Louise de Marillac, a courageous, bold and enterprising woman, has become that “buried treasure” that today shines brightly in our midst. Throughout this week her life has been presented to us as a light that illuminates our mission as Vincentians that that enables us, like Louise, to go forth sowing seeds of hope, love and tenderness in the hearts of those men and women who are poor.
Her outstanding human and spiritual stature allowed her to open new paths in the society of seventeenth century France where women were expected to dedicate themselves to caring for the home or living a cloistered life behind convent walls. One of the qualities that best describes Louise’s personality is her vocation as a teacher and an educator. Louise engaged in this ministry at different times in her life. We see Louise educating her son, Michel; we also see her teaching young girls in the villages and the suburbs of Paris and as well as forming and educating the first Daughters of Charity. As Louise embraced the many poor people she encountered during her travels, the task that seemed most appropriate for her and that cried out for her creative talent was that of teaching. She was the founder of the small schools of the Confraternities that were established in seventeenth century France and that opened the door for a type of education that was geared toward the integral education of children.
The society in which Louise was involved
In the seventeenth century France was divided into three estates: the nobles, the clergy and the people. The majority of the population were members of the third estate and most of them lived in ignorance and misery … misery that was the result of hunger and epidemics and the on-going wars. Ninety percent of the people were illiterate.
After the Council of Trent there arose in the Church a desire to provide children with a Christian education. Some religious order were established for this purpose, for example, the Ursulines founded by Saint Angela de Merici, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also known as the Loreto Sisters) founded by Mary Ward and Adrien Bourdoise, a catechist in the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Charsdonnet (this priest was Louise’s pastor from 1625 to 1636). Each of these individuals organized and established Catholic schools in the cities and provided education for young girls. Education in the suburbs of Paris was for all practical purposes non-existent. While the Council of Trent decreed that every parish should establish a school where children could be educated at no cost, this remained an unrealized dream in the countryside.
If a school was opened in some village, the teacher was usually a person from that village who knew how to read and write. Classes began in November and continued until Easter … the rest of the year was dedicated to work in the fields. Children began their education at the age of 6-7 and continued their education until they were 10-12 … sometimes until they were 14. In school the children were taught how to live as Christians and therefore catechetics had a privileged place.
The poorer the parents the less interest they had in sending their children to school since the the boys were needed to work in the fields … and the girls became responsible for the domestic chores. This situation deprived children of the opportunity to learn other professions and also made it impossible to catechize the children.
This was the situation that confronted Louise de Marillac. Yet as she was attentive to the needs of the poor she felt that she was called by God and as a result resolutely committed herself to the task of teaching and catechizing poor country girls … thus the schools of the Charity were established.
A privileged education
Where did Louise’s gifts of initiative and creativity come from? We have only to examine her life in order to discover the exquisite formation that she received in every aspect: cultural, religious, ascetical … this was the foundation that led her to the ministry of formation of young people.
Louise was born and educated in the midst of a very distinguished family. Many members of this family held very important positions in parliament, the Church and the military. Some famous names that stand out among the other members of the family: Michel de Marillac, a lawyer in Parliament and a very religious and mystical man; Louis de Marillac, the Count of Beaumont who married Catherine de Medici and was the aunt of the queen, Marie de Medici; Valence de Marillac who married Octavien d’Attichy and was well-positioned in court; Louis de Marillac, Louise’s father who was handsome, intelligent and an entrepreneur. Louise inherited many of her qualities from her father. As we examine Louise’s life we discover that she was intelligent, a good organizer and enterprising … and possessed many other qualities that surprise us.
Louise was privileged to receive a well-rounded formation. When she was three years old her father brought to the Dominican Convent at Poissy where the Sisters were renowned for their holiness and discipline as well as their education. When the Sisters had received their formation (this included the Sisters with important positions) they translated Greek and Latin classic works. Louise’s aunt was a member of this convent and one of the learned sisters.
It was there in Poissy that Louise received a very complete education, a formation that included the cultural dimension as well as the religious dimension. She not only received instruction in the catechism but also was taught the Bible, the liturgical psalms, spiritual treatises and the life of the saints. Louise learned to spell correctly and had a clear and legible handwriting. She like Latin and painting … she received an excellent formation. As the years passed we are able to see how God prepared her to carry out the work that he had entrusted to her, a work that would become a ministry on behalf of those people who were poor.
