8] A time of crisis
Under the impetus and the direction of Louise de Marillac the Company of the Daughters of Charity was constituted and developed. In 1647 there were between one hundred twenty and one hundred fifty Sisters in some fifty different houses (half of which were outside of Paris). These numbers are approximations since there is no record from these years. Did any such record exist? It seems that the first such records were kept after the death of Louise, that is, when Mathurine Guerin was named Mother General in 1667.
In 1646-1647 the Company moved through a difficult period that disconcerted many of the Sisters and upset Louise. Was this a crisis of growing as a Company thus a time of purification and becoming aware of the uniqueness of this Company and its demands?
The crisis did not come as a surprise. Near the end of 1645 there were some telling signs that the call that animated the first Sisters had become weakened. Some of the Sisters refused to leave the parishes where they were ministering when they were asked to do so; other spoke against the sister servant, the local superior. There was murmuring and criticisms such as: why do we have to live so poorly? Can’t we live just a little more comfortably? The poor were not served with the same love. Concerned to help the Sisters overcome these daily difficulties Louise asked Vincent to intervene. His conference on February 13, 1646 helped a good number of the Sisters to reflect on their vocation and led them to confront that which could have prejudiced their fidelity to God and the poor. But still problems continued in the houses that were distant from Paris. Some Sisters left the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Mathurine Guerin, who was Louise’s secretary for six years noted in 1661: It seemed that God wanted to empty the house when so many Sisters left. In eighteen months the Company would lose a sixth of its members, some of whom had spent five, eight or ten years in the community. Louise was concerned and also felt guilty about all of this, asking herself if she was not to blame for all that was happening: Our Sister Marie finally departed and left the Company. The tall Anne from Richelieu likewise fled when she discovered that we wanted to remove her. That happened yesterday and we do not know where she went. You see, Monsieur, that we need the help of your holy prayers. I, in particular, need them because of all the evil I cause, and I beg you to ask God’s forgiveness for me (SWLM:141 [L.132B]).
Aware of the dissatisfaction of the Sisters, Louise attempted to encourage and support them. Her letters invited them to engage in personal and community reflection. Louise, however, was also gripped by deep pain and unintentionally reproached the Sisters: and what have we given him, barren earth that we are? Nothing but discontent, barren earth that we are, through our infidelities to God … at one time, some member of the Company leaves or commits great faults against her vocation; at another, the entire body has degenerated. How stupid we all are! It seems that all the warning God has had given to us have had no other effect than beating the air SWLM:197 [L.174]).
In a letter to the Sisters ministering in Nantes who were in the midst of serious community conflicts, Louise stated that she felt responsible for the situation, that is, that her bad example caused this situation to develop. Is Louise going to become depressed as she did at the time of her husband’s death? Concerns, anxieties and guilt once again told hold of her soul: God alone knows the state of my poor mind in all these disorders. It seems that our good God wants to destroy us completely. I deserve it, and I am surprised that he has delayed so long in carrying out his justice. Provided his mercy saves my soul, I am satisfied (SWLM:204 [L.181]).
Louise was profoundly upset by the behavior of her son. She had wanted him to become a priest. For several years Michel had taken theology courses in one of the Jesuit schools. Then one day, in a fit of anger, Michel told his mother that he preferred to commit suicide than to become a priest. Louise was stunned by his words. In December, 1644, Michel ran away. Several months later Louise discovered that her son had gone off with the daughter of a wine merchant. When she found them the two young people were brought back to Paris: Michel to Saint-Lazare and the young woman to the Monastery of Magdalena, a place for penitent women. The relationship between Michel and his mother was filled with tension. Again a love affair led Michel far from Paris. Louise’s pain was heightened and certainly was more acute as a result of the pain of her infancy. Was it possible that she saw in her son, thirty-two years old, the image of her father who at the same age entered a relationship that led to her conception. Was it possible that she feared, in the very depths of her being, that her son would bring a child into the world who would be exposed to the same pain and suffering that she had experienced?
All of this seemed to overwhelm Louise but Vincent was at her side. Calmly and prudently he showed her that everything that occurred in the Company of the Daughters of Charity was normal; something that occurs in every community; something that also happened to Jesus Christ: Let us bless God, Mademoiselle, for purging the Company of subjects like that, and let us honor the disposition of Our Lord when His disciples were abandoning Him. He said to those who remained: Do you not wish to go after them?” (CCD:III:215).
In an attempt to stabilize Michel, Vincent created the position of sheriff at Saint-Lazare and entrusted this position to him. Some friends of Louise, Madame de Romelly and the Duchess of Aiguillon, were looking for a wife for Michel. They put him in contact with the Portier family who rejected him because they dreamed of their daughters marrying someone rich and Michel had no personal wealth. In November, 1649 M. Chennevieres accepted Michel’s offer to marry his daughter, Gabrielle Le Clerc. This marriage was celebrated on January 18th, 1650.
Blessed, sustained and encouraged by her deep faith, Louise understood and calmly accepted all the trials of growth. The survival of the Company, after so many starts, was proof that God was watching over her. The birth of her grandchild, Louise Renee, brought her great joy. The long months of darkness and suffering had affected her spirit but Louise was strengthened by these trials and convinced that God loved her and the Company. On April 14, 1650, on the eve of her patron feast, she told Vincent de Paul that peace had once again returned to take possession of her soul: My heart is still overflowing with you on account of the understanding which I believe our good God has given me of the words, “God is my God” (SWLM:341 [L.369]). Louise was ecstatic over the words: God is my God and recognized the steps that God had taken on her behalf. She knew that God loved her with an unconditional love. She was filled with joy as she contemplated God’s gift to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, this Jesus who was served every day in the person of the poor, this Jesus who was shared in communion during the Eucharist.
Despite her long and frequent illnesses, Louise continued her ministry as formator of the Sisters and as one who supported their commitment in new forms of service.