4] A new community
The small group that gathered around Louise rapidly grew: five or six in November, 1633; a dozen in July, 1634; twenty by the end of 1635. The arrival of all these young women led to the search for a larger house. In May, 1636, the young community was established in the town of La Chapelle, to the north of Paris. The community continued to grow. In 1641 between seventy to eighty young women had joined together with those first young women who were admitted into the Company. Again there was need to search for a larger house. After several months, a house was purchased in the area of Saint-Denis. The sale was formalized on September 6, 1641. Since the Company of the Daughters of Charity did not possess any material goods, the Congregation of the Mission paid the money that was needed for the purchase of the house. This small property contained a two story building and a garden and was located in front of Saint-Lazare, the house where Vincent and the Missionaries lived. It became the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity and would remain as such until the time of the Revolution.
When the Missionaries were preaching missions in the countryside they also spoke about this new community of women. The Ladies of Charity, filled with fervor, invited the peasant women who work on their lands to join the Daughters. This new form of religious life in which the young women dedicated themselves to the service of the poor was received with much enthusiasm in certain families. Two, three and four sisters would travel to Paris to request acceptance as Daughters of Charity and they would be followed by brothers and cousins who would arrive at the doors of Saint-Lazare requesting permission to become brothers or priests.
What was it that attracted and animated these young women from the countryside and other young women from the families of artisans? Did they, like Marguerite Naseau, have a true desire to consecrate their lives to God and the poor? In some cases there was no doubt about their intention. In most cases, however, the motives were not as clear. If these women wanted to be accepted into Louise’s group, no dowry was necessary (which was not the case with other religious congregations of that era); in fact, the only requisite was good will. Was not this a way for the young women to obtain food and work and housing knowing that if they stayed on their family farms their life could be very difficult? Louise discovered that some of the young women came to the Company wanting to experience the life of Paris which had many attractions. Some young women who arrived from Normandy were more concerned about enjoying themselves and finding young men than they were about serving the sick poor.
Vincent and Louise understood the need for a discernment process before accepting new candidates for the Daughters of Charity. Louise would consider whether the health of a young woman would allow her to carry out the humble and lowly tasks that would be required of her when serving the poor. Thus a young woman who had a lung disease or some physical handicap was not accepted. Some of these young women had strong personalities and Vincent commented on this when he told Louise: I think you will have to work with her a little as her passions are rather strong. So what! When these young women have the strength to overcome themselves, they work wonders afterward. Accept her therefore, please (CCD:I:239)
These young women were called to live together. Community life is not easy; it demands selflessness, a joy and happiness in living life and a willingness to be attentive to others. Individuals who are unstable or depressed run the risk of becoming a burden to others and therefore, as a general rule, they should not be allowed to remain with the community: As for that good young woman from Argenteuil who is melancholy, I think you are right in raising objections to taking her, for it is a strange disposition, that of melancholy (CCD:I:239).
Accustomed to life in the countryside some of the young women had adopted customs that were somewhat rude. Jeanne did not hesitate to slap her companions when she was upset with them. When this behavior continued Jeanne was asked to return to her house. We see the impact of Louise’s education and training in all of these matters. Her humility and clarity of mind and patience allowed her to go beyond the exterior characteristics and thus she was able to come to know the heart of these young women, hearts that were burning with a love of God and neighbor.
In order to help these candidates, Louise prepared a rule of life. They would rise at 5:30am and beginning at 6:00am they would dedicate an hour to prayer. With much tact Louise introduced these women to this encounter with God. Each evening was a time of preparation for prayer the following morning: the text for the morning mediation was explained at this time. After the hour of prayer, the Sisters would share in a simple manner how they had spoken with God. Louise would conclude this time together by guiding the Sisters in making some practical resolution as a result of their prayer.
Then the Sisters would go to the different parishes. First they would go to the home of one of the Ladies of Charity who would ask them to cook in the manner and style of those who are poor. Then they would comfort the infirm and those who were dying, providing them with nourishment and counsel. Louise taught them how to prepare herbal teas and ointments, how to give purges and cleansings and how to let blood in a way that they avoid the dangers involved with the arteries, nerves and other areas (SWLM:303 [L.352]). Thanks to her gift of observation and her practical intelligence Louise was able to acquire the knowledge that was needed in order to provide for the education of these servants of the poor.
