7] In the hospitals
At the end of November 1639, Louise undertook a long trip. She would not return to Paris until February 1640. She brought three Daughters of Charity to Angers … she had been requested to send some Sisters to minister in the hospital there. This form of ministry in a hospital setting is new for the young community that up until then had visited the infirm in their homes. Mlle. De Goussault, the president of the Ladies of the Charity in Paris, wanted the Daughters to go to Angers because she had seen the disorders that existed in the hospital and because she also had some property in Bourgneuf, a few kilometers from the city. A request that had been sent at the beginning of the year to the King by the councilors of Angers pointed out that the infirm are deprived of every form of care. These abandoned infirm men and women who were receiving no care (their food had to be brought in from outside) including no spiritual care during their illness or at the time of their death … these individuals were viewed by Vincent and Louise as their lords and so it was necessary to go and serve them. The poor were the people who inspired their ministry of service.
Louise arrived at Angers on December 5. The lengthy trip and the inclement weather aggravated her bronchitis which had afflicted her even before she began this journey. The pastor at Vaux, the vicar-general, received her and graciously welcomed her into his house. They established a respectful and friendly relationship and this priest became the counselor and spiritual director of the Sisters in Angers. The three Sisters immediately began their ministry. In the large room in the hospital the Sisters placed one hundred beds in six rows. A plague epidemic meant that two or three people had to occupy the same bed. Louise, who witnessed the incredible amount of work that needed the attention of the Sisters, asked Vincent to send three more Sisters. Marguerite François, DC, overcome by fatigue and the plague, died a few weeks after her arrival.
It was extremely difficult for Louise to meet with the Fathers of the Poor (the name that was given to the administrators of the hospital) who wanted a written record of the arrival of the Sisters at the hospital. All interested parties signed this document on February 1, 1640. The administrators also asked that the role of the superiors in Paris, the role of the administrators at the hospital and the ministry of the Sisters should be specified and written down. This involved the different individuals in a lengthy discussion that was continued by correspondence even after Louise had returned to Paris. The contract was not signed until March 1641 and the formal registration of this document with government officials made it an official document. The administrators accepted the spiritual direction of the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and granted the Sisters the freedom to live according to their Rule. In those areas that concerned their work with the infirm and the administration of the hospital the Sisters had to answer to the administrators. This contract would become the basis for future contracts that would be established with hospitals in Saint-Denis, Nantes, Hennebont, Cháteaudun. An article of this contract, which might cause surprise, stated: The Sisters alone will be responsible for the poor persons, and no one may associate any wives or unmarried women with them, so that, through the union and relationship existing among themselves, those who are poor may be served better (CCD:XIIIb:115). In the hospitals there were women who dedicated their lives to the service of the infirm and in most cases these individuals lived and ate at the hospital. Some paid a specified amount of money in order to remain at the hospital until their death. Since these women had no financial concerns, they gradually became careless about their work. Therefore in stating that only the Sisters would care for the infirm, Vincent and Louise wanted to avoid confusion between the services of these women who were paid and the services of the Daughters whose way of life and vocation were not widely known. It was also a way of assuring fidelity to the mission that had been entrusted to them and was intended to create unity among the members of this small hospital community. This article, however, would become a source of difficulties since these former servants were asked to leave the hospital. In Angers, Louise was watchful over this situation and she wanted to make sure that these women found a decent living situation in another place. On the other hand, in Mans when the women there became aware of the proximate arrival of the Daughters, they rejected any change in their function at the hospital. Despite the efforts that were made by the Missionaries and the spiritual directors at the hospital, the Daughters were unable to enter the hospital there. After waiting for three weeks the Daughters rejected the ministry there and returned to Paris. In Mantreuil-sur-Mer, the women servants remained there and collaboration between them and the Daughters became so difficult that after three years Vincent called them back to Paris.
Before departing for Angers, the Sisters received from Vincent’s hands regulations that specified the meaning that they should give to their work in the hospital and the means that should be used in order to accomplish this: The first thing Our Lord asks of them is to love Him supremely and to perform all their actions for love of Him. The second is to cherish one another as sisters whom He has bound together by the bond of His love, and to love the sick poor as their lords, since Our Lord is in them and they are in the Lord (CCD:XIIIb:108-109).
The relationship between the Daughters of Charity and the poor and those who are infirm is one of servant/master. In the seventeenth century, the peasants, young people and women from the poor class generally had an attitude of respect and obedience toward the owner of the estate on whom they depended for their food. Vincent and Louise took on these attitudes but reversed them. The Sisters should respect and serve those individuals who usually are ignored, those whom Jesus Christ recognized as his sisters and brothers. Thus the poor become for the Daughters of Charity their lords and masters. The hospitals of the seventeenth century took in beggars and vagabonds who had no lodging and no one to care for them during their illness. These women and men were often rude, dirty and loud. The Daughters of Charity were invited to see behind these rough characteristics the greatness of the human person. In her letters, Louise de Marillac constantly reminded them about the importance of this attitude because it is only through respect for the dignity of the poor that it becomes possible for these outcasts of society to recover a sense of meaning in life: My dear Sister, be very gentle and courteous toward your poor. You know that they are our masters and that we must love them tenderly and respect them deeply. It is not enough for these maxims to be in our minds; we must bear witness to them by our gentle and charitable care (SWLM:320-321 [L.284B]).
Louise de Marillac taught the Sisters simple gestures that revealed their respect toward their lords and masters. In the twentieth century those ways of caring for people might be seen as providing elementary hygienic care but in the seventeenth century those gestures were unusual among the poor: I would ask you to be sure to wash the feet of the sick as they enter, to wash their linens and to treat them with gentleness and charity. Your obligations are to provide the sick them medications and food at the correct times (SWLM:291 [L251]); I do not know if you regularly wash the hands of the poor. If you do not, I would ask you to begin this practice (SWLM:330 [L.290B]). Louise reminded the Daughters at the Nantes Hospital to keep them [those who are infirm] as neat and clean as possible (CCD:XIIIb:144) and to give to each one their own personal napkin.
Respect cannot be limited to the physical and material dimension but the spiritual dimension of the individual must also be taken into consideration. This is what Louise and Vincent referred to as the spiritual care of those who are poor. The Daughters of Charity, through their actions and their words, reveal the presence of Jesus Christ. For them to work in the midst of the world of the poor is to evangelize and it is there in the midst of the world that they discover the sublimity of their vocation and the meaning of their life.