5] Servants of the poor
The groups that had gathered around Louise were quickly divided into small communities. Two or three Sisters went to live in different parishes (Saint-Sauveur, Saint-Paul, Saint-Benoit, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, etc.) in order to be closer to the poor whom they were serving. The Ladies of the Confraternities of Charity took charge of finding housing for the Sisters. Thanks to the generous donation of the Duchess of Aiguillon Louise was able to provide the Sisters with some very simple furniture. The manual work that the Sisters did after they finished caring for those who were infirm provided them with the resources they needed to support themselves. Some of the Sisters wove wool, others baked and some washed clothes. One of the Sisters who had recently arrived and was unaccustomed to the Parisian manner of washing clothes fell into the Siene and for three hours was numb, unable to feel anything.
Louise regularly visited these small communities. Thus she was able to see the service that the Sisters were involved in and also able to experience the difficulties that they encountered. She was concerned at the various outbreaks of the plague, something that frequently occurred during the seventeenth century. Hygiene and preventative measures were very rudimentary. It was suggested that the Sisters, before visiting the sick, should rub vinegar on their noses and foreheads and take a special drug that was prepared with the horns of deer, the dust of a snake, antimony and some plants. Despite these precautions, several of the Sisters, peasant women who were unaccustomed to breathing the contaminated air of the crowded homes of the poor sick in Paris, became ill and died rather quickly. Louise was deeply pained by these events but Vincent supported her and comforted her when he referred to the beauty and greatness of the vocation of these servants of the poor: So here at last is the first victim Our Lord has chosen to take from your Daughters of Charity. May he be forever blessed! I trust, Mademoiselle, that she is very happy, seeing that she died in the practice of a virtue with which she could not be lost; for she died in the exercise of divine love since she died in that of charity (CCD:I:241).
The Sisters who ministered in the various parishes remained under the authority of Louise and Vincent. In those matters there were concerned with their daily work, the Sisters collaborated with the Ladies of Charity. Some of these women wanted to have full authority over the Sisters whom they often viewed as their own personal servants. Madame Chavenas, from the parish of Saint-Gervais, wanted to hire the Sisters. The Sisters, however, after consulting with Louise, rejected this offer. Indeed, the Sisters wanted to preserve their freedom in dealing with the Confraternities. This option also summed up and expressed the meaning of their commitment to the poor: they, [the Sisters], give themselves to God and poor; they consecrate their life to God and the poor and do not seek other means of providing for themselves.
When the Sisters arrived at the various parishes, they visited the pastor and asked for his blessing. In general, the priests in these parishes were appreciative of the Sisters’ presence and the service that they provided to the poor. Nonetheless, some of the priests found it difficult to accept Vincent and Louise’s authority over these new members of their parish. Also when the Sisters were missioned to another place this often became a source of tension, especially in the parish of Saint-Jean where the pastor engaged in a process to have the Sisters returned to his parish. The pastor of Saint-Roch became so upset over the lack of consideration of one of the Sisters that he ordered the Sisters to leave the parish. In other areas, some people admired the deep spiritual life that animated these young women and they attempted to change them into religious women. Louise did not hesitate to express her surprise to the Benedictine auperior at Argenteuil who wanted to accept into the monastery one of the Daughters who had been serving the Confraternities for eight years: I did not want to believe, Madame, that it was you who ordered her to be turned away from her vocation. I could not imagine that those who know the importance of a vocation would want to set up obstacles to the designs of God … by withdrawing help from the abandoned poor who are in great need and who can only find relief in the service of these good girls, who are detached from all self-interest and who give themselves to God for the spiritual and corporal service of these poor creatures that his goodness wills to look upon as his members (SWLM:17-18 [L.9]).
Louise, desiring to fulfill the will of God, was careful to preserve the originality of this new form of consecrated life and she did all of this despite the hesitancy of some families and some members of the Church as well as some influential people in the society of seventeenth century France. She was also careful to see to it that the Sisters lived in accord with the commitment they accepted when they became Daughters of Charity.
