“In this talk, I propose to work through three themes: first, the relevance of the Ladies of Charity as St. Vincent’s first foundation; second, the relevance of the Ladies of Charity as a foundation in the United States and the move toward international status; and third, some suggestions about the relevance of the Ladies of Charity for today and for the future.”
Our Lord draws no less glory
On October 23, 1620, more than 385 years ago, Vincent de Paul, in the rules for the male servants of the poor, wrote the following: “Our Lord draws no less glory from the ministry of women than from that of men, and the care of the sick even seems preferable to that of the healthy; the male servants of the poor will therefore show as much concern for the preservation and growth of the women’s association as for their own” (CCD 13b, 132). In our 21st century, a statement like this would raise few eyebrows. In Vincent’s time, the early 17th century, this statement, I daresay, would cause almost a universal rise of the eyebrow, and maybe a stroke or two as well.
As we are well aware, Vincent de Paul respected and collaborated with women and promoted them for all kinds of pastoral services as God’s instruments. The history of the Ladies of Charity bears out this assertion in clear detail.
In this talk, I propose to work through three themes: first, the relevance of the Ladies of Charity as St. Vincent’s first foundation; second, the relevance of the Ladies of Charity as a foundation in the United States and the move toward international status; and third, some suggestions about the relevance of the Ladies of Charity for today and for the future.
I. First Foundation
However well known, it is important to tell the story of the first foundation. After spending six months as an itinerant preacher in the country, Vincent arrived at the small town parish of Châtillon-les-Dombes on 1 August 1617. On Sunday, 20 August, Vincent was told that a family in the countryside was suffering from severe health problems and a desperate lack of food. Vincent preached about this sorry state of affairs at Sunday Mass. Later that afternoon, he set out to visit the family and, as the story goes, discovered a long procession of parishioners on the same road to help the family. Vincent’s comment is classic: “There is great charity, but it is badly organized.”
And so began the Vincentian style of charity. Within four months, the first Confraternity of Charity was organized in Châtillon and officially established with a rule that served as a model for other confraternities throughout France. Individual good will would now be channeled into effective service of the poor.
Pause for a moment with me to scrutinize what really happened at Châtillon. There appear to be four distinct moments in this foundation story. There is the moment of inspiration. Vincent’s preaching identified the problem for his parishioners. Then, there is a moment of response: the procession of charitable activity. Third is the moment of assessment: “great charity” needed a structure so that it would last. Finally, there is the moment of organization: a parish-based model for lay activity in the service of the poor was established and became a paradigm for charitable activity in 17th century France and for our Vincentian Family organizations right down to the present.
Vincent de Paul not only inspired great charity but organized it and made it effective. How did he do this? By solving, for his time, and indeed for ours, two major problems: the problem of linkage, and the problem of leverage. Allow me to explain.
The problem of linkage boils down to this. How does one person find an effective way to serve the poor utilizing his/her talents, time, and treasure? Vincent’s answer: an organizational network that provided a place for people in every walk of life to join a larger enterprise. Individual acts of kindness may be great in themselves but when linked to one another in organized charity, the poor are better served and the caregivers are more effective.
The problem of leverage is similar. It boils down to this. How can our resources for serving the poor be maximized? Vincent’s answer: again, organization. The organization creates a system of charity that is sustainable over time. It calls forth, or leverages, further commitments. Charity begets further charity and the whole enterprise is sustainable.
If the foregoing analysis appears too abstract, consider the practical realism of Vincent de Paul which undergirds his genius for effective organization. Vincent believed that “It is to be feared that this good work (Confraternity of Charity), once begun, might die out in a short time if they (the members) do not have some union and spiritual bond among themselves to maintain it” (CCD 13b, 8). If the Confraternities of Charity were to stand the test of time, they would need a clear statement of spiritual purpose. Vincent proposed a mission statement, right from the beginning, that has stood the test of time: “To honor the love Our Lord has for those who are poor; to assist poor persons corporally and spiritually” (CCD 13b, 1). Vincent knew that the first principle of good management was a powerful mission statement. As he proposed to the Daughters of Charity (19 June 1647): “Sisters, to teach you how to do business, I’ll tell you that, when matters are proposed, before everything else consider the purpose” (CCD 13b, 271).
