The Letters of Louise de Marillac to the Daughters of Charity (I)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoLouise de MarillacLeave a Comment

Author: Carmen Urrizburu, H.C. · Year of first publication: 2011 · Source: Anales 199, #3, 2011.
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On March 15th, 1660, between 11:00am and noon, after generously sharing her blessings with the Daughters of Charity, Louise de Marillac’s life came to an end. She was almost sixty-nine years old. Thus the earthly life of this holy woman was completed. She was not a tall woman, but was prudent and educated and wise and loving. The house where she died became silent and a spirit of peace pervaded the atmosphere. The Daughters, who accompanied Louise at that moment, were drawn closer together in a way that transcended the privacy of that modest room and that unity and peace became evident to all those whom they encountered during the days that followed this event (CCD:VIII:312). Louise had chosen the path of poverty so that she might follow Jesus Christ in the best way possible and serve the poor with humility and kindness (SWLM:689 [A1]). She rejoiced in detaching herself from the things of this world and cultivated many friendships.

The world of her relationships was vast … many people were enriched by her kindness, affirmation and trust. It was as though invisible threads of affection flowed from her interior and brought people together from throughout France. Among those people we mention here those whom Louise was most intimately related with: Michel Le Gras, her son; Vincent de Paul, her spiritual director and the Daughters of Charity.

Louise did not wait until her final days to distribute her estate. In extraordinary ways she had already detached herself from earthly goods. That which was tangible, that which could be touched and grasped in one’s hands and seen with one’s eyes, that which could be preserved as a remembrance and made into a humble treasure … these things were so few and scare that they were almost imperceptible during those final moments. Nevertheless, many people were very aware of her heritage, a heritage that mysteriously remained whole and yet at the same time was shared by many people. A heritage exempt from ownership yet one that then and with the passing of time demanded to be attributed to the person of Louise de Marillac. This heritage was supported in a minimal way by social realities and was more spiritual in nature. It was revealed with a few strokes of the pen as it was put into writing. When that piece of paper came in contact with the pen of Louise, it was transformed into a living paper. Her letters were considered “relics of her spirit”1 because “something” invisible was hidden in those small pieces of paper, something that could be utilized and yet at the same time had to be carefully and lovingly preserved so that it could maintain its value for many centuries. “Something” invisible pulsated in the material of the paper and transformed the written words into pearls of precious wisdom. The heritage that Louise de Marillac left at this supreme moment was the meaning of her life, her wisdom in living her life from day to day, the values that influenced her decisions and ministry, her experience of God, her way of following Jesus Christ, her spirit.

In her room, in an old trunk, the Sisters found her intimate writings, a personal diary in which she had recorded her many rich experiences. In the same place were some of the treasured letters that she had received. And in thousands of rooms in France and Poland the letters that Louise addressed to Vincent de Paul, the Daughters of Charity, her family, l’Abbe de Vaux, and many others with whom she had a relationship … those letters were preserved lovingly and respectfully in folders, trunks, chests and small boxes. Those letters were true hidden treasures, cultured pearls, sources of inspiration, seeds of life, flashes of spirit.

The letters, a treasure that was slowly discovered

That day, March 15th, 1660, marked the end but also marked a new beginning. While the physical presence of Louise de Marillac was no longer a reality, she began to become present in a new way. Up until then, in order to perceive her presence, people needed to use their physical senses which allowed them to love and to hold her in esteem. Now, however, a new faculty was required in order to discover a new spiritual presence. One of the ways this spiritual presence was revealed was through her letters.

To follow the trail of those letters over time has been an endless task that the Company has had to undertake in order to make its Founder present. It was continually felt that those letters were crying out for attention and it was through a long and slow process of discovery that the messages of those letters have been communicated to us in all their purity. We are going to follow with interest the path that a considerable number of Louise’s letters (faithfully translated and authenticated) traveled in order to be able to be presented to us.

The letters have been preserved

On August 27th, 1660, Vincent told the Daughters of Charity, who had gathered together in Paris in order to elect a new Superioress, that Louise and he had spoken during her penultimate illness about her successor in the Company. He repeated Louise’s words: I think Sister Marguerite Chétif would be suitable. She’s a Sister who has shown wisdom everywhere and has been successful everywhere. And in Arras where she is now placed, she’s done quite well and has been very courageous among the soldiers. Vincent continued: For, Sisters, you need someone with a good head on her shoulders, so we stopped there. For this reason I’m abiding by her decision; so then Marguerite Chétif shall be Superioress (CCD:X:594).

