CHAPTER NINE: The Founding of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor
We will not repeat here what has already been said in Book One1 about the origins of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor, and the circumstances which brought about their foundation. We will not develop further the thought that Monsieur Vincent brought to this enterprise only his fidelity to the designs of God’s providence. This led him to become, almost without conscious effort on his part, the originator of this charitable organization, and the spiritual father of these virtuous women.
We will speak here only of some things worthy of remark not reported in Book One about this devoted community, since raised to the status of a congregation by the late archbishop of Paris by the following letter of incorporation:
Because of the blessings God has bestowed on the work of our beloved Vincent de Paul to further this pious enterprise, we have confided to him and commissioned him by these present letters to undertake the guidance and direction of this society and community for as long as he shall live. We extend this commission to those who, after his death, shall succeed him as superior general of the Congregation of the Mission.2 Later, the king confirmed this appointment, and the Parlement of Paris confirmed and registered it.
Seeing himself thus charged so providentially with the care of this work, he gave it his full attention and concern to perfect it as much as he could. His first thought was to propose to these virtuous women that they should regard as their primary objective the service of Jesus Christ spiritually and corporally in the persons of the sick poor, whether men or women, despite their shyness or the urgency of their needs. To make themselves worthy servants of their Lord in such a holy service they must work strenuously at their own sanctification. They should give all their service in the spirit of humility, simplicity, charity, and in union with our Lord Jesus Christ, excluding all vanity, human respect, self-love, and natural satisfactions.
He strongly recommended several other virtues he judged most necessary in their condition, such as obedience to their superiors and to the pastors of the parishes; indifference about the place, work, and persons with whom they worked; poverty, as a means to acquire a love for the poor as their servants; patience, to bear willingly and for the love of God the inconveniences, contradictions, mockeries, calumnies, and other mortifications which would surely befall them, even for having tried to do good, regarding all this as a sharing of the cross of Christ upon earth, so as to live gloriously one day with him in heaven.
It will not be necessary to go into much detail about their rule. It sought to encourage mental prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments, annual retreats, spiritual conferences, union and mutual charity among themselves, common life in dress and activities, and a most careful modesty.
Besides the rules common to all, Monsieur Vincent left others written for each particular office. These pointed out what should be done in whatever place they happened to be, in the cities or in the villages, or in their contacts with the ladies, or others for whom they worked, and in regard to the poor themselves whom they sought to serve and teach. There were six of these special rules, the first for the sisters who served the sick in the parishes; the second was for those who taught school; the third for those who took care of abandoned children; the fourth for those who helped the ladies who served the poor in the Hotel Dieu in Paris; the fifth for the sisters who served in the hospital reserved for convicts condemned to the galleys; the sixth for those who served the sick in other hospitals of the kingdom. These rules stressed the dangerous situations they should avoid, the precautions they must take, and the attitudes they must have so as to do and say, even in the least circumstances, whatever would help them do their duties well: feeding, bandaging, dosing, cleaning, edifying, consoling, and reprimanding the poor of all sorts, old and young, well or sick.
It could be said these rules of Monsieur Vincent were definitive, for he was in no hurry to produce them. He wanted God alone to be their author, and human considerations to have no importance, except in their observance. They were the fruit of long experience, aided by the most enlightened advice of Mademoiselle le Gras and always with service to all sorts of poor people as the primary objective.
These rules assured that the Daughters of Charity served the poor to the satisfaction of everyone, and they were soon being requested from all sides. Several cities among the major ones of the kingdom asked for them, as did many lords and ladies who wanted them to come to their lands. These requests were satisfied as much as the growth of this Company allowed, which was great, by God’s mercy. The Congregation provided an excellent opportunity for widows or other women who wished to withdraw from the world, to assure their own salvation by these works of charity for others. This was chiefly so for those who wished to become religious, but who did not have a dowry. The Daughters of Charity had no such requirement. The only thing asked of them, besides their first dress, was a worthy disposition of body and soul to respond to such a holy calling. This calling cannot be appreciated by those lacking in charity, but Monsieur Vincent extolled it in these words:
A Daughter of Charity has greater need of virtue than even the most austere religious. No other congregation asks more of their members than does theirs. They must work at their own perfection like the Carmelites and other similar orders. In the care of the sick they serve like the religious of the Hotel Dieu of Paris, or of other nursing communities. In the education of poor girls they are as devoted as the Ursulines.3
We cite here several sections of the rule of Monsieur Vincent for sisters working for the sick poor in the parishes:
They must remember that, although they are not properly called religious, because this state is not suitable for their particular calling, they are much more exposed to dangers than cloistered religious living behind their grilles. Their convents are the houses of the sick. Their cells are the sickrooms of the poor, and even these are often rented. Their chapel is the parish church. Their cloister is the street of the town. Their enclosure is holy obedience. Their grille is the fear of God and their veil, holy modesty. For all these reasons they must have greater virtue than if they were professed religious in one of the orders. This is why they must try to act wherever they are with such reserve, recollection, and edification as true religious do in their own convents. To obtain this grace from God they must strive to attain all the virtues recommended and stipulated in their rules. This is particularly true of the virtue of profound humility, perfect obedience, and a great detachment from creatures. Above all else, they must use every precaution to preserve perfect chastity of body and heart.
