Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 14

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
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Chapter III: M. Vincent and his Daughters

IT is only by following M. Vincent in his guidance of the Sisters of Charity that we can understand how they gained their position in France and in other countries with such rapidity. We are not regarding the development of a fine organization to meet an obvious need. The finest organization could not have found means to provide for some of the claims that were met by the Sisters. Danger­ous and often revolting work was to be done, and, if the worker accomplished it without forfeit of life or health, there was no reward save that of appointment to some other task; even the barren satisfaction of personal credit was not to be allowed her.

” Observe, my Daughters,” said M. Vincent, ” that perfection does not depend on the multiplicity of one’s work, but in doing it in the spirit that Our Lord did His. That is the root of true saintliness. Do every­thing you do well and in accordance with your vocation. The saintliness of a Daughter of Charity rests on faithful adherence to the Rule—I say faithful adherence—on faithful service to the nameless poor, in love and charity and pity, on faithful obedience to the doctor’s orders; and on fulfilling all practices, both outward and spiritual, with the intention of acquiring those virtues which God has shown to be the spirit of the Company. It keeps us humble to be quite ordinary. It is right to desire to be better and more virtuous than anyone else, but to desire to appear so is vanity. Therefore I beseech you to be regular in virtue, but all the time regard yourself as worse than any of the others, believing that you do nothing of the slightest value.”

The stirring of human pity, however sincere, the sense of duty, however deep, would not have been motives strong enough to keep a Sister of Charity at her task. Something that was not human was required, and it was the spark of the supernatural quiescent in these peasant women which M. Vincent was permitted to quicken and to sustain. It is awe-inspiring to consider how many heroic lives were spent—under that rigid Rule of his—in the daily drudgery of parish nursing, and in the struggle to maintain order in provincial hospitals. Such lives won little approbation, and seldom escaped criticism, and when their span was reached, they passed away unnoticed. The fact of them is among the strongest testimonies to the supernatural. ” For the greater honour of Our Lord, their Master and Patron, the Sisters of Charity shall have in everything they do a definite intention to please Him, and shall try to conform their life to His, especially in His poverty, His humility, His gentleness, His simplicity and austerity.” So runs a part of their Rule, and it suggests the key to the power that was in them, for if the Sister of Charity was seeking only the service of her neighbour, her resolution snapped beneath the strain; it was needful to hold before her that other deeply mysterious motive, ” the honour of Our Lord, her Master and Patron.”

In those early days of the Company, there were some special instances of devotion that stand out. For instance, after the siege of Arras in 1656, the inhabitants were left in so miserable a condition that some benevolent person implored Mlle. Le Gras to send help. Two only of the Sisters could be spared, and for them there was the utmost difficulty in obtaining shelter or daily bread. Disease and famine had done deadly work among the poorer folk, dirt and neglect of the most revolting kind prevailed. The work of eight parishes was on their hands, and at first they had to struggle with the over­whelming demands for their services without any assist­ance from the town authorities. Yet one of the two, having reported in a letter to Mile. Le Gras how the other was sometimes obliged to cease working by reason of complete exhaustion, added: ” I have never through­out heard a word of complaint fall from her lips or seen her face betray anything but the most serene content.”

A little later, in 1658, after the French forces had encountered those of Spain in the battle des Dunes, there were 600 French soldiers, sick and wounded in the hospitals at Calais. Anne of Austria had accompanied the young King to the seat of war, and was so moved by the horrors of their condition that she sent to demand six of the Sisters from M. Vincent. Even to the Queen it was not possible to supply more than four, and considering the character and reputation of the soldiery in those days, there was opportunity for grave objection to sending any.

But the faith of M. Vincent soared above misgivings. ” My Sisters, you are invited a hundred leagues away in one direction, forty leagues in another, sixty in another,” he reminded them, ‘ and now the Queen has asked that you shall go to Calais to tend the wounded. How greatly is God blessing us ! Men take each other’s lives and destroy each other’s souls, and you are called to go and restore both…. I know that, by the grace of God, there are many among you who ask only to be told where they shall go. My dear Daughters, be sure that wherever you go God will take care of you. Even when you are in the midst of the army, have no fear that any harm will come to you.”1

