History speaks admirably about the great saint of charity. His prominence and importance has endured to the present century. Do we not say that those who incarnate the virtue of charity in the midst of the forgotten members of society and in the midst of those who die alone … do we not say that those individuals are a modern embodiment of Vincent de Paul.
Why is it that history seems to ignore the humble and discreet collaborator of Saint Vincent de Paul? Is it because this collaborator is a woman? Is it that she was the niece of Michele de Marillac who was the Keeper of the Seals in Richelieu’s cabinet and who attempted to overthrow the established order which resulted in the “Day of the Dupes? Is it that she was an illegitimate child? For a rather extended period of time the Church held such children in contempt, visible signs of their parents’ sin. Louise was not canonized until the twentieth century, almost three hundred years after she had died.
Yet without Louise would the Daughters of Charity (frequently referred to as the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul) have come into existence? Without Louise would the abandoned children have experienced love or received an education? would the galley slaves and the infirm have experienced the compassionate hands that assisted them during their difficult times? Without Louise would Vincent de Paul have become the popular saint that he is?
Louise de Marillac was born on August 12, 1591. For thirty-five years she would remain at Vincent’s side, sharing the same love for God and for the poor. On March 15, 1660 Louise died, a few months before the death of the humble peasant from Landes.
1] A stormy childhood
In our modern society Louise de Marillac would be one of those countless children classified as “social cases”. Multiple problematic situations marked her personality. She did not know her mother. In 1595 her father, a very unpredictable man, married for a second time. He took as his wife a widow who was a mother of three children. This relationship, however, deteriorated very quickly.
At the age of 12 Louise is an orphan. Louis de Marillac, her father, died on July 25, 1604. Her uncle, Michele, became her guardian but the de Marillac family wanted nothing to do with this child who, as an illegitimate child, had no legal claims on the family. The absence of a mother, lacking a home and brothers and sisters … all of these realities left a profound impression on the sensitivities of this child.
Louise did not live with her father but was placed in the royal convent of Poissy. There she received the affection of her great-aunt, Mother Louise de Marillac, a Dominican Sister and a very human woman. She liked to share with Louise her love of culture and painting. With the other children who were members of prominent families in France Louise enjoyed the religious fervor which was very prominent in the monastery.
At the age of twelve Louise was removed from Poissy and sent to a modest pension (boarding house) that was run by a poor woman. Historians have inquired about the reasons behind this change. Louise did not speak about this event even though at different times she recalled to the Sisters her stay at the modest boarding house. Did the financial situation of her father cause this change? In 1602 Louise’s father was having problems with his wife who had squandered his possessions. Now that her father had died, did her guardian refuse to pay the costs of maintaining her at the convent in Poissy. At the time of his second marriage Louis de Marillac granted his daughter an income for the rest of her life. The eighty-three escudos that had to be paid every four months seemed to be more suited to the life in the modest boarding house. There Louise was initiated in the household chores that a mother normally teaches her daughter.
How did this young woman react to these setbacks? Words that Louise wrote years later lead us to believe that she was perplexed and perhaps even rebellious as a result of so much suffering: God … led me to understand that it was his holy will that I go to him by way of the cross. His goodness chose to mark me with it from my birth and he has hardly every left me, at any age, without some occasion of suffering. Since grace had many times enabled me to esteem and desire this state, I trust that his goodness would, again today, grant me a new grace to carry out his holy will. I begged him, with all my heart, to place me in this state no matter how painful I found it (SWLM:711 [A.29]).
The dawning of the seventeenth century was marked by the renewal that stemmed from the Council of Trent. Religious life flourished in France. The Company of Jesus was restored in 1603. The following year the Capuchins established a house in Saint-Honoré. Louise saw these women walking barefooted in a procession that was led by the Archbishop of Paris through the streets of Paris. As a young woman Louise felt attracted by their cloistered life of austerity and prayer. At different times Louise visited their monastery: I was filled with joy at seeing the walls of the monastery (Translator’s Note: Unable to find the reference that is cited as: Document 923). She was initiated in the practice of prayer and curing certain fasts would eat roots (Translator’s Note: Unable to find the reference that is cited as: Document 947). In a moment of fervor Louise promised God that she would enter the Capuchin Order. At that time, however, it was understood that parents decided the future of their children and a young woman could not decide anything by herself. Therefore with the help of her tutor/guardian she initiated a process to enter the Capuchins. Michel de Marillac, surprised by the request of his niece, sent Louise to see the provincial of the Capuchins, Father Honoré de Champigny. The negative response of the Provincial deeply wounded Louise. Was it really her fragile health that prevented her from becoming a Capuchin? Was she unable to live the rigorous lifestyle of these Sisters? Was this negative response due to the fact that the de Marillac family was unwilling to pay the dowry that was necessary in order to enter this religious order? The provincial, in an attempt to comfort Louise, told her: I believe that God has other plans for you. These words seemed to give some encouragement to Louise and yet for many years Louise was restless and impatient in her search for her vocation.
The de Marillac family was concerned about marrying Louise. One of her uncles, Octavien d’Attichy, superintendent of finances, proposed she marry Antoine La Gras, the secretary to the Queen Mother and Regent. Thus on February 5, 1613 in the church of Saint-Gervais, Antoine La Gras and Louise de Marillac were married. Since Louise married a simple gentlemen (not one who was a noble) she was not called Madame but rather Mademoiselle, like the other women of the bourgeois class. Now the family could rest comfortably since they had arranged the marriage of Louise and thus secured her future.