Even at the pension, where Louise lived after the death of her father, she learned everything that was necessary to care for her family in a dignified way: sewing, cooking, housekeeping, maintaining the financial records for a small family farm etc. Louise learned all these things and would put them into practice at the Motherhouse where there was a garden, a farm … and she would also give wise counsel to the Sisters. Through her letters we discover the completeness of her formation. She gives us the impression that she has knowledge of everything: medical care, cooking recipes, accounting, organizing and planning for the future.
Education of Louise’s son Michel
Louise became a widow at the age of thirty-four and at that time her son was twelve. Louise took on the sole responsibility to educate her son though it is true that Vincent de Paul played a very important role in Michel’s education and we can also affirm that Vincent became a father figure for him.
According to many biographers, Michel Antoine was unstable, moody, inattentive to study and in fact not very intelligent. Nevertheless there are other writers who express a contrary opinion and see Michel as a firm individual, one who admired the Missionaries’ intellectual abilities, and who himself at the age of twenty-two obtained his licentiate in Philosophy and Law.
Whatever the case may be it is clear that Louise gave her son all of her love and was tireless in her efforts to provide him with a good education, thus opening the doors to a future that Louise saw as better. We know that she greatly desired to see her son become a priest and she struggled to make this desire a reality. This caused many problems because Michel Antoine was always doubtful about following this vocation, which in turn tormented his mother. After receiving minor orders at the age of twenty-six, he abandoned the vocation of priesthood and took another path that led him to become involved in scandalous situations. He confronted his mother, broke off his relationship with Vincent and distanced himself from God. Louise felt guilty and suffered greatly. In her letters she cries out in anguish and she requests help from her spiritual director: I am extremely anxious about my son … You are aware of how great my sorrow is and that my misgivings are considerable (SWLM:122 [L.113]). Help me to keep myself strongly attached to Jesus Christ (SWLM”135 [L.109]). Louise was so grieved that when she concluded the letter, she knelt before the crucifix and prayed; another Sister saw her sorrow and asked her what was wrong, to which Louise responded: I do not know where my son is!
Michel had left with a young woman from the province and married her secretly. Louise continued to pray to God and made a pilgrimage to Chartres in order to place the life of her son in the hands of the Blessed Virgin. Two years later she made an act of renunciation during which she surrendered her son completely to God, placing him in God’s hands: I had a strong desire to give him (her son) and to abandon him entirely to God (SWLM:166 [L.151]). This action enabled Louise to experience a new freedom and thus she was able to accept events calmly and peacefully.
At the same time, Michel recovered his sense and his mother was able to annul his marriage. On January 18, 1650 he married Gabrielle Le Clerc who would later give birth to a daughter, Renée-Louise. This grand-daughter brought much happiness to Louise during her final years. When Louise was on her deathbed, her son and his wife and their child visited Louise who blessed them and exhorted them to live like good Christians.
Throughout her life Louise revealed her love for her son. She sacrificed and made every effort to provide the best for Michel. She wanted to lead him along paths that perhaps were not always most suitable for him … she never ceased praying for him and God heard her and answered her prayers. At the end of her life she felt happy and was able to die serenely. Her life enlightens the path for many mothers who suffer because of the decisions of their children. Prayer and generous self-surrender in our daily life give us the confidence that God hears our prayers and also comes to our assistance.
Educator in the rural villages
The first schools of the Confrternities
It is 1629. Louise is a young widow of thirty-eight, has met Vincent de Paul and is about to undertake her first missionary journey to visit the Confraternity of Charity in Montmirail. This marked the beginning of her travels to the towns and villages that surrounded Paris, the places where she would visit the Confraternities that had been established by the Missionaries. During these journeys she witnessed the ignorance of the poor children. Louise, a learned woman and a committed Christian, did not ignore this situation. During her visit to these places she took on the role of teacher and catechist. In order to keep the schools open she sought out a young woman who was prepared and capable of continuing the education of the children. Thus, in the Rule that was written for the members of the Confraternity, we read: They shall teach the little girls of the villages while they are there. They shall strive to train local girls to replace them at this task during their absence. They shall do all this for the love of God and without any remuneration (SWLM:729 [A.54]).