The Sisters obeyed the call readily, but the horrors that awaited them were indescribable, and—as was so constantly the case—their numbers were quite inade­quate to the need. The conditions of the hospital at Calais had resulted in the outbreak of an infectious malady, of which the soldiers were dying by scores. Two of the Sisters caught it and died, and it was plain that no one could breathe the atmosphere of the wards without danger to life. M. Vincent read a report of the state of affairs to an assembly at the Mother-House. The result was a rush of volunteers. The worst horrors of an Army hospital awaited them, and they as nurses knew what such horrors were: there was the certainty of overwork and hardship, and the probability of death or of that permanent injury to health that makes life a burden; yet four more were sent, and all were eager to go. Sixteen years had passed since the first Sisters of Charity took their vows. The increase of their numbers had been very rapid, but the deepening of reality in them was even more remarkable. Not one of these volunteers would have been allowed to enjoy any token of admiration that might be offered to her if she survived her service to the soldiers. All that awaited her was return to the Mother-House, and reabsorption in the ranks of her fellow-workers. What she did she did without reward and without credit, ” for the greater honour of Our Lord, her Master and Patron.”

It is hard at the present day to understand all that was needed of them. It would not now be possible for suffering to continue unalleviated if money and good­will for its relief were forthcoming. But before the work of Mlle. Le Gras and of the Confraternities it was difficult for a rich lady—however benevolent—to make adequate provision for the sick on her estates. The small hospitals, that at an earlier period had been founded by pious persons in many of the smaller towns, had become useless from lack of supervision; in the homes of the people but little attention was paid to cleanliness ; the most ordinary remedies were difficult to obtain, and there was small chance of recovery from serious illness. For maternity cases, it is true, a married woman was appointed for every parish; but the vacancy was made known from the pulpit, and the applicants were interviewed and the appointment made by the curé. The explanation of this system tells its own tale: so large a proportion of infants died a few hours after birth, that a chief qualifica­tion for a parish nurse was soundness in the faith, that their baptism might never be omitted.

It is easy to see that the great ladies of the period did well to remain in Paris or to be oblivious of their neigh­bours when they were in the country, unless they were proof against distress at the sufferings of others, for neglect and ignorance had gone too far to be combated in the intervals of a life of pleasure. The infection of benevolence spread rapidly, however, when the means of exerting it were discovered, and Mlle. Le Gras was overwhelmed by applications from the owners of great estates for Nursing Sisters to attend upon the poor. Only a proportion of such requests could be complied with, and many a small settlement begun in those early years of the Company, was sustained for a short time only; some because there was urgent need of Sisters at some other centre, and many more because the lady patronesses wearied of a novelty that was a drain upon their purses, and withdrew the modest sum required for maintenance. Here and there such work as this was of lasting benefit, but the great mission of the Sisters in the provinces was the reform of the hospitals. The work of the Confraternities was always closely connected with the hospitals; the tending of the sick in their own homes presented insurmountable difficulties when the very necessitous and degraded class was touched; but the hospitals in many places were so disorganized as to be useless, and had reached a stage when no amateur efforts could restore them to their original purpose. The remedy was an application to Mlle. Le Gras. Until her strength failed she went herself to readjust the methods that had prevailed and had been found wanting, and, when it was needed, to conciliate the authorities. She and her Sisters carried with them, in addition to their rules for the restoration of health, a new standard of personal life and of relation with the poor. The towns where need of hospital reform was recognized profited by their presence beyond the precincts of the hospital, and un­doubtedly the Nursing Sisters did much to spread the spirit of M. Vincent’s teaching in parts of the country where he was himself a stranger. The method pursued at Angers, the first of the hospitals placed in their charge, was typical of their work elsewhere, and though the form of abuse they discovered differed in different places, a fundamental readjustment was always a necessity. At Angers (a foundation due to the penitence of Henry H. at the murder of Thomas à Becket) the administration of the Augustinian monks had brought charity and religion into equal disrepute. At all periods pious Founders have recognized that sickness of body leads to a desire for spiritual health, and the priest was as closely connected with a hospital as the doctor. The Augustinians at Angers were, however, so unfit for their office, that the townspeople united in a petition, addressed to the King in Council, that they should be removed from it and replaced by secular priests to be chosen by the Bishop. Among those who were intimate with the affairs of the diocese were some who had made a Retreat at S. Lazare, who knew M. Vincent, and had heard of Mlle. Le Gras. The possibility of carrying out the practical and the spiritual reformation of the hospital simultaneously was suggested by remembrance of the new Company and its objects, and a petition for help was despatched to M. Vincent. This was in 163g, before any of the Sisters had taken vows, and the responsibility of a commission at such a distance was felt to be very great. Mlle. Le Gras left Paris with an advance-guard of two Sisters in November. The journey occupied fourteen days, and for some time after her arrival she was ill from fatigue. It was not until February that the reorganization was complete and the Sisters formally instated. Their Rule2 (which is still in existence as drawn up by Mlle. Le Gras) declares that they come to Angers for the honour of Our Lord, Father of the poor, and of His Holy Mother, and for the service, bodily and spiritual, of the sick at the Hôtel-Dieu.” It requires that they shall live with the pure intention of pleasing God in all things, in absolute poverty, and in the most careful management of all that is provided for the poor as being the property of God; that they shall make their Communion each Sunday and hear Mass daily, reserve one half-hour for prayer in the morning and another in the evening. They were to rise at four every morning, be constant in care of their patients throughout the day, attempting whenever possible to teach them spiritually, as well as to tend them bodily. Those on night duty were to make their watching a time of prayer, but to remember that their duty to the sick came before anything else, and might be regarded as a part of their prayer.

