CHAPTER TEN: The Assemblies of the Ladies of Charity of Paris
We have already spoken enough in Book One1 of the origins and progress of this devout assembly of Ladies of Charity of Paris. They have always recognized Monsieur Vincent, after God, as their founder and most prudent director. This chapter will serve merely to supplement what has already been said and will include some things that we feel should not be omitted.
We should remark first that these ladies came together to help the poor of the Hotel Dieu, but their charity was not limited solely to that work. By a singular grace from God, and through the help of their director, he led them to undertake several other important services for the glory of God, the service of his Church, and the salvation of souls. Besides what they did for the sick of the Hotel Dieu and for the orderly running of the hospital, they took in hand the feeding and education of the poor abandoned children of the city and suburbs of Paris. Previously, these children were utterly abandoned. Now they owed their lives and spiritual growth, and the possibility of leading a good Christian life and so their salvation, to the charity of these ladies.
They established the house of the Daughters of Providence to receive, educate, train and protect some young women.2 Were it not for this refuge they would have been in great danger, since there was nowhere else for them to go in the city of Paris.
God used these same noble ladies to lay the foundation stones of the General Hospital, as described in Book One.3 It was established at Sainte Reine, where the works of mercy owed their origin to the charity of these ladies.4
They also contributed notably to the establishment and maintenance of several missions in foreign countries, in the isles of the distant Hebrides and in Madagascar. Their zeal extended even to the Indies, where they supported the sending of several missionaries. Besides, they contributed to paying the expenses of the bishops of Heliopolis, Beirut, and Metellopolis.5 With the blessing of the Apostolic See, they set out for China and the Far East to work for the conversion of infidels and the building up of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
They worked with tireless charity at unbelievable expense during the recent wars, helping those afflicted by the scourge of war in the provinces of Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy, and many other places, as we shall see in the next chapter.
These virtuous ladies did all these vast projects and holy works with order, humility, discretion, zeal, and admirable perseverance, under the wise guidance of Monsieur Vincent. He conveyed his own spirit to this devout company and inspired in them the same fervor and charity with which he was so filled. We shall report here, as a permanent record of his direction, what he said in a meeting with these women in an extraordinary general assembly held in the home of the Duchess d’Aiguillon, their superior at the time. It was taken down in secret by one of the missionaries who accompanied him on this occasion. The reader will be consoled to see the prudence and piety of Monsieur Vincent and his way of convincing the women of the assembly. In addition, the diversity and quantity of items covered by him show how much good he was able to do for and with them.
After invoking while kneeling the Holy Spirit by the hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus, he spoke to them as follows:
Ladies, there are three things we would like to speak about in this assembly. The first concerns the election of new officers, if you judge it appropriate. The second, a report on the works God has accomplished through the Company. The third, ladies, will be to consider the reasons we must surrender to the goodness of God so he may give us the grace to support and continue the good works we have begun.
The elections were discussed in the ordinary assembly last Friday, attended by the officers and some other ladies. The officers were of the opinion there should be new elections, but the others thought the officers should continue to serve until Easter. Since you, ladies, have the deliberative voice in this matter, we will vote at the end of this conference to see if you prefer to keep your present officers or if we should proceed to a new election.
Concerning our present state of affairs, let us begin with the Hotel Dieu, if we may. We began our Company there and it is the foundation upon which it has pleased God to establish the other good works we are involved with. It is the source of all the other good we have done.
With these words he took in hand a report of the receipts and expenses, which he read aloud. It showed that the expenses of the food brought to the poor every day for the past year since the last general assembly amounted to 5000 livres, while the income was 3500 livres, leaving a deficit of 1500 livres. Then, resuming his talk, he continued:
This comes from the death of several of our members who have not been replaced by others. We have come together, ladies, to see if there are some ways we can assure the continuance of this work. It has now lasted for several years through the efforts of many, but mainly of God. He blessed it so that we have great reason to thank him.
Oh, ladies, how we should thank God for inspiring you to care for the bodily needs of these poor sick. The help you have given them has had this effect of God’s grace in you, that you have thought of their eternal salvation. Most of them would otherwise never have done so, and so you have prepared them for a happy death. Those who have recovered would never even have thought of amending their lives, were it not for your efforts.
