years (1591 – 1660) witnessed the “drama of three kings, two Queen-Regents, two powerful political cardinals and forty years of unrelenting war with its resultant destruction of the social, economic, political and religious fabric of the country.” Louise was born when Protestant Henri IV was struggling to keep his throne. Henry IV would convert to Roman Catholicism in order to appease the French people. “Paris is worth a Mass,” he famously said. The throne was contested with much war and destruction over Louise’s lifetime. This caused many of the people to become destitute, displaced, sick, or abused. Louise would be given ample opportunity to serve the poor.
Louise not only had to face perilous times, but she also overcame personal obstacles – illegitimate birth, early death of her husband, a sickly son, and a season of doubts – before she was able to finally live her dream of dedicating her life to Christ in service to the poor.
Louise was born on August 12, 1591, an illegitimate daughter to Louis de Marillac, Louise never knew who her mother was. Her father loved her very much and saw to it that she was educated at the Royal Abbey of Poissy, a school for those of noble birth. Louise was in the care of her great aunt, the Dominican nun, Mere Catherine Louise de Marillac. Louise received a liberal education, but she was also well-grounded spiritually. She learned the importance of the love of God, love of neighbor, and prayer. Louise sought to enter a cloister, but events intervened. Her father died and her support ended.
Through her de Marillac relatives, Louise met Antoine Le Gras. They had a short courtship and then were married on February 5, 1613 in the church of Saint-Gervais. Louise and Antoine had one son, Michel, on October 18, 1613.
Louise’s marriage was happy but short. Antoine grew gravely ill in 1621 and died four years later. A strong love had grown between Louise and Antoine. Their closeness was based on a mutual life of prayer, their devotion to the poor, their shared sorrows and struggles with their families, and the bond that grew during the four years that Louise nursed Antoine attentively.
During the years that Louise was nursing Antoine, she experienced some doubts. Louise had always wanted to join a cloister and spend her life ministering to the poor. She wondered if she would ever be able to realize her desire. Then one day while praying at church, Louise had a “Lumiere” or illumination. In this enlightenment she was told to continue to nurse her husband. A time would come when she would be able to be in a small community where others would vow to work among the poor. She believed that God was speaking to her and telling her to be patient, assuring her that the day would come when she could reach out to the poor full time.
Antoine died in 1625. Louise coped with her loss by praying and seeking advice from spiritual directors. She received sympathetic counseling from Saint Francis de Sales and the Bishop of Belley, France. Later, Louise met Vincent de Paul.
In 1629 Vincent de Paul invited Louise to assist him with his work in many parishes in France. Working among the poor helped Louise with her grief over Antoine’s death. While seeking God’s will for her life, Louise poured her efforts into the service of her less fortunate neighbors. Working as an assistant to Vincent de Paul, Louise learned how to organize and supervise visits. She reviewed financial accounts for stewardship reports. She learned what the actual needs of the poor were.
Finally, in 1633, Louise was ready to start her own ministry. She began to train young women in her home to address the needs of the poor. The girls were encouraged to form communities where they would live simply and dedicate their lives to Christ. This was how the Daughters of Charity began.
Louise provided the leadership by example. She worked among the poor herself. Louise trained her Daughters to seek first a life of solid virtue before they could serve the poor. Prayer and humility were essential to the religious life. The women were to consecrate their lives to serve the poor both spiritually and temporally in imitation of Christ for the glory of God. They endeavored to meet the physical needs of the poor while protecting their dignity and sharing the love of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
The Daughters began by going into the homes of the sick and nursing them there. They also visited hospitals, worked among galley slaves, orphans, soldiers on battlefields, the poor in war-torn villages, and the insane. During this time of social and political upheaval in France the needy were everywhere. Louise’s Daughters sought to liberate the poor from all of the calamities and injustices in which they lived.
The communities of the Daughters of Charity were unique for their time. In 1633 in France, the religious were cloistered. Both Louise and Vincent wanted the Daughters to be able to have the freedom to serve the poor without the restrictions that existed in cloisters, so they formed communities in villages and towns. Here the women would take simple annual vows of dedication. They would remember that their calling was to serve the poor. They lived modestly, virtuously, and in dependence on God. They gladly gave everything they had to the poor.
Louise spent her last years supporting, guiding and encouraging her Daughters.
In 1650, Michel married and had a daughter, Louise-Renee. Louise’s granddaughter was a joy not only to Louise but also to the Daughters of Charity.
In the last moments of her life, March 15, 1660, Louise could only think of the poor and her Daughters. She prayed that though her earthy light was going out, their light would still shine in their vocation of service to the poor and love for God. Vincent de Paul died only a few months later. Today Louise’s light shines throughout the world in many communities.
Louise’s case for sainthood was first introduced in 1895. In 1911 Pius X proclaimed Louise’s virtues as a great woman of prayer, mysticism, and works of mercy. In 1920 Benedict XV beatified her; in 1934 Pius XI canonized her; and in 1960 Pope John XXIII proclaimed Louise de Marillac the Patroness of All Those Devoted to Christian Social Works.
From a small house with four women in 1633 to 65 houses in 1660, Louise had witnessed the grace of God. She had indeed come to realize the fulfillment of her vision of work among the poor. Louise de Marillac was a prophetic witness during a dark time in France. We live in dark times too and Louise speaks to us today. She had a strong spiritual life both in contemplation and in social action. Louise is a model for us of the virtues of faith, hope and charity.