Sister Marguerite Chétif was in Arras with Sister Radegone Lefantin. By means of a letter, Vincent, after extending the usual greeting, simply and concisely indicated that she should return to Paris as soon as possible, but did not state the reason for this request. It was a long trip after which she spent some time resting among the Sisters at the Motherhouse. Then on the afternoon of September 14th, the feast of the triumph of the cross, to her great surprise, Vincent presented her to the Sisters as the new Superioress of the Company: I never thought of such a position when I was called from Arras. Everything had occurred without my being aware of anything. Those inside and outside knew about these events, yet I knew nothing.2

On Tuesday, September 28th, with tears in her eyes, she participated in the burial of Monsieur Vincent. She felt an intense loneliness and great pain. At nightfall Sister Marguerite, greatly overwhelmed, reviewed the day in prayer and classified it as a day of great sadness. At the same time in her interior she experienced positive feelings and powerful convictions: We have wonderful reasons to renew ourselves in the service of God and to be faithful now more than ever before; we have wonderful reasons to ask our Lord and his holy blessed Mother to be Superiors and replacements for those who have been taken from us.3

During the following days Sister Marguerite felt obliged to respond to the challenges that were being presented to her. She did this calmly, simply, and with great love. At the same time she was also aware of her own insignificance and the difficulties involved in accepting leadership of this unique and not so small Company of the Daughters of Charity. She saw Louise de Marillac as a great woman … what could she (Sister Marguerite) do to to keep alive and present in the Company the dynamism that Louise encouraged and the spirit which she radiated with her simple presence.

Sister Marguerite loved Mademoiselle Le Gras but the reality was that she only knew her superficially, from afar, from what others had said. She had not had the opportunity to live with Louise for any length of time that would have allowed her to know her more deeply. Sister Marguerite entered the Company on May 1st, 1649 (CCD:V:356, 414; SWLM:349 [L.302]). A few months later she was in Chars. She returned to Paris in 1651 when she was missioned to Serquex where she remained until 1656 when she was sent to Arras. She had exchanged some letters with Louise (SWLM:355 [L. 536]; 448 [L. 448], 570 [L. 545b], 575 [L. 546], 593 [L. 571], 673 [L. 651]), but at that time of great uncertainty, she felt a certain envy toward those Sisters who had had an opportunity to live with Louise, to be intimate with her and to know her on a more profound level.

On November 8th, as Sister Marguerite sat at her desk and attended to her correspondence, she responded to a letter that she had received from Sister Mathurine Guérin. She felt that this was the Sister who knew Louise best because she had been her secretary for many years. She took her pen in her hand and expressed her feelings with these words:

You know my limitations; you know my ailments and weaknesses and you are aware of the role that has been entrusted to me. You also know that I had almost no opportunity to be near our dearly beloved and now deceased Mademoiselle. This position of leadership could have been given more appropriately to one of the Sisters who had this opportunity. But God does things that we would never have considered and we do not know why God acts the way he does. I am convinced that God wants to instruct us in the practice of holy humility and also wants us to understand that this practice of humility is exactly what he expects from us. I believe you think the same way.

I beg you to continue to pray to our good God so that he might deem it worthy to continue to be our guide. Pray also to the most Blessed Virgin so that she might continue to be our Mother and Superior. I very humbly ask you to send me in writing a summary of the primary virtues that you observed in our deceased Mademoiselle, our beloved and honorable mother … especially those virtues related to her leadership among the Sisters. The purpose for this is that, with the help of God, I wish to imitate her in the ways that I can. I see the need that I have of her and since God gave you the grace to spend much time at her side, I hope to learn from you that which is most necessary. I beg you, my dear Sister, to not refuse me this charity which I so greatly need.4