This Rule was read every Friday, and it will be seen that adherence to it meant a claim on every hour of life. In framing it Mlle. Le Gras must have considered what complete renunciation it involved, and no doubt intended that the Sisters should understand from the beginning what lay before them. Nevertheless, when the time came for her return to Paris, she cannot have left them without misgiving as to their steadfastness. Much depended—at Angers and in all the other little colonies which year by year sprang up—on the capacity of the Superior. Mlle. Le Gras had a lively sense of the responsi­bility of those to whom authority was given. She bade them remember that the virtue of humility—so necessary to them all—must specially be studied by a Superior. She was to be known as the Serving Sister, and because Providence had confided to her the guidance of others, she must show herself first in charity and always ready in their service. She should show herself gentle in ntercourse with them, remembering that their delight in thinking of themselves as Servants of the Poor did not make it easy for them to take orders that were given sharply or unkindly. It should be the custom of the Serving Sister to ask rather than to command, to lead by example, to be ready with help and advice in small diffi­culties. Authority should be used in the spirit of charity, not in that of despotism. ” And if we call ourselves Serving Sisters,” she said, ” it should mean that we bear the heaviest burdens in soul and body, and are to relieve our Sisters in any way we can, for they will always have a great deal to bear from us, whether by reason of our bad temper, or owing to a dislike of us with which Satan may tempt them. And if there be something that should need rebuke, we must give it in the spirit of charity at a convenient time, and not with any haste or possibility of prejudice.”3

This was wise teaching, and the prosperity of the small companies of Sisters on their outpost duty depended on adherence to it. It was necessary that the Rule of obedience should be absolute, but the plight of a Sister of Charity serving at a long distance from the Mother-House under a Superior who was also an autocrat would have been most miserable. They were not women of refinement or with any tradition of good manners, the beauty of their lives, their gentleness to one another, was the gift of grace, and if the spirit of their vocation was lost or even overshadowed, they had no safeguards from misrule and mutiny. The amount of work that they accomplished—though their record is magnificent— is not so great a marvel as the fact of their continued growth, when all common likelihood suggests necessity of failure. In Paris every new scheme for the assistance of the poor made a demand upon the Company—either for service or supervision. The Charity of the Hôtel-Dieu and of the Foundlings was entrusted to them. They were called upon to tend the miserable convicts waiting for deportation to Marseilles. When the In­stitution for the Aged (known as Le Nom de Jesus) came into being, they were responsible for maintaining its high standard of order and good government. But though these tasks were serious and responsible, they could all be performed by persons in close touch with the Mother-House and with S. Lazare. It was the work at a distance that laid on the Superior so heavy a burden of anxiety. Louise Le Gras was at all times afflicted by dark fore­bodings. M. Vincent’s letters to her are full of suggestions of encouragement with regard to her personal affairs and the welfare of her son, as well as with reference to the Company; and without his support she could not have continued in her arduous office, for, to a woman of her temperament, the suffering involved by the continual sense of the possibilities of disaster was very severe. It was she who had the fullest knowledge of the material with which she had to deal, and of the circumstances involving danger, and it required lively faith to keep her mind at peace.

