6] The foundlings
The welfare and education of the foundlings was as important as the education of the young girls in the countryside. Abandoned by their mothers, despised by a society that viewed them as children of sin, each year three to four hundred infants were left at the doors of the churches or abandoned on the city streets of Paris. These infants were picked up by government officials who brought them to houses known as La Couche where they were nourished and raised. But as Vincent explained to the Ladies of Charity: these poor little children were receiving very little assistance … in fifty years not one of them has lived (CCD:XIIIb:421). There were not enough wet-nurses to take care of these children: one woman for four or five infants. At night, in order to prevent the infants from crying they were given pills made from opium. Some of the children were sold to “beggars” who would break the arms or legs of the children in the hope of moving passers-by to greater compassion. Other children were entrusted to women who had a need to be recognized as mother. This trafficking of children meant that there were inadequate resources at the Couche.
It is difficult to know who took the initiative with regard to the foundlings. Vincent and Louise and the Ladies of Charity reflected together on the misery of these children. During the course of several meetings they looked for solutions. Should we take charge of the Couche or should we support this institution financially so that more women could be hired? On January 1, 1638 Vincent communicated the decision that had been made at the time of their last meeting, a meeting which Louise had been unable to attend: At the last meeting, it was the general opinion that you be asked to experiment with the foundlings to see if there is a way of feeding them with cow’s milk, and to get two or three of them for that purpose. I am consoled that Providence is turning to you for this work (CCD:I:407)
This was the beginning of what would later become known as public assistance in Paris. Soon after this letter was written some of the foundlings were brought to the house of the Daughters of Charity in the town of La Chapelle. Since this first experiment was so successful, other children were accepted. In 1640 an extraordinary Assembly of the Ladies of Charity made the decision to expand this work to include all the foundlings in the city of Paris. The large number of children led Louise to establish a place in the countryside where wet-nurses were trained to provide for these children. Parents who wanted to adopt these children had to be selected carefully and should be individuals who are known. On March 30, 1640 Louise began to compile a registry of the children who were entrusted to the care of others to be raised: On March 30, 1640, a girl named Simonée put out to nurse at Villers, otherwise called Saint-Sépulcre, with Mary Parsin, wife of James Prévault; … a girl named Madeline Lebon … put out to nurse with Thomasina Patrue, wife of Denis Boucher, residing at Denville, close to Montfort-Lamaury … the others were sent to Châtre-sous-Montlhéry, Rocourt-lez-Meulan, Villers-Saint-Sépulcre, Bourdonnet, Doublinville and Méru. A child named John is simply said to have been handed over to Michelle Damiette known as Madame de Souscarriѐre, a Lady of Charity, but the name of the place is not given (Coste, Volume II, p.261-262 [the English edition of the three volume work on the life of Saint Vincent de Paul]).
The wet-nurses received a monetary payment in order to help provide for the care of these children. They were regularly visited to check on their health and the progress of their education. The Ladies or the Daughters made these visits. During the turbulent period of the Fronde Vincent sent a brother of the Congregation to make these visits because the roads were dangerous and it was unsafe for the women to be traveling.
During the first seven years the Daughters of Charity received 1,200 children. Thanks to their motherly care and their ability to provide the children with good nutrition, half of these children survived. The Ladies of Charity looked for a larger space and made arrangements to obtain the use of the Bicêtre Castle, a large building erected by Louis XIII to care for soldiers who were invalids but now this building had become a place where beggars and prostitutes lived. In the beginning, because of its reputation and its distance from the motherhouse, Louise was hesitant to acquire this property. The Ladies of Charity, however, insisted on this plan and in July, 1647 the foundlings and twelve Sisters took possession of this building. Louise realized immediately that no arrangements had been made for the education of these children: Our Ladies have not thought about arranging for a location for the school. We saw one place which would be good for the boys, who must be separated from the girls; it is downstairs and it only appear to need a door hung and the windows closed up. The girls’ classroom would be upstairs. I would really like to have those alphabet cards which we would put upon the walls. The Ursulines use this method in some places (SWLM:217 [L.192]).
These children, who were abandoned, had the same right as any other child to receive an education. In fact, in was this education that enabled these individuals to confront the adult world which was not inclined to receive them.
This work with the foundlings had to confront several difficulties. The first difficulty came from the Daughters of Charity themselves who shared the prevalent attitude of that era. One of the Sisters explained to Vincent: These children are conceived in sin and represent a very thorny plant.
Later a rumor was spread among the Sisters that if one of them was sent to minister with the foundlings it was because they were being punished. It was also said that Sisters who were seen as disagreeable or incompetent were sent to Bicêtre as “prisoners”. Vincent and Louise intervened on numerous occasions to correct such prejudices and to speak about the beauty of the ministry among the foundlings who, because they have no earthly mother or father, belong to God in a very special way.
During the time of the civil way of the Fronde other difficulties arose in 1649. Resources were diminished and for the most part these resources were provided by the Ladies of Charity. Providing supplies and maintaining the building became very difficult during this turbulent time: it was impossible to plant crops and the soldiers plundered everything that they saw. In 1649 Louise became alarmed: there was no money for the children, no white clothing, wheat was so expensive that it was impossible to buy, some parents were returning the children they had accepted because they had not been paid for several months and were unable to continue to provide for the children. Louise begged Vincent to intervene with the Ladies of Charity whom she judged harshly: It is pitiful that the Ladies go to so little trouble. Either they must believe that we have enough to support the children, or they want to force us to abandon everything (SWLM:301 [L.263]).
It was difficult for Louise to see the children suffer and so she proposed visiting some influential people: the Princess of Conde, the First President … she wrote a heart-rending letter to the chancellor, Seguir, and begged him to give the children food for the Christmas celebration. Vincent, moved by the sad situation of the children, convoked an Assembly of the Ladies of Charity. Louise immediately prepared a report on the current situation of this ministry. It is possible that Vincent used this report as guide in his famous intervention in this matter.
Vincent’s emotional presentation opened the hearts and purses of the Ladies and the work continued. During her whole life Louise shared the pain of these children who would never know their mother, a pain that she herself had experienced and a pain that had deeply influenced her.