They should think often of why God has sent them to this parish, which is to serve the sick poor, not only in body by feeding them and giving them their medicines, but spiritually as well, seeing that they receive the sacraments in time. Those about to die should be helped to die in good grace, while those who recover should be helped to resolve firmly to lead a good life in the future. To help them attain these spiritual benefits, the sisters should do what they can in the little time they have, depending on the condition of the sick persons they serve. They should strive to console, encourage, and teach the sick what is required for salvation, helping them make acts of faith, hope, and charity towards God and the neighbor, and of contrition, urging them to forgive their enemies and to ask pardon of those they have offended. They should help the sick to resign themselves to God’s will whether it be to suffer or to recover, to live or to die, and other similar acts, not all at once, but a few each day, and as concisely as possible so as not to weary the sick ones.
Above all else the Daughters should help their patients make a good general confession of their entire lives, especially if there is danger they will die from their illness. They should point out the importance of making this general confession and how to make it. Among other things they should tell them to confess not only their sins committed since their last confession, but those of their entire lives, even though they may have been confessed before. If they are not in a condition to make this confession of all their past, they should at least have a sorrow for all their sins, with a firm purpose of preferring death to sinning again, helped by the grace of God.
If the sick recover but then suffer a relapse, they should be urged to receive the sacraments again, even extreme unction, and the sisters should help them do so. If they are about to die, the Daughters should help them to die well, using some of the acts mentioned before, and praying to God for them.
Should the sick be cured, the Daughters should urge them to profit from their sickness and their cure. They will point out that God allowed their sickness of body to bring health to their souls, and has restored them to well-being to enable them to do penance and lead a good Christian life. Good resolutions are required to do all this, so they should help them make strong ones or renew those they made when they first recovered. They should suggest some practices to help them, depending on their dispositions, such as praying to God while kneeling morning and evening, confession and communion several times a year, avoiding the occasions of sin, and so forth. All this should be done briefly, simply, and humbly.
To avoid any difficulty which these spiritual ministrations might cause by delaying the bringing of food or medicine to the other sick, they should be careful to regulate their time and exercises according to the number and needs of the sick. Since their duties are usually less pressing in the evening than in the morning they might use this time in teaching their patients or in exhorting them to the spiritual exercises spoken of, particularly when bringing them some medicine.
In serving the sick they should have God alone in view, accepting praise and blame with the same equanimity. They should interiorly reject the praise, but accept the blame in honor of the abuse heaped on the Son of God upon the cross, even from those he had so blessed and favored.
They should accept no present from the poor they serve, no matter how small it might be, remembering they are obligated to this service to the poor. They owe them still more, for the small services they render must be given with affection, rejoicing the angels of heaven, who one day will receive them into the eternal kingdom. Even in this life they receive more honor and true happiness than they could ever have dared hope for, especially because of their own unworthiness.
These were the main regulations Monsieur Vincent gave these virtuous women, from which we can judge the spirit he engendered in them and the high degree of perfection to which he called them. We see too, the spirit with which he himself was filled, and how abundant were the lights and graces given him by God for the direction of others.
He gave the Daughters some good advice also in regard to their contacts with certain other persons in particular, as for example, the priests in the parishes where they lived. He recommended they have a great respect for them, but not to visit with them or speak with them outside the confessional, except out of necessity. They were never to go alone to their houses nor receive them in their own houses. They were not to tend to them in their sicknesses nor provide medicines for them. They were not to take care of washing the surplices, albs or other altar linens, nor to clean or decorate the church and altars or other similar things. Although these were good and holy services, they were not in keeping with the goals of their institute and would detract from their care of the poor.
In regard to laity of whatever rank, he recommended that the Daughters not visit them unless it were necessary, nor to waste time or become too familiar with them. If they fell sick, the Daughters were not to tend to them or care for their children, servants, and domestics. They were not to become involved in their affairs, their household, or in giving them medicine. All this was contrary to the spirit of their institute, which was to be devoted to the poor and not to the rich. All these recommendations were more important than they first appeared, because the occupations he forbade were ordinarily easier, more agreeable, and more honorable in the sight of others, and were more attractive to the natural inclinations of the Daughters. If the Daughters followed them, they would little by little depart from what our Lord was asking of them, and for which their little Company was founded.