Sister Mathurine was serving the poor in Belle Isle.5 During the summer she had arrived at this small island that was located fourteen kilometers off the coast. The beginning of any new house is always difficult. She found herself involved in all the activity of the new establishment and did not have the time to think about the many things that should have been put in writing, things that would have been most helpful.6 But when she received this humble letter, she began to write with joyful nostalgia all that she remembered and all that she discovered as a result of her friendship with Louise. When she had nearly completed the task, she paused and wrote: It would take quite a long time if I wanted to specify each of her charitable traits as manifested by the letters that she herself wrote or had written to each Sister in particular and to the Sisters in general, had they been kept together. What I could tell you would truly be another instruction for you, my dear Sister. As for me, I have several of them that I keep as relics of her spirit. Nevertheless, if I were commanded to reveal them, I would deny myself these benefits. When I had the happiness of writing her letters, I did not consider them beautiful teachings at the time. Now, however, I admire the diversity she gave to them. In some, she instills the observance of the Rule; in others, fear; in all of them, the pure love of God (SWLM:xxxiii-xxxiv).

The Notebook of Marguerite Chétif

When the mail from Belle Isle arrived at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Marguerite became quite curious. She unfolded the pages and with great interest began to read slowly and attentively. With this written account she also received a call and an invitation. She had an image of the Founder and some of Louise’s traits could be incorporated into he life through personal work that she was willing to accept. But Sister Mathurine seemed to think that the most effective manner would be through the personal encounter with the letters that Louise had written to the Sisters.

Sister Marguerite took on an attitude of “seeking”. She promptly wrote to all the community houses and asked that all of Louise’s letters that the Sisters had kept be sent to her. When those letters arrived at the Motherhouse, Sister Marguerite or her secretary carefully copied these into notebooks. They left out information that would enable one to identify by name or place persons who were still living. In this way the letters were made available to Sister Marguerite to read and reread, to meditate on and to put into practice what had been communicated … to imbibe the spirit that was living in the very content of these letters.

We do not know if it was Sister Marguerite or one of her successors who grouped the copied texts into two books that are still preserved in the archives of the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris and that are entitled: The Notebook of Marguerite Chétif.7 This manuscript contains seventy-one letters. Original copies of many of these letters were later found and when compared, it was able to be established that many of the letters that Barbe Angiboust had received were copied. Sister Barbe died in 1658 and perhaps her letters had been preserved at the Motherhouse. Also copied were letters that Sister Barbe’s sister, Cécile, has received personally from Louise and letters that were addressed to the members of the community who served the poor in the hospital at Angers; letters sent to Sister Laurence Dubois who was ministering in the parish of Saint-Mérard in Paris; other letters that were addressed to Sister Anne Hardemont, Sister Julienne Loret, Sister Jeanne Delacroix, etc. Sister Marguerite Chétif also copied two letters that were sent to her. Sister Mathurine probably did not send the letters she possessed for fear that they would be lost because of the distance and the unreliability of the postal service at that time.8

The Notebook of Marguerite Chétif served as a book for reading and meditation for Sister Marguerite — at least until Pentecost 1667 when she left the position of Superioress. Perhaps this book was used by a few other Sisters who lived in the Motherhouse and who had access to it. We can suppose that with the passing of time it became an object of great value and therefore was preserved so that it would not be ruined. Therefore, it did not leave the archives of the Superioress. There it remained resting on a bookshelf, in a trunk or a chest, keeping its secret, covered with a light film of dust, preserving in its wholeness the life that pulsated within, the spirit to which it testified.

We do not know if the original letters were also preserved at the Motherhouse or if they were returned to the Sisters who had originally possessed them. We do know that as time passed those letters and many others were forgotten and ignored. Scattered about in different places, they remained silent until the time when some curious eyes would discover their incredible value, until the time when some intelligent hand would bring those letters together in some definitive manner in the archives of the Daughters of Charity.

The first compilation of the letters of Louise de Marillac (letters that she sent to the various Sisters) is very important. It tells us about the love and admiration that the Sisters felt toward their Founder. It also tells us about the value of the messages they received in writing at important or ordinary moments in their life. It is also a witness to the importance that the Sisters gave to formation and type of formation they were looking for. It is true that Sister Marguerite was not totally faithful in copying the original manuscripts … she changed some letters and formed one letter from two or three distinct letters. She necessarily made a selective reading of the letters. She copied these letters in order to practice and live what Louise expressed in them. She did not know that centuries later the readers of the Notebook would examine it with a strict historical-critical sense. Even though the Notebook lacks this scientific accuracy it still has great value today because original copies of thirty-five of the letters in the Notebook have not been found and so the Notebook is the only source for those letters.9