At the end of 1637, at the request of Cardinal Richelieu, the Prime Minister, priests from the Congregation took up residence in the newly established city of Turenne. There they found many sick and poor individuals who received no care. Thus, M. Lambert, the superior of the Missionaries in Richelieu, requested that two Daughters be sent there. Louise was hesitant to send the Sisters so far from Paris. How would they be able to remain faithful to their vocation if they were isolated in this manner? Who would sustain them in their spiritual growth and who would counsel them in moments of difficulty? Even though Vincent was also concerned about responding to the request of M. Lambert, he delayed making a decision. Some months later he was insistent when he wrote Louise: M. Lambert, who is in Richelieu, told Madame de Combalet that a Charity must be established there: two poor women had died there that week without assistance. What do you think, Mademoiselle, of sending Barbe and some other young women? Oh! how much good there is to be done in that region! (CCD:I:402).
Louise could not long remain deaf to the call of the poor. On October 1st she organized the trip of the two Sisters. They would first travel to Tours where they would look for a ship to take them to the small port of Ablevois. There they would rent a coach to travel the last forty kilometers to Richelieu. Louise made some suggestions to the Sisters about their travel: Let them share in conversation pertaining to God, but by no means in those concerning the world, and still less, in indecent talk. Let them be rocks against any familiarity that men might wish to take with them (CCD:I:504)
In Richelieu, M. Lambert received the two Sisters and introduced them to the small city and the poor who awaited them. During the first months Barbe Angiboust and Louise Ganset accomplished wonders as they cared for the infirm and instructed the young girls. Moved at the sight of the poor who were abandoned and who received no care, Louise wrote the two Sisters and invited them to reflect on their behavior. Barbe was too authoritarian and she was encouraged to contemplate the tenderness and the charity of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Louise was too independent and so she was encouraged to reflect on the fact they she had made a decision to become a Daughter of Charity and as such, decided to imitate the humble and obedient life of the Son of God. Vincent visited Richelieu a few months later and this visit also helped the Sisters move forward in their process of reflection and change. Louise’s letter, dated February 1, 1640, expresses her joy at being told that the Sisters had become reconciled with one another and Louise also expressed her desire that they would have the courage to continue to be faithful to their vocation as servants of Christ and of the poor.
This first missioning of the Daughters outside of Paris would be followed by many more: Sedan and Nanteuil (1641), Fontenayaux-Roses (1642), Serqueux, Maule and Crespiéres (1645), Fontainebleau (1646), Chantilly, Chars and Montmirail (1647), Valpuiseaux and Dourdan (1648), Brienne et Varize (1652), Bernay y La RocheGuyon (654), Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (1655), Arras (1656), Saint-Fargeau (1657), Ussel (1658), Vauxle-Vicomte (1659), Belle-Ile-en-Mer (1660) … each of these places would be served by the Daughters of Charity. Regular communication, through correspondence, was established between the motherhouse in Paris and these distant communities. The many letters that have been preserved reveal the attention that Louise de Marillac gave to each Daughter, an attention that touched every dimension of the Daughters, that is, as a woman and as a woman who consecrated her life to God.
In the towns and villages, in all those places where the Daughters ministered, they not only cared for the infirm but were also engaged in the educational process of the children who lived in those areas, children who at a very early age worked in the fields or watched over the herds of animals.
As educators, the Sisters responded to the call of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that viewed education as a way to confront the inroads of Protestantism. Luther, who viewed Sacred Scripture as the only source of faith, placed great importance on education. In 1524 he outlined an educational program that had social and religious objectives: schools for boys and girls are needed in every area so that men are able to engage in a profession and women are able to care for their homes and provide their children with a Christian education. The Council Fathers, after referring to some doctrinal points, placed themselves in the midst of the Protestant conflict. They asked the bishops to proclaim the Word of God in the churches and to do this themselves and not through the mediation of others. They formulated the following decree during the twenty-forth session which was held in November, 1553: In every parish children will be instructed in the principles of their faith and their obligations as Christian. This will be done at the very least on Sundays and feast days.