He then read the expenses of the help sent to Champagne and Picardy, from July 15, 1650 to the day of their last general assembly, 348,000 livres was sent and distributed to the poor. Since then, from the general assembly till today, 19,500 livres were sent, about the same as preceding years. He then continued:
This money was sent to feed the sick poor to support around eight hundred orphan children, boys and girls, from the devastated towns. They were instructed in a trade, after having been clothed and educated, or taught how to serve some function in a household. Many pastors were supported in their ruined parishes who otherwise they would have had to leave for want of food. Lastly, the money was used to renovate to some degree several churches which were in such a ruined state you cannot even speak of them without shuddering in horror.
This money has been distributed to places in the towns and regions of Reims, Rethel, Laon, Saint Quentin, Ham, Marles, Senlis and Arras.
If you add to that the clothes, linens, blankets, shirts, albs, chasubles, missals, ciboria, etc., it comes to a large sum.
Certainly, ladies, we can only admire the great number of these items of clothing for men, women, and children, and even for the priests, not to mention the items for the pillaged churches. They were so damaged and reduced to such a poverty that the sacred mysteries could not have been celebrated in them without this aid. Without it, sacred places would have been suited for profane uses alone. If you had visited the homes of the ladies responsible for collecting used clothing you would have thought you were in a storehouse or in the shop of a prosperous merchant.
Blessed be God, ladies, for having given you the grace to clothe our Lord in his poor members, most of whom were in rags, and some children were as bare as my hand. The clothes of some women and girls were so scanty that no one with even the least bit of decency would have looked at them. All were threatened with death from the cold during the winter. How much you are obligated to God for having inspired you and given you the means to meet such pressing needs! How many of the sick have you saved from death! They were left by everyone, sleeping on the ground, exposed to the elements, and reduced to the last extremity by the soldiers and by the scarcity of the harvest. It is true their misery is not so great now as it was several years ago, and yet we continue to send about 16,000 livres a month.
Even now, in view of the danger the poor run of dying if something is not done promptly, encourage one another in your efforts to help them. However, because the times have improved this last year or two, the alms for their support have greatly fallen off. We still have nearly eighty churches in ruins, and the poor have to travel far to hear mass. Do you see where we are? We have to begin to work at this, trusting in God’s Providence for our Company.
Ladies, does not the recounting of these things wring your hearts? Are you not moved to thanksgiving to God for his goodness to you and towards the poor afflicted ones? His Providence spoke to some ladies of Paris to help two desolated provinces. Does that not seem strange to you? History does not tell us of anything similar happening to the ladies of Spain, or Italy, or other countries. This has been reserved for you, ladies, who are here now, and to several others who have gone to God, where they have found a full reward for such perfect charity. Eight of your number have died in the past year.
And concerning these deceased members, O Savior, who would have told them the last time they came together that God would call them before the next general assembly? What reflections would they not have made upon the brevity of this life and the importance of spending it well? How much they would have appreciated the practice of their good deeds! And what resolutions they would have taken to give themselves more than ever before, to the love of God and neighbor, with greater fervor and greater effort! Let us give ourselves to God, in keeping with these sentiments. They are now in glory, as we devoutly hope. They realize how good it is to serve God and to help the poor. At the judgment they will hear the comforting words of the Son of God: “Come you blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you, because when I was hungry you gave me to eat; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was sick, you visited and served me.”6 It is a fine thing, ladies, and for me too, to offer ourselves to God, to make ourselves worthy, as often as we have the occasion, of being among that happy number, and of having decided to do the good we would wish to have done, were this to be our last assembly. Just think, eight in one year! If you subtract the same number for each of the past years you would find the number remaining in the Company greatly reduced. At the beginning we had two or three hundred, but now we are reduced to a hundred and fifty. I recommend to your prayers these dear departed ones.
We turn now to the abandoned children, taken under your care. I see by the account of Madame de Bragelonne, your treasurer, that the receipts for the past year came to 16,248 livres, while the expenses were 17,221 livres. Looking at the number of these children in the care of nurses in the country or in the city, those who have been weaned, the older ones in trades or in domestic service, and those who remain in the hospital, it comes in all to 395.