The years passed and so too did the Sisters who cared for the archives, but there was the Notebook, requesting attention from those who passed by. The Notebook, hidden away, displayed its dignity because it had survived many difficult trials … tasks that were entrusted to succeeding secretaries such as cleaning the archives and putting things in order; the registering of the revolutionaries that took place on July 13th, 1789 at the house of the Daughters of Charity; the removal of the Sisters from their house when a detachment of soldiers arrived on October 1st, 1792 with orders to expel the Sisters and change the house into headquarters for the soldiers; successive transfers from one house to another until taking up residence in the present Motherhouse. What was the significance of this ancient document? Who took the time to take the book with them and preserve it despite the dangers that the French Revolution placed upon the Daughters of Charity?

Finally this precious treasure is found and gathered together

Much time passed. With the fall of Napoleon in 1815 a period of restoration began. Political restoration was evidenced with the return of the Ancient Regime and we see a slow process beginning in restoring the Daughters of Charity. On June 28th, 1815 the Sisters moved from the house on Rue Vieux Colombier to their new Motherhouse on the Rue du Bac. The following day, June 29th, Sister Gaubert, the Director of the Seminary, brought the remains of Saint Louise de Marillac to the house.10 On June 23rd the body of Saint Vincent had been placed in their house.11 A new era was begun in the history of the Company. Things had to begin anew and it was important to respect the rhythm of life. Everything was gradually and slowing coming to life. Those were times of renewal.

The Superior Generals wanted to motivate and reenforce a charismatic awakening and also wanted to make the presence of the Founders experienced in a new way. This was a return to our roots, to our origins. Slowly, because of the difficulties involved in the task and because of the lack of personnel and economic resources, the documents surrounding our origins were brought into the light of day. It seemed as though the time had arrived when it was possible to discover how all those ancient documents reflected the original spirit, the newness of the spirit. Indeed, that which was old became a support during that era so that every person could emerge with strength and power. There was a conviction that the passing of time made people forget that which we would have liked people to have had engraved in their hearts forever. It was also discovered that the more zealous of our Sisters, especially our venerable Mother, Mademoiselle Le Gras and our beloved Mathurine Guerin, had compiled the conferences that they had the honor of listening to from the beginning and that were inspirations from the spirit of God, words of life. But among the papers and old files there appeared some manuscripts that Mademoiselle had left us in her own handwriting, very useful material, instilled and matured with the spirit of Saint Vincent … advice given to the first Sisters or individual letters that she wrote to the Daughters of Charity. It was understood that it was just to give a rightful place to that which Mademoiselle Le Gras has left us … she was a very clear sighted woman, gifted with many outstanding qualities and achieved a high degree of virtue.12

It was not until 1845, one hundred eighty-five years after the death of the Founder, that this precious wealth was complied so that it could be utilized by everyone. It was an opportune time. Father Jean-Baptiste Étienne and Sister Marie Marzin were recently elected as superiors of their respective Congregations. The three volume work that had been edited by Adrian Le Clѐre was published in 1645.13 The first volume of this work was entitled: Conferences spirituelles de Saint Vincent de Paul pour les Filles de la Charité. It was divided into four parts. The first three parts contain the conferences and letters of Saint Vincent. The letters that Louise de Marillac wrote to the Sisters were placed in the fourth part and are found on pages 729-754 [Translator’s Note: It is difficult to believe that sixty-three letters were printed on twenty-five pages]. There were sixty-three letters that were extracted from the Notebook and each one of these was preceded by a summary of its content. Happily it was the first published collection of the letters of our Founder.

The fact that this work was published made it a success. Reading this work could result in much good, but the work that contained the letters of Louise de Marillac was too heavy. Those volumes were too large and thick to be of service to the diligent reader. It is easy to conclude that the majority of the Daughters did not have easy access to that work and therefore it served as a testimony to the fact that the letters existed and were to be read and internalized. They were certainly read in common in many communities of the Daughters of Charity but it is difficult to believe that that publication allowed each Sister to experience a personal, reflective, and meditative encounter with the letters of the Founder.