One of the ways that Vincent forged the spiritual bonds with the Confraternities of Charity was to recommend that the members “come together from time to time in some place intended for discussing the spiritual progress and what concerns the general welfare of the community…” (CCD 13b, 15). Members were instructed that they should “meet in the same chapel to listen to a short spiritual exhortation and to discuss matters concerning the welfare of those who are poor and the support of the confraternity” (CCD 13b, 15). If the Confraternity of Charity was to endure, Vincent thought, then, its members, both individually and corporately, must be in touch with the spiritual purpose of the organization and with their own continuing spiritual growth.
II. The Ladies of Charity in the United States
We fast forward now almost 250 years to tell the thrilling story once again of another first foundation, this time in the United States of America.
We remember that women played a pivotal role in the first foundations spearheaded by Vincent de Paul. There were the nine women who joined Vincent in the first Confraternity of Charity in 1617 at Châtillon. There was Madame de Gondi who, with her husband, turned over to her chaplain, Vincent de Paul, the sum of 45,000 livres (about $2.25 million today) with the result that the Congregation of the Mission could be founded in 1625. Finally, there was the indomitable Louise de Marillac who animated many of the early Confraternities of Charity and, with Vincent, founded the Company of the Daughters of Charity in 1633.
Surely it is no coincidence, then, that the founder of the Ladies of Charity in the United States was, in God’s Providence, another woman, Catherine Harkins. The manner of this foundation was truly remarkable and thoroughly Vincentian.
A young woman of 23, a wife and mother, Catherine Harkins moved with her family to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1857, settling in the parish of St. Vincent de Paul. In short order, so the story unfolds, she had a vivid dream one night of St. Vincent trudging through snow-covered streets and gathering up poor, neglected children under his sheltering cloak. Vincent seemed to speak to Catherine directing her to do as he had done. After this beautiful dream had been repeated three times, Catherine knew that she must mention it in confession. She came to St. Vincent de Paul Church where a Vincentian priest, Father O’Neil, told her that her dream was really a vision, and that she should return home, pray for further enlightenment, and come back to the same confessional on the next day. That next day she returned but found another Vincentian priest, Father Gagnepain, in the appointed confessional. Explaining that Father O’Neil had been missioned elsewhere, he encouraged Catherine to repeat her story. With the encouragement and advice of Father Gagnepain, Catherine gathered together a band of 12 ladies of St. Vincent’s Parish, and formed the first society of the Ladies of Charity in the United States on 8 December 1857. Her confessor assured her that if the project were but an idle fancy it would soon come to nothing; if her visionary dream were from God, then the work would prosper and endure. And, wouldn’t you know it, here we are 150 years later!
The first Ladies of Charity in France were committed to perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in imitation of the love of Our Lord for the poor. But they did not work alone. The Charities, the Vincentians, and the Daughters of Charity collaborated closely.
The Ladies of Charity in the United States then and now continue the same commitment to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. According to their early manual, “The purpose of the Association, then, is to imitate the Divine Savior in visiting the poor, particularly the sick poor, and in bringing them spiritual and corporal nourishment. Since 1857, the Ladies of Charity, as in the days of Vincent and Louise, have frequently worked in collaboration with the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity. In fact, several of the early organizations of the Ladies of Charity in the United States were pioneers of works later entrusted to the Daughters of Charity. Numerous Vincentian pastors across the country were instrumental in fanning the flame of charity that was the soul of the society.
Since, as we know from the time of St. Vincent, charity begets charity, the early work of the Ladies of Charity in St. Louis began to attract more nationwide attention. New units began to be established in New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Evansville, Indiana; Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, to mention only a few.
The Ladies of Charity began to have many members and many outlets for their service to the poor. There was a recognized need, however, to unite these numerous groups with each other and with a worldwide organization. The movement toward unity and fidelity with the parent organization began with applications for affiliation to Paris and to the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity. Groups of the Ladies of Charity in the United States began to be affiliated with the parent organization in 1910. And, beginning in 1921, representatives of various affiliated units throughout the country were invited to an annual meeting in St. Louis. Instrumental in this movement toward unity was Marie Harkins, granddaughter of the first American Lady of Charity, who served as President of the society until her death in 1948.