When some village had a teacher, Louise encouraged this person and provided this individual with the means to be a better teacher.
The small Vincentian schools came into existence, schools that were also called “School of the Charity” because they arouse from the Confraternities of Charity which were providing charitable assistance in the different towns and villages.
Jean Calvert states in his biography that Louise liked to teach and was passionate about this ministry. She had a gift for teaching and because she valued knowledge, she understood that individuals were meant to learn.1
Louise was learned and realized that ignorance was often the cause of great poverty. Therefore she was very zealous in promoting these small schools.
In 1633 when the first Daughters of Charity presented themselves to Louise and were then sent out, two by two, into the villages to serve the poor, Louise was very careful to make sure that one of the two was able to read and thus able to instruct the girls. In a letter that she wrote to Vincent regarding the foundation at Sedan, she stated: the sister whom I am suggesting we send with Sister Marie Joly knows how to read … she could teach poor little girls (SWLM:48 [L.36b]).
As we examine Louise’s letters we discover that there were numerous places where the Sisters established schools in order to teach poor country girls to read: Richelieu, Fontaineblean, Chars, Sedan, Vanize, Chateaudum, Ussel, Bernay and Chantilly … the castle of Bietre was also prepared to accommodate a school. Louise saw how the girls and boys were separated in school and therefore had to rely on a priest who would take charge of the education of the boys while a Daughters taught the girls (SWLM:216 [L.192]).
Louise realized that ignorance often prevented people from attaining their goals. In light of this Louise was very zealous in establishing Vincentian schools.
Education in the suburbs of Paris
During the course of her life Louise changed her residence on various occasions. In 1641 we find her living with the Sisters in the neighborhood of Saint-Denis in the parish of Saint-Laurent. Vincent had bought two adjacent houses with a patio, a garden, a well for drinking water and a stable. Within a short period of time Louise, who was attentive to the cries of the poor, discovered that the poor girls were unable to go to school and needed someone to teach them how to read and write, someone to teach them the catechism … Louise, who had previously taught in the country villages, requested permission from the Rector of Notre-Dame. In May, 1641 she wrote the following: Louise de Marillac, … very humbly supplicates Monsieur des Roches, Rector of Notre-Dame de Paris, informing him that the sight of the great number of poor in the Saint-Denis district leads her to desire to take charge of their instruction. Should these poor little girls remain steeped in ignorance, it is to be feared that this same ignorance will be harmful to them and render them incapable of cooperating with the grace of God for their salvation … for the glory of God … give the above-mentioned suppliant the permission required in such cases, thereby allowing the poor the liberty of sending their children free of charge to schools where they would be unhindered by the rich (SWLM:50 [L.41]).
The response to this request was written in Latin on the very same page as the request: to our beloved Demoiselle Le Gras … After our own inquiries, the report of your Pastor and the testimony of other trustworthy persons who have knowledge of your life, morals and practice of the Catholic religion, you have been found worthy to operate schools. Therefore, we, grant you the necessary license and permit you to operate a school … on the condition that you teach poor girls only and do not accept others (SWLM:51 [.41]).
According to the custom of the era, a sign was posted on the door to the house that read: Here is a small school … Louise de Marillac, school mistress who teaches the youth to read, to write, to form their letters and to speak correctly.
Some characteristics of Louise’s ministry as an educator
As we examine Louise’s letters and writings we discover some characteristics with regard to her educational ministry and we admire her organizational ability as well as her clarity of expression that is revealed in her exhortations to the Sisters. She drew up a common plan for school teachers (SWLM:761-762 [A.91b]) and we find among her writings the text of this document that is entitled “office of the schoolmistress”.
Louise was very clear about the objectives of teachers: to help children attain salvation and to dedicate themselves solely and exclusively to poor children who have no other way of obtaining an education.