The first collection of the letters was published in French and in 1868 was translated into Spanish. That same year the two volume work was published with the title: Conferencias hechas por San Vicente de Paúl a las Hijas de la Caridad.14 Volume two had 788 pages and contained forty-four conferences of Vincent de Paul on the explanation of the rule and other themes, ten announcements and one hundred twenty-six letters that Vincent wrote to various individuals. The material filled the first 695 pages of this work. The remaining pages contain a Collection of announcements and letters addressed to the Daughters of Charity by their venerable Founder and first Superior, Mademoiselle Le Gras. For the first time in their history, two hundred eight years after the death of their Founder, the Daughters of Charity in Spain were able to read at last sixty-three of her letters.

An image of your mother as she presented herself in her writings

Two long centuries had passed since the time of Louise de Marillac’s death. The documents that would have allowed the Daughters of Charity to know Mademoiselle Le Gras were quite scarce. Nevertheless the presence of Vincent de Paul — at least his biography and conferences — became the foundation for the formation that was given to the Daughters. At the same time, the persons who where entrusted with preparing formation material for the Daughters were firmly convinced that Saint Vincent alone was the depository of the spirit of the Daughters of Charity. According to this manner of thinking, Louise de Marillac lacked originality and was indebted to Vincent for her spirit. Nevertheless, in the Company there was also the conviction that Louise’s letters held a secret that was yet to be discovered … they were the waters from which one could drink. Yet because those letters were not allowed to open a path toward the light they were not able to become a permanent call for the Daughters of Charity.

On September 4th, 1878 the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission had been convoked as a result of the death of Father Eugene Boré, the superior general … Father Antoine Fiat was elected superior general. In February of the same year the papacy of Leo XIII had begun. The Congregation of the Mission was committed to the beatification of Jean-Gabriel Perboyre. Father Fiat was a pious man and a man of prayer and he was happy to collaborate not only in promoting the cause of Father Perboyre but also in introducing the cause of Louise de Marillac for beatification. The superior generals of the Daughters at that time were Sister M. Muhei, Sister M. Derieux, Sister L. Havard, Sister M. Lamartinie. There were also other Sisters who were interested in and dedicated to this project. The time was right. The work to promote the cause of Louise de Marillac encouraged the search for new documents.

In Belgium the Daughters of Charity promoted the publication of a four volume work, two of which contained a collection of Louise’s letters. This publication was to serve as a homage to the Founder. A group of Sisters were transferred to the Motherhouse and they were able to search though the archives and they consulted the various handwritten documents. They were assisted by a Daughter who became interested in this task of searching for documents and preserving said documents. The work was published in 1886 in Brujas (Burges), the capital of the Belgium region of eastern Flanders and was entitled: Louise de Marillac, veuve de M. Le Gras.15

On October 15th, 1886, the feast of Saint Teresa, Father Antoine Fiat16 signed the introductory letter. In that letter he addressed the readers, but especially the Daughters of Charity: Now, in the same way that the first Daughters knew and admired her, in the same way that she presented herself in her writings … now, you will have the true image of your venerable Mother. He then added: The objective that we have proposed in publishing this work is that the Daughters of Charity might know in a better way their Mother and Founder and thus help them to enter into her spirit and lead them back to the origins of their Company and show them, through the teachings of Louise de Marillac, that their Company has been established on the foundation of humility, poverty, trust in God and a blind submission to the direction of Saint Vincent. Although this was a four volume work, it was designed in the form of a pocketbook edition. In this way it was not only a book for the community but was also a type of manual that each Daughter of Charity could study and thus come to know on a personal level the true spirit of her holy vocation.17

We do not know the name of the author of the preliminary notes to volume three where we find it stated: the memory of Louise de Marillac continues to be venerated and almost 700 letters have been preserved through the years and the revolutions.18 We continue to read that the letters are filled with certain traits and because they were written in a familiar and intimate manner they reveal the wonderful virtues of this servant of God and the role that she played in organizing the work to which (under the direction of St. Vincent de Paul) she consecrated herself. This edition contained only 361 letters, 231 of which were written to Daughters of Charity. These were organized chronologically according to the criteria of the person who prepared this work. Among these letters we find some that were preserved in the Notebook.