Besides the parishes in which these good women worked for the sick poor, five hospitals in Paris gave the same services: (1) The Hotel Dieu, where they helped the ladies who visited the sick. (2) The foundling hospital, where there was much opportunity for them to show their charity, for each year three or four hundred of these children were cared for admirably. (3) The hospital for those condemned to the galleys, where they had occasion to practice the works of mercy most abundantly, for the patients were as miserable in soul and body as could be imagined. The sisters sent to work here required extraordinary graces of God to succeed in this attempt. Monsieur Vincent wrote a set of suggestions for them to help in this difficult assignment. (4) The hospital of the Petites Maisons, where they looked after, cleaned and fed those poor who were unsound in mind. These were numerous, both men and women, some of whom were sick, but all were treated most considerately and charitably. The administrators of this hospital acknowledged that the Daughters had put an end to many disorders, including the serious financial loss of the institution, but especially the lack of care of the patients themselves. The administrators were most edified and satisfied with their contribution to the welfare of the hospital. (5) The hospital of Name of Jesus, where these charitable women housed and cared for aged men and women.4
Besides these hospitals in the city of Paris and all the parishes where they worked either in Paris or in other places in France, they served the poor in many other hospitals, such as those of Angers, Chartres, Chateaudun, Hennebon, Saint Fargeau, Ussel, Cahors, Gex, etc., and in Poland, in the city of Warsaw. In all these places they served the poor with much blessing from the hands of God. We will give here only one letter from Monsieur Vincent to Mademoiselle le Gras, discussing sending three Daughters to work in Poitou:
I pray that our Lord will bless our three dear sisters, and make them share the spirit he has given the saintly ladies who accompany them, and who cooperate in his solicitude for the sick poor and for the instruction of children. O good God, what happiness for these good Daughters to go where they are sent, to continue the charity which our Lord displayed when he was on earth! How the heavens must rejoice at this! The praises they shall receive in the next life are admirable! With what holy confidence they will appear before the throne of judgment after so many holy works of charity!5 It seems to me the crowns and empires of the earth are but of clay in comparison with the merit and glory we confidently expect they will receive one day as their crown.
It remains only that, in the spirit of the holy Virgin, they travel and do their work, having her ever before their eyes and doing always what this most blessed Lady would have done in their place. I hope they will reflect above all on her love and humility. I hope they will be humble toward God, cordial among themselves, agreeable to all, and edifying to all who meet them. I trust they will be faithful to their morning prayers, if they can do so before the stage leaves, or along the way, if not. They must say their rosary, and carry some book of piety they might read. They should contribute to conversations which refer to God, but have nothing to do with worldly talk, especially with those who are too free. They must be adamant against any men who would strive to be too familiar with them.
After arriving at their destination, they should first visit the blessed sacrament, and then see the pastor to receive his directions in regard to the sick and the children of the school. They will do what they can to benefit the souls of the sick poor while they are treating their illnesses. They shall follow the orders of the charity officials, and be careful to esteem and practice their own regulations. They should go to confession every eight days. Following all these suggestions, they will see they have led a saintly life, and although they are but poor women upon earth, they shall become great queens in heaven. This is what I pray for to God.6
Since in all the hospitals in which they served there were often a great number of sick and usually there were only a few sisters in each, the sisters were often overburdened. One of them wrote of this in a letter to Monsieur Vincent:
Monsieur, the work is overwhelming us, and we surely will succumb if we are not relieved. I am writing to you in the evening while looking after two dying persons, because I have no opportunity to do so during the day. While watching at their bedside I am attempting to write. I say to one, “My dear friend, raise your heart to God, and beg his mercy.” Then, I write a line or two of my letter, then go to the bedside of the other to say, “Jesus, Mary, My God, I trust in you.” Then I return to my letter, and so I come and go, writing snatches to you, divided in spirit. I write to ask you most humbly to send us another sister to help us.7 Monsieur Vincent, reading this letter, admired the spirit of this woman, who in her natural eloquence expressed her need so forcefully that she persuaded him to send some help.
What put the finishing touches to the charity of these good women was the work they undertook in obedience and with sincere affection, not only in the places of which we have spoken, but also in the hospitals of the armies to which their charitable and zealous superior sent them. There they took care of the wounded soldiers and other sick, such as at Rethel during its siege, and later at Calais during the siege at Dunkirk, where two of the sisters gave up their lives in their dedication to charity.