She is a pathetic figure despite—or perhaps because of —her great achievements, and in the later period of her life she is overshadowed, not only by M. Vincent, but by the array of Working Sisters, with their record of tasks fulfilled and dangers braved. Ill-health made life a burden, and the sense of demands that were quite beyond possibility of fulfilment robbed her of any satisfaction in her enterprise. There were no consciously fortunate years in her career. As a girl her great desire for the religious life had been thwarted; as a wife she was torn betwixt the sense of duty and regret for the conditions she had missed; and when at length God made His Will plain to her, obedience taxed her powers to their farthest limit. There does not seem to have been for her a moment when recognition from others or personal realization of success suggested self-importance. She was, indeed, less prominent after she had proved her powers than before. Perhaps the truest knowledge we can attain of the personality that was as the mainspring of that growing Company comes from the little collection of her Meditations in which she has set down her standard of conduct for herself, and for those who might truly be reckoned as her Sisters.

It is likely that after Mlle. Le Gras found herself the Superior of the Servants of the Poor, the point of view from which she had regarded life gradually altered. From the letters of her directors at an earlier period we grasp her as scrupulous and over-anxious, concentrated on the progress of her own soul and ingenious in self-torment. But she was brought into contact with the great world of human beings; she was forced to be a witness of their suffering and to have knowledge of their sin ; she had constant intercourse with the rich as well as with the destitute, and became familiar with the differing tempta­tions assailing each, and as a consequence her anxiety about herself fell into abeyance. The Servants of the Poor as they gathered round her became, indeed, her Daughters; she trembled for them in danger, suffered with them in hardship, and mourned—more deeply than they were able to mourn for themselves—over their failures and their sins. And thus she became—to a degree at least—merged in the being of the Company, and saturated with the spirit of humility which was its strength. The great desire and distress that, as we have seen, possessed her thoughts for years, concerned the Company, and when her prayers were answered, and she had secured for it the guidance she felt to be essential to its future welfare, she had no anxiety as to the methods of her own suc­cessor. At any moment she was ready to lay down authority, and there is no reason to doubt her sincerity when, time after time, she lays the blame of failure or desertion on her own maladministration. If we follow the record of the Company during her lifetime with any care, we must acknowledge not only that she used her power wisely, but that an immense amount of power lay in her hands and increased as the years passed. Among women-leaders in philanthropy there is not one to whom the world owes so much, but, because she was more than a philanthropist, she assumed less and less of personal prominence as her actual power grew. The real life of the Servant of the Poor must be a hidden one, she must have no self-aRcertion, above all she must never be self-confident. In the last passage of the Meditations, already referred to, we find her summing-up of the lesson of life :

” We have no knowledge of our way except we follow Jesus, always working and always suffering. And, again, He could never have led us unless His own resolve had taken Him as far as death on the Cross. Consider, then, whether we do well to spare ourselves, lest we lose what­ever we have gained hitherto. When we have laboured forty-nine years, if we have relaxed in the fiftieth, and it is then that God calls us, the whole of life will have availed nothing.”4

We meet here a sternness of regard that is suggestive of Port Royal rather than of that law of love which we connect with M. Vincent. But M. Vincent’s softness was never towards himself, and Louise Le Gras owed her training to him; to some degree he had shared the fruit of his own experience with her. It is only those who have followed far along that difficult path where Christ is guide who reach the point where any relaxation of resolve implies denial of their Leader.

Mlle. Le Gras died in 166o, six months before M. Vin-. cent, and therefore had the comfort of knowing that the affairs of the Company would be well ordered when her own guidance was removed; but the consolation of his presence as the last hour drew near was not allowed her. She endured a lingering illness without once seeing him, and it is said that the written word of encouragement which she implored that he should send her was denied. Towards weaklings he was all tenderness, but he knew that she was strong, and so left her in the Hands of the Master to Whose service she had given herself.

  1. “Conferences,” No. 49, June, 1658.
  2. “Lettres,” vol. i., No. 42.
  3. See Gobillon, ” Vie de Mlle. Le Gras.”
  4. “Pensées,” liv. v., chap. viii.

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