The Recueils of Sister Marie de Geoffre de Chabrignac

In the Secretariat of the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, one Sister worked tirelessly searching through the older houses and in thousands of places for handwritten documents. She spent endless hours identifying these documents, ordering them, classifying them, and copying everything that she found in public or private archives that was related to the Founder of the Company. This individual was Sister Marie de Goeffre de Chabrignac. She was afflicted with an illness that continued for a lengthy period of time but she was gifted with great culture, intelligence and superior abilities that enabled her to accomplish an admirable work in the archives that served as a foundation for future publications and that continues to have great importance to the present time.

All the handwritten original documents that she was able to find were classified and complied into seven thick volumes, each one of which was called a recuil, that is, an anthology or a collection:

  • Volume I (Recuil I) brought together 256 letters that Vincent de Paul sent to Louise de Marillac and some other documents.
  • Volume II (Recuil II) contains 186 letters written by Louise and sent to Vincent and 34 other letters that were addressed to different individuals.
  • Volume III (Recuil, III) contains the letters that Louise sent to the Daughters. There are 329 letters. Some of these were written by Sister Hellot and others by Sister Guérin, but all are signed by Louise de Marillac.
  • Volume IV (Recuil IV) contains 99 letters sent to Abbé de Vaux, the vicar-general in Angers.
  • Volume V (Recuil V): contains others writings of Louise de Marillac: retreat notes, meditations, thoughts, rules, conferences.19
  • Volume VI (Recuil VI) contains the letter that Louise received from Daughters of Charity and other individuals.
  • Volume VII (Recueil VII) contains the letters that Louise received from different individuals.

The letters written by Louise de Marillac to Daughters of Charity, which are now of interest to us, are contained in recueil III. The other volumes contain the letters that she wrote to Vincent de Paul as well as to Daughters of Charity and other persons, other writings and some letters that she received throughout her life.

The author of this valuable work added notes and several indexes which provide us with information about the foundations and works that our Founder promoted. We might think that perhaps someone would have made a lithograph copy of the handwritten materials that had been compiled, but such a copy was never made. As happened at the time of Sister Marguerite, so, too, this laborious and important task was relegated to the privacy of the archives. Nevertheless, her work was very important and significant. For the first time the writings of Louise appeared in an ordered and classified manner. From that time forward research could be done with greater facility and it became possible to know in a more authentic manner the person of the Founder of the Daughters of Charity.

What should be sought here is the perfume of humility and the delight of simplicity

The process of Louise’s beatification and canonization continued to move forward. This occasioned the publication of some biographies of Louise de Maillac. Finally, on March 11th, 1934 the time came to solemnly celebrate the canonization of Louise. This unknown woman began to awaken interest.

In Spain, Father Rosendo Castañares of the Congregation of the Mission began to prepare a work that was published in 1945 on the occasion of the golden anniversary of the vocation of Sister Justa Dominguez of Vidaurreta. This work enabled the Sisters to become familiar with the 726 letters [20] that Louise wrote to different individuals … 374 of these letters were addressed to Daughters of Charity. This work was entitled: Cartas y escritos de Santa Luisa de Marillac.20

Besides the primary objective of giving glory to God, the author stated in the Introduction that he had proposed several objectives. These were: to honor and glorify Saint Louise de Marillac by making her letters and writings known; to make some contribution to the edification of the Sisters by instructing them about the history and the traditional customs of the Company and by presenting them with the sublime example of their elders whom they could admire; to give these elders their due honor by presenting their amazing example in the practice of virtue; to make known these deserving yet unknown Daughters of Charity … that is, to make known their names, their heroic actions, their sublime acts of self-denial, their sacrifices and their charity toward the poor and the infirm.

This had been a much loved and very interesting work. The Daughters of Charity in Spain found the translation of 1868 to be antiquated and too few of Louise’s letters were published. According to the thinking of the author this present work was the most complete and orderly collection because it contained all the known letters of the saint that had been discovered and these letters were arranged in chronological order. At that time it was the only publication that was enriched with interesting commentary in its footnotes. The sources for this work were the recueils of Sister Geoffre. The work contained 3 pages of preliminary notes, 1,197 pages of text and indexes and lvi pages that contained summary indexes of the letters. Admiring the wonderful work that was done, the author stated that this magnificent edition was brought about through the painstaking and loving work of several Sisters from the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris; it was not dated but probably occurred in 1888.21

But the author lamented the fact that he was unable to consult the archives of the Motherhouse, thus unable to consult the letters that Louise wrote, the letters that were addressed to her and other documents in order to clarify some questionable dates, to compare references and to clarify other doubts. The civil war in Spain and then the Second World War prevented the author from making this consultation. Of all the works published until that time, this book contained the most additional explanations because the author had been able to do research that allowed him to condense the primary biographical, historical and geographical data concerning the persons, events or places that were mentioned in the letters or that were related to the letters [22]. But it was still not a definitive work.