Nevertheless, with regard to this matter, it is interesting to note Louise’s broad vision because she also wanted to provide an opportunity to rich children who were unable to attend school: The Daughters must understand that not every girl is to be admitted into the school, but only those who are poor. Nevertheless if Providence and obedience call us to some parish where there is not teacher to instruct the rich … then in this situation they can be admitted but on the condition that these girls will not look down upon those who are poor … preference is always to be give to those girls who are poor.
It is also interesting to note the pedagogical elements that are referred to in the letters that Louise wrote to the Sisters … we see her creativity and her vision for the future revealed in these letters.
- Louise was concerned about providing the children with comfortable and spacious areas for their education. When she was organizing the space in the castle of Bicetre which would be occupied by the abandoned children she wrote to Vincent: Our Ladies have not thought about arranging for a location for the school. We saw one place which would be good for the boys, who must be separated from the girls; it is downstairs and it only appears to need a door hung and the windows closed up. The girls’ classroom would be upstairs (SWLM:217 [L.192]).
- She asked that the children be educated for life and not simply in order to maintain their good name or a good image: She [the teacher] shall place greater importance on instructing them well in the mysteries of faith, in correct morality, and on the difference between good and evil than on progress in reading or on the memorization of a lot of facts which reveal more curiosity and vanity than solid learning which consists in understanding clearly what has been taught and putting it to good use (SWLM:762 [A.91b]).
- Above all else Louise requested that the children be educated in a way that would allow them to live their lives as good Christians: I believe that you are teaching the little girls well, not only about matters of faith, but also about how to live as good Christians (SWLM:422 [L.368]). She must continue to instruct [the young school girls] well on the fear and love of God rather than to teach them how to talk at length about Him (SWLM:555 [L.529]). This conviction was so important to Louise that on several occasions she reminded the Sisters that the most essential lesson is the knowledge of God and of his love (SWLM:618 [L.598]). Louise wrote beautiful words to Sister Claire Jaudoin when she spoke about preparing the children to live devoutly during the time of Lent, thus preparing them for the celebration of Easter … Louise made special reference to the children being prepared to receive their First Communion (SWLM:632 ).
- Louise was concerned so that at any time, any girl of any age who would like to come to learn would be attended. They must have the discretion to have those girls who are timid and bashful enter a special area (SWLM:743 [A.90]). The timid and bashful children were the ones whom Louise chose and entrusted to the Daughters , telling them: deal with them kindly and gently, without causing them to be ashamed of their ignorance (SWLM:632 [L.611]).
- Louise realized that in these schools it was impossible to use the curriculum that was provided to the teachers in Paris. Therefore she recommended flexibility: For that reason they must receive, at any time, any girl of any age who would like to come to learn … welcoming them warmly even when they come at mealtime or very late (SWLM:743 [A.90]).
- She wanted all the Sisters who were teachers to use the same method (SWLM:229 [L.171]), maintaining order and following the same rule (SWLM:181 [L.163]). Therefore as mentioned before, Louise drew up a rule for school mistresses.
- An important detail should be pointed out here, namely, the on-going, constant follow up that Louise, personally or through her letters, engaged in with regard to each school. In Fontainebleau she felt there were too many students (seventy); she recommended that Sister Anne Hardemont be very punctual in giving catechetical instruction and when teaching other subjects … Louise offered other suggestions to the same Sister (SWLM:209-210 [L.200b]). She expressed her desire to receive full reports from Sister Charlotte Rover who was ministering in Richelieu: Let me know how many school girls you teach and if the older girls sometimes come on feast day for catechism and to hear the instruction you give the little girls (SWLM:665 [L.646]).
- From the beginning Louise was concerned with the formation of the laity, forming young women or married women to take on responsibility for these small country schools. She made the following suggestion to the young women who worked with the members of the Confraternities: They shall teach the little girls of the villages while they are there. They shall strive to train local girls to replace them at this task during their absence. They shall do all this for the love of God and without any remuneration (SWLM:729 [A.54]).
- Above all else, Louise formed the Sisters to be good teachers. In 1633 she established a schedule in which, after Mass there was a time period in which the Sisters were read to in order to learn … this exercise was repeated in the afternoon. One of the first Sisters stated that Mademoiselle Le Gras took the time to teach me how to read to the other Sisters, thus making them repeat to me the articles of faith. Louise reminded the Sisters that this instruction was not done for their personal satisfaction or for its usefulness but rather to enable them to teach the girls in the places where they were sent.
