The Life of Saint Louise de Marillac
Louise de Marillac was born out of wedlock in the Picardy region of France on August 12, 1591. She never knew her mother. Her father claimed her but did not fully welcome her into his family. Louise grew up amid the affluent society of Paris, but without a stable home life. Louise was cared for and received an excellent education at the royal monastery of Poissy near Paris, where her aunt was a Dominican nun. 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.
By twenty-two years of age, her family had convinced her that marriage was the best alternative. Louise wed Antoine Le Gras in the fashionable Church of St. Gervaise on February 5, 1613. In October, the couple had their only child, Michel. Louise grew to truly love Antoine and was an attentive mother to their son. Antoine died around 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 (Ladies 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.
Through Louise’s work with Vincent, she gained a deep knowledge of the needs of the poor, developed her 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 poor persons and to gain support from their life together. From this humble beginning, the Daughters of Charity emerged. Louise provided leadership and expert management to the evolving network of services she and Vincent inspired. She also taught the young women 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 Daughters of Charity.
At first the Daughters 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 take over management of the nursing services in other hospitals. Establishing order in these ministries often involved her 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. She traveled all over France establishing her Sisters in hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions. This mobility was a major innovation in an era when consecrated women remained in the monastery. By the time of her death in Paris on March 15, 1660, the Congregation had more than forty houses in France. Since then they have spread all over the world. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934, and was declared Patroness of Social Workers by Pope John XXIII in 1960. Her feast day is March 15th.