The attractive personality of your holy mother emerges from the shadows

This was the thought that was awakened in the heart of Father Slattery when he held in his hands the book for which he had been requested to write an introductory letter. He was a witness to the extraordinary effect that the reading of several publications about Louise de Marillac had produced in many people. These were simple writings that had appeared in spiritual and historical journals, pamphlets, triptychs, etc, during the time of preparation for the 300th anniversary of her death. The Daughters of Charity appreciated all this material and listened to commentaries filled with enthusiasm and admiration for their Founder … they now felt encouraged to live more and more in her spirit.

But that book of 1,054 pages, austere and simple in appearance, signified for Father Slattery the discovery of a silent source of manna. A first reading of those writings of Louise de Marillac had produced the same effect as though one were running through the clouds in order to discover a beautiful scene. It seemed that until that time Louise’s physical appearance had remained enveloped in some type of cloud and therefore devoid of personality. Surprisingly, we have discovered in her writings a spiritual doctrine that is based on solid theological foundations, one that was inspired undoubtedly by the great spiritual authors of her time. But Louise knew how to formulate these ideas in an original manner. These writings reveal the depths of her interior life that was constantly nourished by meditation on the mysteries of Jesus’ and Mary’s life. This meditation was accompanied by good sense, a great experience in dealing with people and an extraordinary gift of leadership.

Here we are dealing with a work that was entitled: Louise de Marillac. Ses éscits. Simple and rustic in appearance, with a grey cover, this work was presented as a commemorative gesture on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Louise’s death. This book was familiarly called the grey book. Sister Regnault, who was in charge of the archives, was entrusted with its preparation. Father Slattery said that this book, along with the spiritual writings of Louise, contained all her letters that had been preserved, a total of 727 letters, 383 of them sent to Daughters of Charity. The criterion that was used in ordering these letters was the same as the one that Sister Geoffre used and this work maintained the same numbering that she had used. The letters that were found after the previous classification were included in their proper chronological place and a letter “b” “c” or “d” was attached to the number, thus we have 605b, 545b, 545c, 545d, etc.

Father Slattery was convinced that this would become the primary book for the Daughters of Charity. He added: You can but rejoice at seeing an attractive personality of your Holy Mother emerge from the shadows in which her humility had hidden her. But above all, you want those who will know her better in the future, and who esteem her so highly, to find her in those who have the honor of being her Daughters. More than ever before you can inter into her thoughts. You can read and reread her writings and it will be a pleasure for you to be able to enter into contact with this lofty spirit. Read these writings and live anew the supernatural meaning of your life. Read these writings and renew and intensify your commitment to the vocation that Louise held in high esteem. In these writings, as well as in the writings of Saint Vincent, you will find the most perfect expression of your spirit. How much light this work will provide to you! So many wonderful teachings with regard to your mutual friendships! Such consolation at the difficult moments of your life, moments that Louise experienced and that she helped the first Sisters to confront without becoming discouraged!22

This grey book that was published in France, substituted the collection that was published in 1886 in Brujas and that was no longer available. The Sisters were filled with a desire to know the thoughts of their Founder. Thus this work was embraced with great joy and satisfaction. This work was not translated into Spanish and the Sisters in Spain continued to use the letters of Saint Louise in the translation that Father Rosendo Castañares had produced. They awaited a new edition that would up-date the content and that would be more modern in its expression.