Although these annual meetings served to unify the various units of the Ladies of Charity, there was as yet no National Association. With the approach of the society’s centennial celebration in 1957, and later, the success of that meeting attended by 350 Ladies of Charity from 22 states, 50 Daughters of Charity, and 20 Vincentians, the Ladies voted unanimously to form a more lasting bond through a national organization. After three years of planning, Constitutions and By-laws were adopted and the Association of Ladies of Charity of the United States came into being.
Just 12 years later, recognizing that the call for unity of purpose required an internationalization of the charism, the Ladies of Charity joined associations around the world and formed, in 1972, the International Association Charities (AIC). Thus the tiny mustard seed sown by St. Vincent de Paul in 1617 has become a huge tree that extends its branches to more than 50 countries with a worldwide lay membership measuring in the hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
III. On towards the future
The need for revitalization is ongoing. Enthusiastic pioneers age, become ill, and die. Beloved institutions close, neighborhoods change, apostolates are taken over by professionals or funded groups, the faces of the poor keep surfacing in newer guises. To endure, an organization like the Ladies of Charity needs a variety of service options, active recruitment of new members, a stream of funding options, strong spiritual commitment to its original Vincentian purpose, and dynamic, far-seeing leadership. All this goes without saying.
What still remains to be said, perhaps, is this: how will the charitable acts of the Ladies of Charity in the United States be linked to others, and how can they generate still further charity, with more effective results? The task of identifying and responding to the needs of the poor is always with us. But it is not the only task. As St. Vincent demonstrated, the next step is to organize the great charity that wells up from sheer human goodness, and to make it effective.
Allow me to suggest, by way of conclusion, three challenges for the Ladies of Charity in this 21st century.
First, there is the challenge of keeping the organization, its leaders and members, unselfishly committed to the mission. For this challenge to be met, there is a need to deepen the relationships with the rest of the Vincentian Family in the United States and worldwide, since we are all united under one charism, to serve the poor, faithfully following Jesus Christ after the mind and heart of St. Vincent de Paul.
Secondly, there is the challenge of linking and collaborating with the International Association of Charities (AIC). This move toward internationality makes its members more aware of the vast potential for serving the poor: working to eliminate unjust structures, advocating for immigrant groups, promoting the rights and dignity of women and children, participating in the NGO of the AIC before the United Nations, educating and forming the poor to stand on their own two feet as God’s children. The poor are always with us, it is true. What is equally true, is the vast potential available to us for serving the poor through the links we have with the AIC.
The final challenge is keeping the vision of our founders alive. St. Vincent was constant in the goals, but flexible in his means. For us that constancy means that our charity must be healing. And it will be healing if it continues to be grounded in genuine love and respect for the person receiving it. As one writer opined of St. Vincent, “the poor could forgive him the bread he gave them.” Flexibility is important too. Service of the poor is a great plain that can be reached from many different directions. Whether we come to that plain from the east or west, north or south, matters not too much, as long as we arrive at, and collaborate on, the common task of loving and serving the poor.
I congratulate you on your 150th anniversary. May your devoted accompaniment of the poor continue to fill your hearts with joy and gladness. I applaud and salute you in the name of the entire Vincentian Family.
Allow me to conclude with the words of that remarkable woman, St. Louise de Marillac: “You see a great deal of distress that you are unable to relieve. God sees it also. Bear the pains of the poor together with them, doing all you can to give them whatever help you can, and remain in peace.”
G. Gregory Gay, C.M.
Congregation of the Mission and
Company of the Daughters of Charity
Sources for this talk:
1. The entire issue of Vincentian Heritage (Vol. 23-25, number 2; Vol. 26, number 1, 2005) especially the articles by Thomas G. Fuechtmann; John Rybolt, CM; Betty Ann McNeil, DC; and Thomas McKenna, CM.
2. CCD, 13b.
3. Various short articles on LCUSA provided by Kieran Kneaves, DC, especially that of Colette Padberg on the Ladies of Charity.
NB sources generally quoted without attribution.