Each morning the Sisters went to their parish church for Mass. The demands of serving the sick poor could become a source of great tension. What are one’s duties and obligations? Vincent spoke regularly with the Sisters and he explained to them: Remember that when you leave meditation and Holy Mass to serve poor persons, you lose nothing, Sisters, because to serve those who are poor is to go to God, and you should see God in them (CCD:IX:5)
Louise was careful about the way in which Vincent’s words were interpreted. She taught the Sisters to discern between the many urgent demands. When they returned to the house she encouraged them to dedicate some time to their personal formation: the study of the catechism and reading the Scriptures. Furthermore, like the majority of the women of that era, these young women were illiterate and so Louise took the time to teach them how to read and write. Louise did this and expected the Sisters to then teach others. She also expected the Sisters to be able to read the notes that were given to them and thus they were able to serve in a better way. Some of the Sisters rebelled against learning to read and write. In 1655 when the Sisters signed the official Act of the Establishment of the Daughters of Charity, several Sisters signed with the mark of a cross or by simply writing the first letter of their name. According to Saint Vincent, if the Sisters had some free time then they were to engage in some form of manual labor. These young women had preserved the custom of baking and sewing as they did in their homes where they engaged in different forms of housework: They will remember that they were born poor, that they must live as poor persons for the love of the Poorest of the poor, Jesus Christ Our Lord (CCD:XIIIb:109)
At 9:00pm the Sisters will gather together for common prayer and will also prepare for their morning meditation. Thus the day concludes in the say way that it began: with an act of adoration of God.
In light of the different problems that were encountered this first rule was modified and changed with the passing of time. The arrival of young women from the nobility as well as the fact that the Sisters had begun to live outside Paris in small communities of two or three demanded that some changes be made with regard to their way of life.
Thus it was stated that they shall also take care to observe uniformity with regard to food, clothing, their manner of walking and speaking, the service of those who are poor and especially in the way their arrange their headdress (CCD:XIIIb:125). All of the Sisters, regardless of their social or regional origin were viewed as equals. Therefore nothing should distinguish them from one another. The dress of the peasant women in France, a dress which was worn by the first young women who came together to serve the poor, should be the dress of all the Daughters of Charity.
The rule further stated: If they save any money, they will put it in the common purse, which will be used to provide them with their clothing and other necessities, when the time comes for this (CCD:XIIIb:126). Some of the young women, who were not accustomed to having money, were tempted to use the money for themselves or to give the money to their families. Experience also revealed the dangers that these women would be exposed to as they traveled through the streets and lived in the midst of the people. There was a need for great prudence which had to be accompanied with the virtue of simplicity: They will make no visits, except to the sick, and will not allow anyone, particularly men, to visit them at their house, without the consent of the same superior. And when they walk through the streets, they shall walk in a modest manner with their eyes lowered, not stopping to speak to anyone, especially men, without great necessity. Even then, they must keep the conversation brief and conclude the matter promptly (CCD:XIIIb:126)
The service that the Sisters render to the infirm, the children and the galley slaves was quickly recognized, appreciated and admired. Vincent and Louise often heard words of praise spoken about the ministry of the Daughters. The rule was intended to help the Sisters put such praise in a broader perspective: They will consider that people call them Servants of the Poor, which is, according to the world, one of the most insignificant of conditions. They will promptly reject the slightest thought of vainglory that might pass through their minds because of having heard some good about what they are doing, convince that all the honor for this is due to God, since God alone is the author (CCD:XIIIb:127)
The rule was revised and in 1655, together with a petition for official recognition of the Company by the State and the Church, was submitted to the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal de Retz and the King, Louis XIV for their approval.
In 1640, during a meeting with the Daughters of Charity, Vincent spoke enthusiastically about a group of brothers who ministered in a hospital in Italy and who in addition to the three vows added a vow of service to the poor. The reaction of the Sisters was immediate: would it be possible for them to take such a vow?
Vincent was surprised by the question and reflects with them. The Daughters of Charity are not religious, that is, religious in the canonical sense of being cloistered. Rather they are “laywomen”, that is, women who are able to walk the streets in order to minister in the hospitals and serve the poor and the infirm. They do not pronounce solemn, public vows that oblige them to be cloistered. Rather they show their attachment to God through simple, private vows (vows that could be made by any Christian man or woman). Vincent stated that if a Sister desired to commit herself to God through the taking of a vow, then this should be done only after talking with her superior.
This reflection continued for several months. On March 25, 1642 Louise de Marillac and four Daughters pronounce the first vows of the Daughters of Charity during the celebration of the Eucharist: vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poor. At the same time some other Daughters reaffirm their commitment in the Company. These vows were private and temporal. Louise explained the beauty of the annual vows: Do you not think my dear Sisters, that this will be very pleasing to Our Lord since, having your freedom again at the end of the year, you can sacrifice it to him anew (SWLM:346 [L.300]).
The vows were renewed every year on the feast of the Annunciation because Mary shows us the way to God. With her openness and her willingness to follow the plans of God, Mary made it possible for the Son of God to become man and in this way opened the path of redemption. Like Mary, every Daughter of Charity is invited to enter fully into her vocation which is a gift that is received from God and is also invited to discover and recognize Christ in all those persons whom they encounter.