11] Service on behalf of the poor
The Daughters of Charity, who lived far from Paris, experienced with the passing of the years their own identity being questioned. Who are they? Why are they together? What do they do? On whom do they depend? Louise de Marillac was very attentive to these questions and guided each one of the Sisters in their reflection and in their attempts to respond to these different questions.
In 1645, Louise Marie de Gonzaga, the daughter of the Duke of Nevers, converted as a result of her marriage to Vladislao VI Vasa of Poland. She was well aware of the charitable activity of Vincent de Paul. Before her marriage she had been a member of the Ladies of Charity in Paris. As she discovered the needs of the poor in this new territory, she requested that Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity be sent there. Months passed before she received a response because time was necessary to weigh this call to see if it came from God (SWLM:792 [A.89B]).
In 1651 four priests of the Mission and one brother went to Poland and, at the end of 1652, they were joined by three Daughters of Charity. The Sisters were received with much joy by the Queen who was happy to receive news about France. The Sisters remained in the castle for several weeks because of an outbreak of the plague which caused havoc in Warsaw. After a period of acculturation and learning the language the Sisters began their ministry among the poor in the capital. The Queen was solicitous for their welfare and helped to organize their work and life. Mlle. Villers, one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, was given to the Sisters as a director. This woman, aware of their great distance from Paris and of the difficulties in maintaining correspondence, attempted to replace Louise and wanted to take on complete responsibility for the Daughter of Charity in Poland.
The Sisters communicated their surprise and their concern to Louise who did not hesitate to outline the function of Mlle. Villers: as a member of the Ladies of Charity it is only right that she should point out the work that has to be done with regard to the distribution of alms but she has no right to interfere in the spiritual and community life of the Sisters. The Missionaries who were in Poland would provide for the spiritual life of the Sisters in the distant community.
When Mlle. Villers died in 1658 the Queen of Poland attempted to oblige one of the Sisters to live with her at the castle and to take charge of distributing her alms and gifts to the poor. She proposed Marguerite Moreau who rejected this offer. She wrote to Louise and expressed her concern: I am very concerned and afraid that if I change my way of dressing and reside at the court, I will lose my vocation. How do I know that God, who once gave me the grace to overcome all the difficulties I had in leaving the world, will do the same now? If it were up to me, I’d much prefer that God might permit that I become seriously ill rather than to put me in such danger (CCD:XIIIb:368-369). After deliberating together, Vincent and Louise communicated to the Queen a respectful rejection of her plan: the Daughters of Charity have been chosen to live in community a consecrated life of service to the poor.
The bishop of Nantes, Beauvau de Rivarennes gave his consent in 1646 and thus the Daughters of Charity began to minister at the hospital in Nantes. The bishop, however, did not understand the way of life of these servants. He asked to see the Rule and he visited their house. He did not allow them to leave their house and rejected the authority of the Missionaries in their regard. He also forbade M. Berthe to visit the Sisters. The bishop wanted the Daughters to be like the Augustinian Sisters in the Hospital of Vannes who were cloistered and under his authority. Respectfully but energetically Vincent and Louise insisted on the fact that the Daughters were not religious but rather their convents are the houses of the sick. Their cells are the sickrooms of the poor, and even these are often rented. Their chapel is the parish church. Their cloister is the streets of the town. Their enclosure is holy obedience. Their grille is the fear of God and their veil, holy modesty (Louise Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, [New City Press:New Rochelle, New York, 1993], Volume II, p. 293). The demands of the bishop and the on-going conflicts with the administrators of the hospital forced the Sisters to leave Nantes in 1664.
In 1659 three Sisters left for Narbonne where the bishop, François Fouquet, a brother of Nicolas Fouquet, the Finance Minister under Louis XIV, had requested their presence. Louise told Françoise Carcireux, the Sister responsible for the community in that area, that she should not be afraid to inform the bishop about the objectives of their ministry: to serve those who are most abandoned and forgotten. At that time these individuals lived throughout the countryside and they were unable to and did not wish to go to the hospital. Thus, the Daughters had to reach out to these individuals, to encounter them in their humble houses. Françoise was invited to submit a report to the Bishop about the lifestyle of the Daughters: Since those people are not familiar with your poor way of life and your humble dwelling, do not desire to be treated differently, even in small matters. Do not argue but explain your opinion, give it only to explain how the poor are served (SWLM:647 [L.628B]).
Louise encouraged the Sisters to be transparent with regard to their decision to live in said state of life, to be unafraid about talking about this with others and to be faithful to their commitment. To choose to live the life of the poverty is to desire to remain close to those whom they are called to serve on a daily basis.
At the end of 1657 and the beginning of 1658 Louise became aware of the fact that in the midst of her community in Paris tensions were increasing. She made every effort to analyze the situation. She noticed that most of the Sisters came from small villages and before their entrance into the community they were not accustomed to speak with people of rank. Because of their work the Sisters were regularly in contact with the Ladies of Charity; they spoke with them about the work that had to be done and shared with them their reflections. Some of the Sisters felt good about being respected as equals of the Ladies. They majority of these peasant women were illiterate but had learned to read and write. Some of them liked to study and read and they became so attached to these endeavors that they began to neglect their simple services, services that would make them appear to be less noble. These young women from the different villages had learned to manage money on behalf of the sick poor. Some of them discovered the joy that money brings and at times helped their families financially.
A small group of these women had discovered a life completely distinct from the life they had lived at home and as a result a new path, new hopes and aspirations were opened before them: why remain as servants? It is not possible to live a consecrated life in a different way, a little like other religious women? Some considered forming a group that would spend more time in prayer and meditation. Louise was aware of the great danger of a division in the midst of the Company of the Daughters of Charity: on the one side the Sisters who wanted to live cloistered life and on the other side, those who wanted to continue to serve the poor, a service that was viewed with contempt by the first group. Louise was aware that the first group wanted to become the dominant group and also wanted to lord it over those employed in visiting the sick (SWLM:832 [A.100]). To view the Company in this manner would quickly lead to its destruction.
Despite her weariness and her frequent illnesses, Louise attempted to lead the Sisters in reflection. On January 10, 16660 she wrote to Marguerite Chétif, who at the request of Vincent was chosen to succeed Louise as the one responsible for the company of the Daughters of Charity. Louise reaffirmed the meaning of their vocation as servants of the poor: a Christian life lived in union with Jesus Christ in order to deepen the grace of baptism; a life shared with those who suffered and are pained; a life of humble, simple service that seeks nothing. In other words, even though the Sisters will be employed in exterior works which appear lowly and despicable in the eyes of the world they are always glorious in the sight of God and his angels SWLM:674 [L.651]).
The death of Louise two months later and the death of Vincent on September 27th of the same year made the Sisters aware of their responsibility for the Company and led them to a new awareness of their identity.