13] The last message
Louise’s health was always a source of concern for Vincent. On December 13th, 1647, he wrote to M. Blatiron, the superior of the house in Geneva: in this you are almost like Mademoiselle Le Gras, whom I consider as dead, according to nature, for ten years now. To see her, one would say that she has just stepped out of the tomb because her body is so frail and her face so pale. However, God knows the strength of spirit she possesses (CCD:III:257).
Frequent fevers obliged Louise to have recourse to physicans who prescribed purges and blood-lettings according to the custom of that era. Her energy always provided her with the strength to recuperate. Vincent saw in this a special grace of God who was aware of the needs of the poor, aware that they needed someone to assist them. Beginning in 1658 the relapses became more frequent.
In May, 1656, a serious illness put Louise’s life in danger. She calmly prepared to die, convinced that God had given her the key that will soon release me from this world (SWLM:489 [L.457]). To everyone’s surprise she gradually recuperated her strength and by the end of the year she was able to take up her usual activities.
On February 4th, 1660, Louise’s left arms swelled and her temperature rose rapidly. Her state of health deteriorated despite the two incisions that were made on her arm. Surrounded by her family and the Sisters who resided at the Motherhouse, Louise received with great peace the sacrament of the sick. During that celebration she blessed her son and his family: I pray the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by the power God has given fathers and mothers to bless their children, to bless you, to detach you from all earthly things and to unite you to Himself … to live like good Christians.
Then, as Louise saw the Sisters who surrounded her, she exhorted them to love their vocation and to remain faithful to their service of the poor. On several occasions the Sisters prayed for Louise’s recovery. They placed the relics of Saint Charles and Saint Francis de Sales on her arm. She seemed to get better. The swelling was reduced and she no long had a fever. This progress continued for three weeks until March 9th when the gangrene appeared on her arm. Louise understood the seriousness of her condition and asked to receive Viaticum. She prepared to receive God by speaking with the Sisters about the greatness of the Eucharist. On the morning of March 13th the pastor of Saint-Laurent brought the Eucharist. After a lengthy period of thanksgiving Louise addressed the Sisters once again: My dear Sisters, I continue to ask God for His blessings for you and pray that He will grant you the grace to persevere in your vocation in order to serve Him in the manner He asks of you. Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of Our Lord. Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, that she may be your only Mother (SWLM:835 [Spiritual Testament]).
With these words that the Sisters received as a spiritual testament, Louise reaffirmed that which is essential for the Company of the Daughters of Charity. The Company was established and founded to serve the poor which should be preferred to all other forms of ministry. The common life sustains and guarantees this service, a service which reveals God’s love to the Church and to the world. In the life of the Daughters of Charity Louise gave a central place to Christ. She recalled how Mary had been called to guide each and every individual to Christ and to the poor. During the night of March 13th Louise’s strength declined. Advised about these events, many Ladies of Charity visited her. The Duchess Ventadour asked to remain by Louise’s side until the end. Even though Louise was weak, she was very attentive to each person, comforting some and encouraging others. Vincent de Paul, who was also ill, was unable to be present. He sent a priest of the Mission to tell her that he hoped to meet her in heaven.
On March 15th, at 6:00am, Louise told the Sisters who were watching over her to get some rest and promised to tell them when the time came for her to appear before God. At 11:00am she called all the Sisters. Louise entered her final agony. The Duchess Ventadour was at her side holding a lighted candle. All the Sisters were on their knees reciting the prayers for those who are dying. One of the Missionaries bestowed the Apostolic Blessing on Louise and soon after, Louise died. It was 11:30am, Monday of Holy Week, March 15th, 1660.
On Wednesday Louise’s body was brought to the chapel of the Visitation, the church of Saint-Laurent, the parish of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity. Gobillon, the first biographer who published his work sixteen years after Louise’s death, recounted an incident that was recalled by many people who visited her tomb: At different times a fine mist filled the air with the odor of violets and lilies. What is even more surprising is that the Daughters of Charity who went there to recite prayers at Louise’s tomb would return to their house with this strong odor on their person. They in turn would share this fragrance with the Sisters in the infirmary where the Sisters inhaled it with joy. It could also be said here that I myself have experienced this and I also tried to find some natural cause for all of this but no such explanation could be found.
Is not this perfume a reflection of Louise’s holiness and her profound humility? Is not this perfume an invitation to continue the work that has been begun on behalf of those persons who are poor?
For centuries countless Daughters of Charity have desired to live like Louise and as a result have consecrated their lives to God in order to serve Him in the least of their brothers and sisters. They have traveled innumerable highways and byways in order to be present to those who are most forgotten and despised. At the present time more than thirty thousand Daughters of Charity, in seventy-three countries, have heard the call of the poor: At the school of the Son of God, Daughters of Charity learn that no type of distress should be foreign to them. Christ appeals constantly to their Company through their suffering brothers and sisters, through the signs of the times, and through the Church. Multiple are the forms of poverty and multiple the forms of service, but one is the love bestowed on those whom God has “called and assembled” (Constitutions, #11). In Europe, as well as in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia, the Daughters of Charity exert great effort in order to live out the great insights of Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul and in order to respond with renewed fidelity to the needs of the present era.