Monsieur Vincent recommended these good women to the prayers of his community on one occasion:
I recommend to your prayers the Daughters of Charity whom we have sent to Calais to care for the wounded soldiers. Four of them went, but two have died, the two most robust and strongest of the group have fallen under the burden. Imagine if you can, gentlemen, these four poor women among the five or six hundred wounded or sick soldiers. You can see something of the goodness of God and his providence, that in these times he has raised up such a congregation. Why? To help the poor in body and spirit, by saying a word or two to bring them to think of their own salvation, particularly the dying, to help them die well by making acts of contrition and trust in God. In truth, gentlemen, this is touching. Does it not seem to you to be a great thing that these women with such courage and resolution go among the soldiers to relieve them in their needs and contribute to their salvation? They go in face of enormous obstacles and despite such dangerous illnesses, and even in the face of death, for the benefit of these men exposed to all the dangers of war, for the good of the state.
We can see how much these poor women are filled with zeal for the glory of God and for assistance to their neighbor. The queen has done us the honor to write to us to ask us to send others to Calais to help the poor soldiers. Today, we sent four to help out. One of them, about fifty years of age, came to see me last Friday at the Hotel Dieu, to tell me she had just heard of the death of two of her sisters at Calais. She offered to go in their place, if I would agree. I told her I would think about it. Yesterday she came to learn what I had decided.
You see, gentlemen and my brothers, the courage of these women, to offer themselves this way, and to offer their very lives as victims for the love of Jesus Christ and the good of their neighbor. Is that not admirable? As for myself, I do not know what to say, except that on the day of judgment these women will be my judges. Yes, these women shall be our judges, if we like them are not willing to risk our lives for God. Since our own Congregation has a connection with theirs, in that God used the Congregation of the Mission to begin their congregation, we must thank God for all the graces he has given them. We should pray that in his infinite goodness he will continue his blessings in the future.
You can hardly believe how greatly God has blessed these good Daughters, and how many places have asked for their help. A bishop asked for sisters to staff three hospitals, another for two, and a third asked also only three days ago, pressuring me to send some. But how? We cannot, for we do not have enough. Just the other day I asked a pastor with some sisters in his parish how they were doing. I dare not report to you the good things he said about the sisters. Some are better than others. It is not that they have no faults. Alas! Who does not have some? But that does not prevent them from showing mercy, that beautiful virtue of which it is said that it is the nature of God to be merciful.
We too exhibit mercy, and we should do so for our entire lives, corporal mercy, spiritual mercy, mercy in the countryside on our missions, serving the needs of our neighbor, mercy in the house for those on retreat here, and in regard to the poor, and on all other occasions God presents us the opportunity. In a word, we should be men of mercy if we wish to do the will of God, in all and by all.8
We should not omit mentioning something of importance here. Just as the first missions given by Monsieur Vincent in the parishes of the villages gave birth to the Congregation of the Mission, so too the Confraternities of Charity which he organized in the parishes developed into the Company of the Daughters of Charity. These came about by no previous design but by the secret order of divine Providence. After God, the founding of these two congregations, their development, their usefulness, their regulations, and their customs, all came from the zeal, prudence, and piety of this wise founder. He saw them come to light from his own work, and developed them by his careful guidance in the sure ways of the holy Gospel. He consecrated both to the love of God and neighbor in an effective and practical way, embracing all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is the road he himself walked. This is the path he traced out for the men and women he guided if they were to acquire the perfection of their state.
To see the relationship between these two congregations, recalling the spirit of the first Christians of the early Church, we will cite here a letter he wrote to a priest of his Congregation. The priest had wondered why the missionaries, with their rule of not taking on the direction of women religious, still accepted the guidance of the Daughters of Charity. Monsieur Vincent answered at some length, in a letter of February 7, 1660:
I thank God for the reactions he has inspired in you to my letter about religious. I am much consoled in seeing that you appreciate the reasons the Congregation has for not taking on this service, to be free to serve the poor more fully.
Since you are anxious to know why we undertake the care of the Daughters of Charity, even though by rule we do not accept the direction of women religious, I reply:
(1) I must say, Monsieur, that we do not have anything to do with the direction of religious. On the contrary, we praise those who give themselves to this service of these spouses of Christ who have renounced the world and its vanities to unite themselves to their sovereign lord. But what is praiseworthy for other priests is not expedient for us.
(2) The Daughters of Charity are not religious but lay women. They are members of their parishes under the care of the pastor where they have been established. If we have the direction of their houses, it is because God used our Company to help bring theirs to life. You are aware that the same causes which God uses to give being to things he uses to preserve them.