We can affirm that in the “motherhouse” Louise organized “a small school” in order to form the Daughters who were then sent forth to be the formators of children.
The formation of the Sisters should be on-going. On several occasions Louise stated that the Sisters should be willing to learn new methods, I would like to have those alphabet cards which we would put upon the walls. The Ursulines use this method in some places (SWLM:217 [L.192]). It is very probably that Louise was familiar with the Rule of the Ursulines regarding the instruction of young girls. Her uncle, Michel, had taught future Ursulines some subjects. Louise herself brought young Magdalene de Attichy to the Ursuline convent.
It is interesting to note how Louise, with the passing of years, opened new approaches to education. In the beginning the schools that were established were only for girls … that was all that was permitted. In 1647, however, she asked the question: could we not have co-educational schools in those areas where there are no schools for boys? This question was posed during the October 30th, 1647 council meeting in which the following reasons were put forth in favor of this suggestion: First, it can do a great deal of good, imparting the rudiments of piety to these young children, who might otherwise never be instructed. Second, this seems to be a necessity because in most localities there’s no schoolmaster. In the third place, the parents want this, and they seem to have good reason for it because it’s to be desired that their sons be at least as well instructed as their daughters. For that reason, in most of the places where they are, they pressure our Sisters to take them. In the fourth place, there seems to be nothing to worry about regarding the schoolmistress; such very small boys can’t be a source of temptation for her (CCD:XIIIb:285-286). Vincent added that this was already being done with the foundlings who were both girls and boys. Louise added a fifth reason: at times a little girl couldn’t attend school unless she brought her younger brother with her, since their mother was not at home to look after him.
After having discussed this matter and having listened to the various opinions, Vincent rejected the idea with this simple statement: I think it will be well for us to follow the regulations made about not accepting boys at all. The King made that decision after seeking advice (CCD:XIIIb:287).
The catechism of Mademoiselle Le Gras
In order to insure the Christian formation of children and in order to provide for the formation of the Sisters, Louise wrote a catechism.
The catechism is very simple and utilizes a question and answer format (questions and answers are short and easy and its language and style is similar to other catechisms of the era). Our attention is drawn to the fact that there is a clear presentation of the material and an active methodology is employed … one that allows the children to become engaged in the process. The breath of material should also be noted since in a few pages we find a compendium of the principal truths of our faith. Between the questions and answers we find a brief history or some example or comparison which enables the children to understand the truths of God with greater ease.
The catechism begins with a question about creation: who has created you and placed you in this world?
After that we find material that deals with faith, God, sin, hell, heaven, baptism and the cross. We are surprised to discover the interest that is shown in knowing and following Jesus.
With regard to prayer, the catechism highlights the Our Father and explains each petition. The same method is utilized in explaining the articles of the Creed (we note here an interesting detail, namely, the children were encouraged to recite these prayer in Latin and French). The sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance are explained in great detail while the other sacraments are presented more briefly.
The catechism concludes with an explanation of the pious practices of that era … a process in which one was able to consecrate the day to the Lord and live each day in God’s presence. We remember here the rule of life that Louise had drawn up when she was thirty-six.
After having examined the educational ministry of Louise we can conclude that she viewed teaching and education as a mission, as a prolongation of the mission of Jesus Christ when he dwelt here on earth. This is the secret of her passion for education and this is the heritage that she has passed on to us, members of the Vincentian Family … a heritage that contains human and spiritual values that we are exhorted to communicate to others as we engage in the integral formation of children and young men and women.
Challenges of a Vincentian Educator
In light of what we have presented with regard to Louise’s ministry as an educator, we are now able to list the following principles or characteristics of Vincentian educators:
- Vincentian educators ought to live out their ministry as a vocation; they ought to experience themselves as called by God to collaborate in the plan of salvation with regard to their students. They ought to see themselves as God’s instruments and allow themselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
- Aware of the grandeur of their mission they should live their life with simplicity, enthusiasm and joy; they should place their best selves at the service of their students. Each day they should recommit themselves to selfless love and generous service.