Schools were multiplied in order to provide for the education of children and young men and women. The schools of the Jesuits and Ursulines were enlarged and new Congregations were established whose objective was the education of young people: Pierre Fourier and Alix Le Clerc in the eastern part of France and the Congregation of Jeanne de Lestonnac in Bordeaux. In some towns teachers were prepared in order to educate boys and young men. This task was often quite difficult because it was seen as dangerous. Richelieu, in his political testament warned about the dangers that would result from providing everyone with an education: agriculture would be ruined, the army would be unmanageable, France would be filled with swindlers and public tranquility would cease to be a reality.
Louise and Vincent were aware of the ways in which ignorance aggravated the situation of the poor. When they visited the Confraternities of Charity their focus was centered on those children who received no instruction. They spent time instructing the children and before they left any town or village they looked for a teacher who would continue the work that they had begun.
In the different parishes where the Daughters of Charity were sent, they took charge of the girls who were neglected. These poor girls were unable to go to the Ursuline schools because they could not pay the fees and the schools in the town or cities would not accept them because both the State and the Church prohibited coeducation.
The instruction that was provided by the Daughters of Charity responded to the concerns of the era. Their primary objective was Christian education. Louise wrote a catechism to help the Sisters: it was composed of simple questions and answers that were adapted for children. This catechism also revealed the spirituality of Louise, a spirituality rooted in the Incarnation.
What is the sign of a Christian?
-The sign of the cross.
What does the sign of the cross represent?
-The sign of the cross represents the reality that there is one God in three persons. It also represents the mystery of the Incarnation and the death of the Son of God.
What is the mystery of the Incarnation?
-The mystery of the Incarnation involves the second person of the Blessed Trinity who took on human flesh in the womb of the blessed Virgin.
As the children prayed the Our Father, Louise, who knew the children well, would question them:
How must we pray?
-We must pray slowly, without turning our heads from one side to another, thinking only of God.
In addition to the catechism the girls learned to read, to sew and to make lace. It seems that they did not learn how to write and this simply followed the custom of the era: I do not think it advisable for the girls to learn to write (SWLM:217 [L.192]).
Louise realized that in order to teach others one must first take the time to form oneself. The second article of the particular rules for the Sisters who teach school stated: She will be sure to learn well herself what she has to teach others, particularly all that concerns faith and morals (CCD:XIIIb:177)
Some Daughters of Charity spent time with the Ursuline community in order to acquire more knowledge about pedagogy, a knowledge that they were able to share with the other Sisters.
Louise continued to give advice to the Sisters who were working in schools. She felt it was more important for the Sisters to understand the students than to have much knowledge of different subjects. Montaigne said that it was better to have a well formed mind than a mind filled with information. Thus, in the particular rules for the Sisters who teach school we read: she will teach them the catechism, making sure they understand thoroughly what they are reciting. She will ask them informal questions for this purpose, among the six main ones indicated in the catechism lesson, and in terms other than those used in the book (CCD:XIIIb:180).
In the seventeenth century corporeal punishment was frequent. This also occurred in the schools of the Daughters. Nevertheless, these punishments had to be done in a way that respected the children: She will be careful to punish them for their usual shortcomings but give them a whipping only rarely and for serious faults, and never more than five or six strokes, taking them aside for this purpose to a place in the school out of sight of the others (CCD:XIIIb:179).
In Chars, when one of the parish priests asked the Sisters to whip a girl in public, they refused to do this. The pastor was so angered by the Sisters failure to adhere to his request that he refused to give them Communion. Later he ordered them to leave the parish.
Louise exhorted the Sisters to be attentive to any child who approached them but she also encouraged them to reach out those children who no one else wanted. Article five of the rules for school teachers stated: They will be as careful, and even more so, to instruct those who are almost never able to go to school, such as shepherdesses, girls who mind cattle, and others who tend animals, taking them individually whenever and wherever they meet them, not only in the villages but also in the country, along the way (CCD:XIIIb:183).
Every child has the right to an education. Therefore, as teachers, the Daughters have to go to those places where children will be found. Louise encouraged the Sisters to establish a relationship of compassion and simplicity and kindness with the children: This must be done kindly and gently, without causing them to be ashamed of their ignorance (SWLM:632 [L.611]).