(3) Our little Congregation is consecrated to God to serve the poor, corporally and spiritually, and this from its very beginning. Also as it strives to work for the salvation of souls by the missions, it has tried to help the sick by the Confraternities of Charity. The Holy See has approved this way of acting by its bull of confirmation of our Congregation.
Since the virtue of mercy has different aspects, the Congregation has exercised it in various ways for helping the poor. Think of the dedication to the convicts in the galleys or the Christian slaves in Barbary. Consider what was done in Lorraine at the time of its great trial, and later, in the ruined areas of the provinces of Champagne and Picardy, where we still have one of our members distributing alms. You yourself are witness, Monsieur, to the help we gave to the people near Paris, stricken by famine and the plague following the invasion of the armies. You played your part in this great work, and you were at the point of death. Many gave their own lives to conserve the lives of the suffering members of Jesus Christ, who is now their reward and one day will be yours as well. The Ladies of Charity of Paris are also witnesses to the grace of our vocation, in our working with them in the many good works they do, inside and outside the city.
All this being understood, Providence brought the Daughters of Charity into being to enable us to do by their hands what we could not otherwise do in serving the bodily needs of the sick poor, and saying a word or two of instruction and encouragement as helps to their salvation. We have the obligation to help them advance in virtue that they may carry out well their charitable services.
There is a difference between them and religious, in that most religious have as their goal their own perfection, but these women, like ourselves, are committed to the salvation and relief of the neighbor. In saying this I am not saying anything contrary to the Gospel, but in keeping with the practice of the early Church. Our Lord looked after some women who followed him on his journeys. We see in the Acts of the Apostles that they administered the distribution of food to the faithful and were regarded as an integral part of the Church structure.
If it should be said that it is dangerous for us to speak with these women, I would reply that we have taken care of that as best we can, by the directive not to visit them in their houses in the parishes without necessity and without the express permission of the superior. They too have a rule to make their cell a cloister and never allow men to enter.
I trust, Monsieur, that the way I have responded to your difficulties will satisfy you.9
Monsieur Vincent gave spiritual conferences to these eighty or a hundred women who served in the hospitals and parishes of Paris. He called them together to the house of their superior, and alerted them in writing of the topic to be discussed so they could make their mental prayer on this same subject. He ordinarily would ask several to speak, to prepare their minds for the spiritual message he was to give, and to share with the others the good thoughts God had given them. This helped these women see better the importance of a Christian and perfect life to which he hoped to lead them. He would end by speaking for a half hour, or sometimes for an hour or more. His talk was so suited to their needs and condition, so clear and persuasive that they retained most of what he said and became more interior and spiritual by practicing what he taught. The sisters collected more than a hundred of these talks of their good father which they read and reread, awaiting the day when they could be published for the benefit of those living far from the motherhouse.
- Ch. 24.
- CED XIII:572. The first approbation of the Daughters of Charity, given by the archbishop of Paris in 1646, was somehow lost, together with the royal letters patent. Saint Vincent thus had to present a second request in 1655. This approval is one Abelly cites here. An important modification was introduced in this new request: that the Daughters of Charity be placed under the perpetual direction of Vincent de Paul and his successors as superiors general of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent, who characteristically had feared anticipating Divine Providence, had himself been reluctant to agree to this provision. Louise de Marillac perceived that leaving the choice of director after Saint Vincent to the authority of the archbishop of Paris would eventually lead to its withdrawal from Vincent’s spiritual family. She was unshakeable in this conviction, and worked long and hard to convince Vincent. See CED III:254-55; IV:220-22. He finally agreed at her continued insistence, and Cardinal de Retz, the archbishop of Paris, gave his approval on January 18, 1655. See CED XIII, 569-72, 572-77. The somewhat revised statutes, approved by the archbishop, were confirmed in the name of the pope by his legate, Cardinal de Vendome, June 8, 1668.
- CED X:143-45.
- CED X:131-36.
- The original text of this sentence is shorter: “How they will go, with head raised, to the day of judgment.”
- CED I:513-14.
- CED IX:389.
- CED XII:39-40. In 1654 and 1656, the queen appealed to the Daughters of Charity to care for wounded and sick soldiers. In 1658 after the battle of the dunes, which accompanied the siege at Dunkirk, six or seven hundred wounded or sick soldiers were sent to Calais. Anne of Austria who was present at these places was touched by what she saw, and she requested that the Daughters of Charity be sent to help them. Saint Vincent chose four sisters for this mission. See CED X, 548-56. These events serve as the background to the saint’s comments as reported by Abelly.
- CED VIII:237-38.