It seems the number abandoned each year remains about the same, on the average about one a day. If you will, ladies, look at the order in this disorder. What great good you do in taking care of these little deserted creatures, abandoned by their own mothers to be brought up, educated, taught how to earn their livelihood, and to work out their salvation. Before you took up this work the canons of Notre Dame pressured you. Since this work was so complicated, you thought it out carefully and finally you took it up, recognizing it would be most pleasing to God, as has been borne out since. Before that, it had never been known in the previous fifty years that a single one of these abandoned children survived, dying from one cause or another. It was to you, ladies, that God reserved the grace to save a large number and to enable them to live well. You taught them to speak and to pray to God. You kept them busy, each one according to each one’s own age or abilities. You looked after them, and guided them, correcting them in good time when required by their evil inclinations. They were happy to have fallen into your hands, and they would have been miserable with their own parents, who for the most part were either very poor or possibly vicious. You only have to see how they spend their day to see the fruits of your care. It is of such importance you have every reason in the world, ladies, to thank God for having confided it to you.
It remains for me to say a few words about renewing our dedication to these works of charity the mercy of God has brought to their present state. We will see their results only in heaven. We are obliged, I say, all of us here, enrolled in this holy militia, to continue and even augment our first fervor. Those not yet members of the Company should do what they can to support and develop these projects so much in keeping with what our Lord did, and recommended in favor of the poor.
The first motive for this is that your Company is a work of God and is not of human making. I have said before that others do not know how to achieve what you have done. God is involved, and in fact all good comes from God. He is the author of all these good works. Everything must be referred to the God of Virtue and the Father of Mercies. To what do we attribute the light of the stars but to the sun from which it comes? To whom do we attribute the idea of your Company but to the Father of Mercies and the God of all Consolation, who has chosen you as persons of consolation and mercy? God never calls anyone to a position if he does not see in her the qualities needed to fulfill the calling or if he does not plan to give her these qualities. God, then, by his grace has called you and brought you together. His grace brought you to these three types of service, and not your own will, but the goodness he put in you. We surely then must stir up by every means the charity within us. What? God honored me by calling me, and I must hear his voice. God has destined me for these charitable enterprises and I must devote myself to them.
He did not will, ladies, that you should, like Simeon, see the Savior, but he does will that you hear his voice when he calls, if not blind, like Saint Paul, at least with joy and tenderness. To hear the call and not respond would be most unworthy of the grace of your vocation. I have seen the beginning of the work, I have seen God bless it. I have seen it begin by a simple meal brought to the sick, and now I have seen how it has grown in a way so mightily for his glory and for the advantage of the poor. Ha! Now I must support it. What hardness of heart, should there be anyone who would not contribute to the development of such great works as these.
The second motive is the fear that these works of charity might come to ruin at your hands. This would be, beyond doubt, a great disaster, ladies, all the greater because the grace of God has called you to this service which is something rare and extraordinary. It has been eight hundred years or thereabouts, since women have had any public office in the Church. There used to be what were called deaconesses. They preserved order among women in the churches and taught them the rites then in use. At the time of Charlemagne, by a secret decree of Providence, this custom stopped, and from that time women were allowed no public service in the Church. This same Providence today spoke to some women among us to serve the sick poor in the Hotel Dieu. You responded to this invitation, and soon other women joined the first ones. God then led them to become the mothers of abandoned children, the directors of their hospital, and the distributors of the alms of Paris for the needy in the provinces. These good souls have answered with ardor and constancy, by the grace of God. Ah, ladies, if all these works were now to fail in your hands, this would be a great sorrow. What desolation! What shame! What must we think of such a tragedy? How could it come about? Let each of you ask herself the question, is it I who have helped bring about the failure of this work? What is there in me that has made me unworthy to sustain it? Am I the cause of God withdrawing his graces? Without doubt, ladies, if we examine ourselves well, we fear we may not have done all we could to support this enterprise.
If you consider well its importance, you will cherish it as the apple of your eye or as the instrument of your salvation, and you will work for its advancement and perfection with the help of God. You will bring other women of your acquaintance too, for otherwise you will earn the reproach made to the man in the Gospel who began to build but was not able to finish. You will have laid the foundation of a work but you will have left it at that. This is all the more important if you consider your building as an ornament of the Church, and an asylum for the forsaken. If by your fault it were to fail, you would remove from the public a source of much edification and from the poor a great comfort.
