3] In search of her vocation
Alone once again and overwhelmed by what she called the justice of God, Louise sought support. She wrote her cousin, Hilarion Rebours, Bishop Camus and her uncle, Michel. Their responses upset Louise and so she continued to experience a lack of peace in her life. She spoke with her new spiritual director and clung to him like a life-preserver. She wanted to have him remain in Paris and thus available to respond to her concerns. Vincent accepted this disoriented woman. Patiently and kindly he helped her to overcome her self-centeredness and also showed her how to simplify her prayer life and open herself to others. He asked her to prepare clothing for the poor. Slowly the depression that had oppressed her vanished and she became more relaxed.
At the same time, Vincent began to view Louise as a gifted and talented woman who was just waiting to be revealed and opened to others. He did not hesitate to call upon her in order to utilize her intelligence, her broad culture and her sense of organization. Beginning in 1617, in the cities and towns where Vincent preached mission, he gathered together compassionate women who would visit, assist and console the sick poor. These groups of women were called Confraternities of Charity and they quickly began to multiply; some were very dynamic while others had to confront various difficulties. Vincent became aware of the fact that these groups had to be visited on a regular basis in order to help the members maintain their fervor. Vincent found Louise to be the person whom he needed. In May, 1629 he asked her to visit the Confraternity in Montmirail. Aware of the importance of this first trip, Vincent sent Louise a mission letter that was inspired by the liturgical text for traveling clerics: Go, therefore, Mademoiselle, go in the name of Our Lord. I pray that His Divine Goodness may accompany you, be your consolation along the way, your shade against the heat of the sun, your shelter in rain and cold, your soft bed in your weariness, your strength in your toil, and, finally, that He may bring you back in perfect health and filled with good works (CCD:I:64-65).
As a missionary of charity Louise traveled the roads of Paris: Saint-Cloud, Pontoise, Montreuil, Villepreux, Linacourt, Loisy-en-Brie, Villenueve-Saint-Georges, Gournay-sur-Aronde, Asniѐres, Beauvais and many other towns welcomed her. She traveled by coach and spent the night at different inns where she witness promiscuity, bold conversation of rude men and the poverty of many places where the only bed was straw spread across the dirt floor. If she had to travel a short distance, she would do so by horse. When she arrived at the town or village, she was usually received by the members of the Confraternity. During her stay Louise met with the members of the Association. She encouraged them in their work and helped them sustain their fervor. If it was necessary, she adjusted their rule. She personally visited the infirm, gathered together the young girls in order to instruct them and looked for a teacher to continue this work. Her enthusiasm was contagious: Once Louise went to a town where all the women felt so consoled when listening to her that they recounted all of this to their husbands who also wanted to listen to her. The men were told, however, that they could not go. Nonetheless they went and hid under the beds and in other areas of the house. They asked if Louise became aware of all of this (Translator’s Note: I was unable to find this reference which is cited: document 923).
When a confraternity had to be established or restored, or when rules had to be written for one or another group, Vincent sent Louise because he trusted her ability and tact and missionary experience. Vincent left it to Louise to decide the means and methods that were to be utilized in the different situations. On a regular basis Louise shared with Vincent her experiences, the difficulties she encountered, her joys and her fears. Vincent calmed and encouraged this new collaborator: Be at peace. When you are honored and esteemed, unite your spirit to the mockeries, contempt, and ill-treatment that the Son of God suffered. Surely Mademoiselle, a truly humble spirit humbles itself as much amid honors as amid insults, acting like the honeybee which makes its honey equally well from the dew that falls on the wormwood as from that which falls on the rose (CCD:I:94)
The charitable activity that was initiated by Vincent spread to many parishes in Paris. Countesses, Duchesses and even Princesses wanted to enter the ranks of the Ladies of Charity. They discovered poverty and the people who suffered and endured in these situations of misery. They were generous women who shared their financial resources. As they brought soup pots to the homes of these poor women and men they began to experience many difficulties: they found it difficult to breathe because of the odors in these dwellings and as a result began to send their servants who took their places. Vincent and Louise began to wonder if the Confraternities could be maintained. The servants of these women carried out the orders they were given but on many occasions did not show proper love and respect to the poor.
