Françoise Marguérite de Silly was born in 1584 in the province of Picardy in northern France. Her parents were Antoine de Silly, Compte de La Rochepot, and Marie de Lannoy, Dame de Folleville. Marguérite had one sister, Magdelaine. Marie de Lannoy died when her two children were very young, After his wife’s death, Antoine de Silly married Jeanne de Cossé, herself widowed with a son, Louis. So it was that Jeanne de Cossé took much of the responsibility for bringing up Marguérite and Magdelaine, This apparently was done with great care as well as training in virtue and piety. Jeanne had intended that her son Louis would marry Marguérite, but it was not to be. Louis married Claude Léonor of Lorraine, and Marguérite married Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi, Compte de Joigny and General of the Galleys, in 1600.1 Marguérite and Philippe Emmanuel had three children – Pierre, Henri, and Jean-François Paul. Pierre inherited the family titles and succeeded his father as General of the Galleys. Henri died at the age of ten or eleven after being thrown from his horse. Jean-François Paul became the second, and notorious, Cardinal de Retz.
Vincent de Paul joins the Gondi Family
Around 1613, Vincent de Paul left the parish of Clichy, just north of Paris, where he had been parish priest for a year. He acted on the advice of Pierre de Bérulle who requested that he become a Tutor to the children of Philippe Emmanuel and Françoise Marguérite de Gondi in Paris. Initially this concerned only tutoring the eldest son, Pierre de Gondi, who was eleven at the time. The next son Henri was only two or three and Jean-François Paul had only just been born. The intellectual, moral and religious formation of Pierre de Gondi was entrusted to Vincent, though apparently Madame de Gondi, as Françoise Marguérite was known after her marriage, was more interested in seeing her son walk in the paths of virtue than in attaining great honour. Vincent de Paul was also placed in charge of the household staff in regard to religious instruction and preparing them for the reception of the sacraments at the time of major festivals. He even rebuked Philippe Emmanuel himself when he, Philippe Emmanuel, was preparing to engage in a duel to preserve his own honour. When the Gondis resided in their country houses, Vincent de Paul looked after the spiritual welfare of the people of these districts, this being a concern of Madame de Gondi.2
In 1614 or 1615, Madame de Gondi asked Vincent to be her spiritual guide. Reluctantly, and after persuasion by Pierre de Bérulle, Vincent agreed. To help Madame de Gondi to move away from thinking too much about herself, Vincent encouraged her to perform works of charity. In 1617, while visiting the estates of Madame de Gondi in Picardy, the incident of the General Confession ant Gannes and Vincent’s very successful Misssion Sermon at Folleville occurred. It was not long after this, that Vincent persuaded Pierre de Berulle to allow him to leave the Gondi household and take up a position in the parish of Châtillon-les Dombes in the Lyons region of France. He remained in this parish for less than six months, then, at the insistence of Madame de Gondi, who was distraught at his absence, and after consulting several others, including Pierre de Bérulle, he returned to Paris. He did not return as Tutor, but as Chaplain to the Gondi house and estates.3
Madame de Gondi did not forget her concern for the country people on her estates in the north of France. After Vincent’s Mission Sermon at Folleville in 1617, she developed a plan for periodical missions to be preached on her estates, and set aside 16,000 livres4 for this purpose. When Vincent de Paul could not find any religious clergy in Paris to carry out these missions, Madame de Gondi was not discouraged. After praying for enlightenment, she determined that Vincent de Paul himself should establish a community of missionaries. Madame de Gondi’s husband, Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi, supported the plan, and approval was easily obtained from Philippe Emmanuel’s brother, Jean François de Gondi, who was the Archbishop of Paris. The new community, the Congregation of the Mission, would live at the Collège des Bons Enfants, a former hostel for students in the Rue Saint Victor, Paris. Pressed by the Archbishop of Paris, as well as by Philippe Emmanuel and Madame de Gondi, Vincent de Paul agreed to everything. On March 1, 1624, the letter appointing Vincent Principal of the Collège des Bons Enfants was signed, and on March 6th, 1624 he took possession by proxy.5 The proxy was Fr Anthony Portail.6 On April 17, the contract formally setting up the Congregation of the Mission was signed by Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi, Françoise Marguérite de Gondi, Vincent de Paul, and two Paris Notaries John Dupys and Nicolas Le Boucher. A sum of 45,000 livres7 was provided for the work of missions to be directed to “poor common people” and which would take place “on their own (Gondi) estates and in other places”.8 If Madame de Gondi showed a preference for country districts, it was because she considered village people to be “as it were abandoned”.9
Françoise Marguérite de Silly, Madame de Gondi, died on June 23, 1625. Right up to the time of her death, she required Vincent to remain in the Gondi household, and recommended that her husband also keep Vincent in the household after her death. On April 6, 1626, a grieving Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi joined the Oratory of Pierre de Bérulle. Sometime between October 20 and December 22, 1625, Vincent de Paul left the Gondi residence in the Rue Pavée, Paris, and moved to the Collège des Bons Enfants.10
The Real Françoise Marguérite de Silly?