The brother assigned to distribute your charitable alms told me, “Monsieur, the grain you sent to the frontiers has saved the lives of a large number of poor families. They had no seed saved for sowing and no one would lend them any. The fields were lying fallow, with many regions deserted because the people had either died or had fled away.” Twenty-two thousand livres worth of grain have been distributed during a single year to get them through the summer and the following winter. You can see, ladies, from the good you have accomplished how great would be the suffering should you allow your project to fail.
The third motive you should have for continuing these holy works is the honor they give to our Lord. How is this? Because we honor him by entering into his sentiments, appreciating them, doing what he did, and carrying out what he has ordained. His most cherished wish was to care for the poor: he cured them, consoled them, helped them, and urged others to do the same. This was his delight. He himself willed to be born poor, to live among the poor, serve the poor, take the place of the poor, up to the point of saying that the good and evil we do to them he considers as done to his divine Person. How could he show more tender love for the poor? What love could we have for him if we did not love those he loved so tenderly? So much so, ladies, that to love him well we must love the poor. To serve him well we must serve them. To honor him as we should, we must imitate him in his care for the poor. Considering all this, what motives there are to inspire us to continue these good works, and to say from the bottom of our hearts, yes, I commit myself to God to care for the poor and to support the charitable enterprises established in their favor. I will help them, love them, and recommend them to others. After the example of our Lord, I will love those who are consoled, and will cherish those who are visited and helped. If their gracious savior is honored by our imitation of him, how much greater is our honor for being likened to him? Does it not seem to you, ladies, that this is a powerful motive to renew in yourselves your first fervor? For myself I think that we ought to offer ourselves today to his divine Majesty that he would inspire us with his charity, so that henceforth we could say of us all that it is the charity of Jesus Christ that compels us.
These are motives enough for those who love God. It seems you might say to me, Monsieur, we are indeed persuaded of the importance of continuing what we have begun, for it is the end that crowns the work. We understand that we must not only serve God and help the poor, we must do so as best we possibly can. We now are seeking the means to do this, for we are resolved to do what we can to support these works and to continue our assemblies.
The first means I would present to you, ladies, is to have an interior and continuous desire to work at your own spiritual advancement and to live in as great perfection as possible. You must always have the lamp within you burning brightly, by which I mean the ardent desire to please the Lord and to obey him, or in a word, to live as true servants of God. Those in these dispositions will surely attract the grace of God, and our Lord himself, into their hearts and actions. Living this way, you will persevere in good works, because the Lord of mercy will continue to live in you. The maxims of the world are not in keeping with these thoughts. Nothing can so deprive you of the spirit of God as to live worldly lives, and the more a person does so, the more unworthy she makes herself to possess Jesus Christ. The Ladies of Charity ought to avoid this spirit of the world like you do the plague. They must declare themselves as members of the party of God and of charity. I say they must be entirely committed to God. Were someone just a bit given to this other spirit, it would not work out. God will not suffer a divided heart, he demands all. Yes, he demands all. My consolation is to be talking to souls that are fully given to him, separated from all that could harm them in his eyes.
Formerly, when we had to choose among those who wanted to enter our Company, we selected those who avoided games, the theater, or other dangerous pastimes, and who were not vain, but wished to be devoted to the service of God. We must have the faith to know that God will give his grace only to those who avoid high society and are united to him in their aspirations, prayers, and good works in such a way that everyone can see they are committed to serving God.
O Lord, are there many to be saved? There are two doors which open to the other life, one straight and narrow, the other wide open. Few go by the first, but many by the second. The saints tell us the large number refers to the worldly who follow their own uncontrolled appetites. These earn the anger and curse of God, according to what Saint Paul says: “If you live according the flesh you shall die.”7 Oh Lord, what a threat! We have reason to fear that we will be of that number, and be condemned. Yes, if we do not walk the narrow way.
The ladies who give themselves to God to live as true Christians by the observance of the commandments of God and who keep the rules of justice; the married, who live in obedience to their husbands; widows who live as widows; mothers who take care of their children; governesses who look after the serving boys and girls; all these, and those besides who do what the blessed bishop of Geneva advised, joining those companies and confraternities who strive to practice virtue, and do some exterior works of mercy or piety, leading to the mortification of the passions and to the love of God: these are the women who walk the way that leads to life. Join this company or confraternity, then, ladies, if you are not already enrolled, for it is committed to God alone to do only his will, and to serve him. If one’s concern is the husband, do it for God; care of the children, do it for God; working at some business, do it for God. This is the way to pass by the narrow gate that leads to salvation.