- Their primary objective should be the integral formation of the human person and therefore they should place importance on the communication of the Good News of the gospel. Their lives should be transparent and they should clothe themselves in the human and spiritual values that they desire to communicate to others.
- They ought to work in teams and collaborate with one another; they should be united in their methodology and criteria and should give life to the ideals of the Vincentian Family.
- They will show a special concern for those young men and women who are fragile, timid or in some way challenged and/or living in a difficult situation. With open eyes and hearts they will extend themselves to those who are most forgotten and neglected. They will attempt to communicate this same concern to their students and thus stir up in these young men and women an attitude of solidarity for those most in need.
- They should be engaged in a process of on-going formation in order to be able to offer their student a quality education that responds to the present day needs.
- Vincentian educators should collaborate in the formation of new educators so that the torch of the Vincentian charism can be passed on to a future generation.
The present and the future
After more than three centuries this small seed that was planted by Louise de Marillac has grown into a fruitful tree that has been extended throughout the world. Her teachings have a permanent value and are most relevant today. In light of the rapid changes that are taking place in our society, changes that perplex and cause us to feel insecure and anxious as we face an uncertain future, the life and teaching of Louise help us to confront the present and future reality calmly, courageously, and boldly.
Education will always be one of the primary ministries of the Daughters of Charity. The Sisters, however, will have to open new paths in those places where the urgent needs of the time call them to serve. Society evolves, needs change and therefore the service of the Daughters must respond to these new challenges.
As we look toward the future, two objectives ought to guide our efforts:
- The search for and the acceptance of those who are most forgotten. Our educational centers should always be open to the new forms of poverty and our presence as educators should be open to confront the present needs.
- Faith education is one of the urgent demands of our present society. The greatest poverty is ignorance concerning Jesus Christ. Children and young people need to be formed in the area of values … thus religious formation is very important.
Today the society that surrounds us is devoid of God. Our educational centers provide us with a platform to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ not only to children and young men and women but also to parents, professors and those persons who in some way collaborate in our educational ministry.
This is our mission: to be educators of charity who sow hope, joy, peace, and faith.
Let us take up the torch that Louise has handed on to us … Let us allow ourselves to be illuminated by her light and let us faithfully pass on this inheritance to the children and young men and women that God has entrusted to us.
I conclude this presentation with a simple story dedicated to those teachers/educators who today, more than ever before, find it difficult to see how the seeds that they have planted will grow and produce fruit, who find it difficult to see how the hope that they deposited in the hearts of young men and women who fill their classrooms … how this hope will become a reality. This simple story is also dedicated to the parents of the young people because as parents they are the primary educators of their children.
Once there was a man who every day rode the bus to work. One stop after he got on the bus, an elderly woman also got on the bus and she would sit beside a window. She opened a bag and during her journey she would throw something out the window. She always followed the same routine and so one day, the man, who was intrigued by her action, asked her what she was throwing out the window. The elderly woman responded: “these are seeds!” “What kind of seeds?” the man asked. “Flower seeds … you see as I look around the ground is so barren.” “But the seeds fall on the asphalt and the birds also eat the seeds … do you really believe the seeds will take root?” “Yes, I do, but they will need time to grow. I do what I can. The rains will come” … and the elderly woman continued her routine. Some months later as the man was looking out the window of the bus, he saw flowers along the roadside … colorful and beautiful flowers. The man remembered the elderly woman and asked the bus driver about her, but the chauffeur told him that she had died. The man returned to his seat and looking at the view thought: the flowers have taken root and grown and the roadside is beautiful, but that woman never saw the fruit of her work. What good was her work? Suddenly, he noticed a young girl pointing out the window and telling her father, “Look, papa, how beautiful … look at the flowers!” It is said that from that day forward the man rode the bus with a bag of seeds.
Vincentian educators, following in the footsteps of Louise de Marillac live out their mission as educators with enthusiasm, passion and joy … they continue to sow seeds of hope, seeds of eternity … other will reap the fruits of their work and rejoice in these fruits … it was precisely in this way that Louise de Marillac lived out her vocation as an educator.