Saint of the week

St Louise de Marillac, 15th March

St Louise was the co-foundress of the Daughters (now Sisters) of Charity, a congregation of religious sisters with a distinctive social apostolate to serve God through the service of the most needy people in the wider community.

A valuable insight into the spirituality of the order can be gained from the words of St Vincent de Paul, the co-founder, when he told the earliest community: “Your convent will be the house of the sick; your cell, a hired room; your chapel, the parish church; your cloister, the streets of the city or the wards of the hospital; your enclosure, obedience; your grating, fear of God; your veil, your holy modesty.”

St Louise herself came from a privileged, though complicated, background. She was an illegitimate daughter of Louis de Marillac, who came from a distinguished family in the Auvergne region of south-central France, and was born on 12 August1591, probably in Paris, between his first and second marriages. Her father recognised her as his “natural daughter” thereby removing much of the social stigma attached to illegitimacy. Her father also made financial provision for her upbringing and education. But on his death, when she was aged 15, she was removed from her fashionable convent and placed in the care of a “poor spinster”, having lost her mother as a child.

Even then, St Louise felt called to a religious life but her application to become a nun was rejected on the grounds of her chronic ill health.

Instead, in 1613 she married Antoine le Gras, a secretary to the household of the Queen of France, and later gave birth to a son, Michael.

The family ended up financially ruined, however, following a chain of events that began when the Queen was banished.

St Louise blamed herself, feeling that this was punishment for failing to fulfil her vocation and when her husband died in 1625 she vowed never to marry again, to which she added the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

She was referred to St Vincent de Paul after consulting St Francis de Sales and his friend and disciple, Pierre Camus.

St Vincent became her spiritual director and found the way to unlock her potential by asking her to live close to the seminary where his mission priests were working. The work of these priests was supported by “Ladies of Charity”, usually aristocratic women who performed good works, usually proposed by St Vincent, in parish communities.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints tells us that the women often lacked “impetus and organisation” and would also often send their maids on their behalf rather than make their own hands dirty, and St Louise was given the role of conducting visitations and proposing improvements.

She relished the task but both she and St Vincent soon reached the conclusion that they would need a different type of woman if they were to penetrate real areas of social deprivation.

St Louise began recruiting them, reaching out also to country girls and women of a lower social standing, and she soon established a community of four who were housed in her own apartment in 1633. The community grew to 15 and spread to the suburbs of Paris and then foundations began to proliferate into the French provinces.

The Sisters lived lives of simplicity and took annual vows of poverty. St Louise took great care to nurture their spiritual formation and St Vincent fostered their development through monthly conferences.

The pair worked together until 1659 when they became infirm. A year later, Louise, feeling herself to be dying, asked St Vincent to come to see her one last time but he was too ill even to cross the road. Instead he sent the simple message: “Go in peace.”

St Louise died on 15 March 1660 and St Vincent some six months later. She was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1934.