Our Lord dealt with three groups, his apostles, disciples, and the people. These last heard him for a while, but after a time returned to their homes. This forced our Lord to ask his disciples: “And you, do you want to abandon me also?” There are those, ladies, who see you following our Lord by the narrow way of the love of God and neighbor, and wish to imitate you. It seems such a beautiful way of life, but they find it difficult and turn away. Among those who followed our Lord, there were both women and men. They were faithful even to the cross. They were not apostles but in a middle state, and they later began caring for the temporal needs of the apostles, and contributing to their ministry. It is desirable that the Ladies of Charity take these devout women as their model.
There is no position in the world that equals the calling you have. You support the workers of the Gospel but also the needy faithful. This is your office, ladies, your portion. Bless God for his having called you to this work, and live as holy women. Have the tenderness and devotion of the blessed Joanna, the wife of Chuza, and the others of whom Saint Luke speaks.8 This is how you will enter the narrow gate that leads to life. You all will be saved, for as Saint Thomas says, no one can ever be lost in doing works of charity.
Let us put ourselves within the enclosure of this virtue, coming to the feet of our Lord, praying him to expand in our hearts his light and warmth that we may bring to a happy conclusion the work we have begun. Not to do tomorrow what we have done today is to slip back. In the spiritual life we must always go forward, and we do so by not putting aside the good we have been doing. May it please God to preserve you in your good deeds, to live as true mothers who never abandon their children! You are the mothers of the poor, just as our Lord is their father. He made himself like to them and came to preach to them, help them, and recommend them to our care. Do the same, visiting the holy places, I mean the hospitals, and virtuous persons, the members of your own Company, and this will be a sign of your own predestination. It will be a way for you to advance in virtue, a way to attract others, and the chosen way to make your Company prosper, to the glory of God and the edification of the people.
Another way to preserve your Company is to moderate your activities, for a proverb says, he who holds on to too much grasps poorly. It has happened in some other companies or confraternities, in several communities, and even in entire orders, that by attempting too much they have succumbed under the burden. Virtue stands in the middle, between the opposite vices of excess and defect. For example, if under the pretext of charity you would try to do every possible good for another, allowing nothing to pass when you see you could do something, you would fall into a vice, just as much as the person who would do nothing would fall into the opposite vice. Theologians tell us it is just as dangerous to fail by excess as it is by defect. Ordinarily the devil tempts charitable people to excess in their charity, knowing that sooner or later they will succumb. Have you never seen persons too loaded down who fall under their burden? It could happen that a whole company could fail, if it attempts too much.
We see this ourselves in the fourteen ladies of the Company who go two by two to the Hotel Dieu to visit and console the sick poor. They do much good and others bring some small refreshments every day to the sick. The work is divided up to console and instruct the poor women and sick girls in their beds or wherever they happen to be. It has been difficult to keep up this visitation, and there are some things hard to overcome, so that it has become difficult to get volunteers for this service.
The help given to the border regions and the invaded provinces is great. It is almost unknown that a group of women would gather together to help regions of the country reduced to such extreme necessity, by sending large sums of money and food and clothing for a large number of poor men and women of all conditions and ages. We have never before read of such persons joining forces to do what you ladies have done. We must be careful not to overburden ourselves, and so perhaps leave aside some important work, and allow the whole enterprise to fail. Someone said to me recently, God is all powerful, but we are weak. We seek virtue by doing more. But virtue is not found simply in doing more. Saint Peter converted five thousand in a single sermon, while our Lord preached several times and perhaps converted not a single person. He even said himself that those who believed in him would do more than he himself had done. He willed to be more humble in undertaking less. A loaded stomach does not digest well. A porter will lift his load first before putting it on his shoulders to see if it is too heavy for him. We should pray to God to determine our burden, for then if our strength fails, he will help us carry it. May he give the grace to the Company to be reserved, to take up nothing but what comes from him. How much time passed before taking up the care of the abandoned children? How many requests did we have to take up that work! How many prayers, pilgrimages, and communions were made, to help us decide. You are aware, ladies, of all this, and you are aware, too, that we should always use the same caution before accepting any new obligations through an indiscreet zeal. When you see you are doing the things well that God has asked of you, have courage and bless his infinite goodness. Give yourselves to these duties with perseverance, but do not presume to try to do more.