The events described above tell us something of the relatively short life of Madame de Gondi, a woman who died when she was not yet 42. But they tell us little of the type of person she really was. In an article titled “Madame de Gondi: A Contemporary Seventeenth Century Life”,11 Barbara Diefendorf12 writes that biographies generally praise Françoise Marguérite de Silly for her piety and charity, and at the same time leave an unfavourable impression of her as a demanding and insecure woman who selfishly insisted on keeping Vincent de Paul at her side, despite the fact that she wanted him to be responsible for missions to the people on her estates. And she did indeed, with the support of her husband, put strong pressure on Vincent de Paul to return to Paris from the parish of Chátillon, sending him a letter “detailing her spiritual anguish and charging him with responsibility for the imperilled state of her abandoned soul.”13 Diefendorf believes that fresh insights can be gained into Madame de Gondi’s life through the biographical sketch titled “Françoise Marguérite de Silly: Countess of Joigny and Dame de Montmirail”14 provided by Brother Hilarion de Coste (1595-1661), a member of the Order of Minims of St Francis of Paola, in a collection of biographies of women’s lives published in 1640 and again in 1647. Diefendorf’s observations on Brother Hilarion’s biography of Madame de Gondi could be summarised as follows:15
- Brother Hilarion wrote in a particular genre which might be referred to as the “praise of pious ladies” genre. The conventions of this genre allow us to see another dimension to the extreme dependence on Vincent de Paul. Rather than being regarded as a character flaw of a neurotic aristocrat, Madame de Gondi’s dependence could be seen as the virtuous reliance of a devout woman on the guidance of a trained spiritual director. At the time, women were supposed to be dependent on the judgements of men placed over them in authority. It was considered laudable for a woman to be subservient to her husband, spiritual director, and confessor. This was something that the Church encouraged. Madame de Gondi would have been schooled to mistrust her own instincts and rely on the direction of others.
- Brother Hilarion was immersed in the value system of his time, and he tried to rise above the view which saw women as weak and imperfect creatures. Consequently, he set out to write in praise of women. He circumvented the difficulties of the time by using the concept of the “strong woman” who rose above her usual limitations. And so he praises Madame de Gondi for her intelligence, and generous spirit, and notes that many people came to her for advice which they followed willingly. He looks on Madame de Gondi as an exceptional woman. Her intellectual superiority was all the more reason to admire her submission to the will of others. For modern readers, comparison with her husband’s judgement reinforces the impression that she was clear thinking and astute, and suggests her submissiveness was deliberate conformity to an expected social role.
- The manner in which Madame de Gondi is described as conducting herself on her estates reinforces the impression of confident level-headedness, with much respect from those who worked on the estates. Her removal of a seigniorial judge in regard to whom there had been many complaints highlights the responsibility she accepted for her own and her husband’s estates.
- Showing her concern for those on her estates, Madame de Gondi played an active role in the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission.
A Woman of “Vertu et Valeur”
Different biographers may place different interpretations on the behaviour of Madame de Gondi. But it remains clear that she was a good, religious and virtuous woman who had high ideals for herself, her family and her household, as well as the desire to bring justice to the management of her estates. She was intelligent, level-headed, competent, trustworthy, independently wealthy, generous, and quite clear about what she wanted for the welfare of those in her care. This woman of “Vertu et Valeur”16 was the Founding Patroness of the Congregation of the Mission.
- Roman CM, José Maria, ”St Vincent de Paul- a Biography”, Trans. Howard DC, Joyce, 1999, Melisende, London. .p.108
- Coste CM, Pierre, “The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul”, Trans. Joseph Leonard CM, New City Press, New York, 1987, Vol 1,pp 57, 63-65.
- Coste, “The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul”, Vol I, pp 88-93.
- Probably around AUS$400,00 .
- Coste, “The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul”, Vol I, pp 145-147.
- Coste CM, “Saint Vincent de Paul – Correspondence, Documents, Conferences”, New City Press, New York, 2003, Trans. Sr Evelyn Franc DC et al., Ed. Sr Marie Poole DC et al, Vol 13a, pp 70-73.
- Probably more than AUS$1 million in today’s currency.
- Coste CM, “Saint Vincent de Paul – Correspondence, Documents, Conferences”, Vol 13a, pp 213-217.
- Coste, “The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul”, p148.
- Coste, “The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul”, p149-150.
- Rybolt CM, John E., Diefendorf, Barbara B., “Madame de Gondi: A Contemporary Seventeenth Century Life”, Vincentian Heritage Journal, Vol 21, Issue 1, 2000, pp 25-43. In this article, Barbara Diefendorf has provided the Introduction (pages 25-31) and most of the footnotes (except those in bold print inserted by Br Hilarion) while Fr John Rybolt CM has provided the translation and annotation of the article on “Françoise Marguérite de Silly: Countess of Joigny and Dame de Montmirail” (pages 32-43). Note that the full article of John Rybolt and Barbara Diefendorf can be downloaded through the URL: http://works.bepress.com/john_rybolt/21 , Internet accessed September 14, 2010.
- A Curriculum Vitae for Barbara Diefendorf as at January 2010 can be found through the URL: http://www.bu.edu/history/files/2011/01/CV-Diefendorf1.pdf, Internet accessed September 14, 2010 .
- Rybolt and Diefendorf, Introduction, p 25.
- This biographical sketch is contained within the article of Rybolt and Diefendorf referred to in Footnote No. 12 ..
- Summary drawn from Rybolt and Diefendorf, pp 26-31
- The words “Vertu et Valeur” (Virtue and Worth) are inscribed at the top of the engraving of Françoise Marguérite de Silly by Claude Duflos (1665-1727) shown at the beginning of this article.