During a mission that Vincent preached in 1630 he met a young peasant woman, Marguerite Naseau, who wanted to serve the poor. Vincent saw providence intervening in this encounter. Marguerite, thirty-eight years old, learned to read when she was watching over the flocks and she also asked individuals who passed her by to help her in this endeavor. Later she taught other young girls to read. Marguerite was willing to go to Paris if this was the will of God. Vincent sent her to serve the poor who were also cared for by the Confraternity of Charity in the parish of Saint-Sauver. Louise and Marguerite shared their faith and their desire to serve the sick poor in their homes. Louise admired Marguerite’s fervor.
Very soon other young women from the countryside presented themselves to help the Ladies of the different Confraternities in Paris. Louise accepted them and explained to them the work that they had to do. Then she sent them out to the different parishes. She accompanied them on their spiritual journey and taught them to imitate Jesus Christ as they extended love and respect to the poor.
Louise reflected on all of these events and began to ask questions: should these women consecrate themselves to God? Should they be given more formation? Should they be brought together and supported? Was this the community she had envisioned during her Pentecost experience? Was this not the community of women who would consecrate themselves to God and to the poor?
As a woman who lived in the seventeenth century, Louise could not undertake this endeavor by herself. She shared her thoughts with Vincent who did not see the need for such a community. Would this community endanger the continuation of the Confraternities of Charity, especially those that had been established in Paris? With a tenacity which was also deferential Louise insisted on this matter several times. Annoyed at this insistence Vincent responded with a certain coldness: You belong to Our Lord and his holy Mother. Cling to them and to the state in which they placed you until they make it clear that they wish something else of you (CCD:I:71).
Louise was patient; she reflected and prayed about this. The death of Marguerite Naseau during the month of February 1633 had raised questions in Louise’s mind as well as Vincent’s. Marguerite had died of the plague when she decided to share her bed with a poor woman who was afflicted with this contagious disease. Nevertheless, Vincent continued to waver in this matter. At a time when religious life was seen as a vocation for women of the noble class was it possible to put forth the idea that peasant women could consecrate themselves to God and form a religious community?
Louise de Marillac, who was well acquainted with the values of these young women from the countryside, insisted. Was it not possible for God to call them to a life in which they would dedicate themselves to the service of God and the poor?
During his annual retreat, August 1633, Vincent prayed for a long time. On the last day of the retreat he wrote to Saint Louise: I think your good angel did what you told me in the letter you wrote me. Four or five days ago, he communicated with mine concerning the Charity of your young women. It is true; he prompted me to recall it often and I gave that good work serious thought. We shall talk about it, God willing, on Friday or Saturday, if you do not write to me sooner (CCD:I:216).
Several weeks were necessary in order to make the final preparations. On November 29th 1633 Louise received several young women who took up residence in her house and who would live together with one another as a community. Because these women worked with the Confraternities of Charity they were called the Daughters of the Charities or Daughters of Charity. At times they were designated with the title Servants of the Poor and also Daughters of Madame Le Gras. It would be much later, sometime during the eighteenth or the nineteenth century that would be called the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul. The Church has given them the official title of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The role of their Founder, Louise de Marillac, is passed over in silence.
The group had no specific structures. They were a type of Confraternity. In the seventeenth century this term designated a group of lay people who gathered together in order to promote some work of devotion or charity. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac designated this new foundation with that term but used it in a broader sense: that of a company, which indicated a coming together of people for a common purpose and that of a community, which indicated that the people lived together. The official texts of the seventeenth century, which recognize the existence of this group, refer to the members as a society, a confraternity and an institute. This community, which is something completely new, was difficult to define in legal terms. It was not a religious order of women who lived in a monastery with well-defined structures. Vincent de Paul explained this to the Sisters and said that this occurred imperceptibly, gradually. In the nineteenth century as the result of a desire to rebuild the community after the time of the Revolution it was seen that the community had to be restructured. The Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul became one of the most important religious congregations. The Second Vatican Council invited all religious communities to return to their original spirit. Today, the Church recognizes the proper vocation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity which is now defined as a Society of Apostolic Life.
In November 1633, when Louise gathered together the young women in her house, her son, Michel, was living in a Jesuit house. During his time of vacation he could not live in his mother’s house. Vincent provided for him and gave him a room at Saint-Lazare.