Consider the feeding and instruction of the poor in the Hotel Dieu, the care and education of the foundlings, looking after the spiritual and corporal needs of the criminals condemned to the galleys, the help given to the frontier regions and the ravaged provinces, the contributions to the missions, to the Far East, the Hebrides, and the south. These, ladies, are the responsibilities of your Company. What? Have these ladies done all this? Yes, and for more than twenty years God has given you the grace to begin these and carry them out. Do not undertake anything further unless you consider it carefully, but do what you are now doing better and better. This is what God asks of you.
A third means of preserving the Company is to continue to invite other women of piety and virtue to join you. If new members do not come, your Company will decrease in numbers and become too weak to fulfill the heavy burdens you bear. It has been proposed that some time before their death, a sister or a friend be induced to enter the Company, but perhaps this would not appeal to everyone. A good means, ladies, would be if each of you would be persuaded of the great good in this world and the next for souls to exercise the works of mercy, spiritual and corporal, in the way you do. This undoubtedly would lead others to join you in your practice of charity, in consideration of the good you do. This conviction would have the effect of mutually encouraging each other, and this in turn would influence others by your words and example.
“Allow me, ladies, to ask your opinion.” Turning to Madame de Nemours he said, “Madame, has anything come to your mind, that would be a means to help the Company?” After she spoke, he asked others. Most replied they thought the means he had suggested were perhaps the best, and others added the following:
(1) Those who die must be encouraged beforehand to leave legacies in favor of the poor. Monsieur Vincent replied: “this is a helpful suggestion, which could be made to rich people when they are visited in their sicknesses.”
(2) Be more exact in observing the daily prescribed exercises. Monsieur Vincent added, “This is good advice, to attract persons, and this exactitude leads to a holy life which also attracts.”
(3) Each lady of the Company ought to make up the deficit of the Company, as much as she is able. In conclusion, Monsieur Vincent said: “It remains only to find out if you prefer to have your officers remain. If not, we will proceed to a vote.” He asked each one’s opinion, one after the other, with the unanimous result that the officers should continue, and therefore there was to be no election now.
He ended the assembly with these words:
Let us thank God, ladies, for this assembly. Let us pray that he will accept the new sacrifice we will offer him on our knees, in giving ourselves to him with our whole heart, to receive from his infinite bounty his spirit of charity. Let us pray also that he give us the grace, to each one of us in particular, and to the Company in general, to respond to his designs upon us. May he raise up this ardent spirit of charity of Jesus Christ, that we may merit to be filled with it, and that having spread this charity abroad in this world he may make us worthy to be received by his Father eternally in the world to come. Amen.9
- Ch. 29.
- The Daughters of Providence were founded by Marie de Pollalion for the reform of wayward girls, and to provide a refuge for those whose virtue was threatened. Marie was the wife of Francis Pollalion, a gentleman of the king’s chamber. Widowed after only a few years of marriage, she then resigned her position as a lady of honor to the queen, and under the direction of the Vincent de Paul, adopted a simple style of life, and dedicated herself to charitable works. She was one of the most active Ladies of Charity. Dressed as a simple peasant serving girl, she accompanied Louise de Marillac to serve the poor country people. With Vincent’s encouragement and help, she finally founded the work with the repentant girls. After her death on September 4, 1657, Vincent continued to help the work she had begun.
- Ch. 45.
- Sainte Reine, then in the diocese of Autun, but now in the diocese of Dijon. A popular place of pilgrimage at the home of Sainte Reine, virgin and martyr. A gentleman from Paris had the desire of establishing a hospital there, and asked for Saint Vincent’s support. Vincent successfully appealed to the queen and the Ladies of Charity in its establishment. He then sent Daughters of Charity to serve the poor there.
- These were titular sees, whose bishops had responsibilities for evangelizing in East Asia.
- Matt 25:34-35.
- Rom 8:13.
- Luke 8:3.
- CED XIII:802-20.