The 350th anniversary of the birth of the Company

The Second Vatican Council asked the members of religious communities to return to their origins. From the time of Sister Suzanne Guillemin, the superior generals invited the members of the Company to embark on a journey toward their roots. The decade of the 70’s during the last century was especially propitious to engage in the serious task of Vincentian research. Among the members of the Congregation of the Mission as well as among the members of the Daughters of Charity there was an awakening of interest in the search to discover authentic documents in order to guarantee that the material that was being shared with us came from an authentic source. Groups of adequately prepared Missionaries and Sisters dedicated their time, enthusiasm and their energy to the search for documents, to reflection, to study and to disseminating what they had discovered. In this way we were able to have a more precise and deeper knowledge about Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac.

With regard to our Founder, Louise de Marillac, it is important to recognize the special importance of the work that was accomplished by Sister Elisabeth Charpy and Father Benito Martínez. The research and reflection that preceded their publications shed new light on the letters of Saint Louise. The time had arrived in which a more authentic edition of the letters could be made, in which a better chronological order could be established and in which some previously unpublished letters could be made known to the public.

The time we are referring to was the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the foundation of the Company which occurred when Father Richard McCullen, CM and Sister Lucie Rogé, DC were heads of their respective congregations. On May 31st, 1983, a new work was published under the title: Saint Louise de Marillac, écrits spirituels. It was published in Tours by the publishing house Mame. Y, and comparing it to the previous edition many now called this “the blue book” because of the color of its cover. It includes 737 letters of which 383 were written to Daughters of Charity.

Faithful to our style, it was a simple yet respectful edition. In the beginning of the book we find an oval picture of Saint Louise with the inscription: A true picture of Mademoiselle Le Gras, the Founder and first superior of the Daughters of Charity, servant of the sick poor, died in Paris on March 15th, 1660 at the age of sixty-eight. The following poem appears on the same page: Le coeué d’un Saint Zele / Por les members de Jesus-Christ: / Cette Dame laisse après elle / Des Soeurs pleins du même Esprit. Translation: With a heart filled with holy zeal for the members of the Body of Christ, this woman leaves behind Sisters filled with the same Spirit.

There follows a preface written by Father McCullen in which he classified this new work as a wonderful undertaking (SWLM:xxxi). He affirmed that only very recently has her work been unearthed from the dust of three centuries (SWLM:xxxi). In reality, now is the time in which we are able to discover the great importance of her own contributions (SWLM:xxxi). Through a meditative reading of each one of the letters we are able to encounter a more faithful record of the exact words of Saint Louise, a more perfect expression of your spirit (SWLM:xxxii). He concluded by expressing his hope that this new edition be for all the Daughters of Charity a guide for an evermore efficacious service of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of our Lords and Masters, the Poor (SWLM:xxxii). The 737 letters preserve the complete text of the letters and different writings of Louise de Marillac without regrouping them by themes and without modifying the Seventeenth Century French (SWLM:xxxiv). They appear ordered chronologically in a more rigorous manner than previous editions and this ordering is based on a comparative study of other sources and documents. Each letter is accompanied by a classification number, which was begun when Sister Geoffre began to classify the letters and writings. The letters are preceded by “L” and the spiritual writings are preceded by “A”; documents classified later are preceded by “S” and “M” designates the copies made by Marguerite Chétif. The letters that were added to this edition have been inserted in the proper chronological place.

The work concludes with an appendix which contains a numerical listing of the spiritual writings, a lexicon to explain the meaning of the French words that are no longer used or whose meaning has changed, and finally there is a thematic index and a common index.

In 1985 CEME published a Spanish translation of this work23 which was done by Sister Pilar Pardiñas and her team of translators. Respecting not only the content but the external form, the editors had to rely on Father Benito Martínez to supply notes (fewer than we would have liked) that were intended to help the reader understand the content of the letters and to clarify the meaning of different expressions, the identification of places and events, etc.

By way of synthesis

Throughout history the letters of Louise de Marillac have been compiled in the following collections:

1661-1667: Manuscrito Chétif, Motherhouse (French edition) – contained 71 letters all of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1845: Confrences Spirtuelles de Saint Vincent de Paul pour les Filles de la Charité, Paris, Adrien Le Clére (French edition and a Spanish edition followed in 1868) – contained 63 letters all of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1886: Louise de Marillac, venve Le Gras – published in Brujas (Belgium) by Impr. Saint Augustin (French edition) – contained 361 letters, 231 of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1875-1888: “Recueils” de Seour de Geoffre. Motherhouse (French edition) – contained more than 649 letters, 329 of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1945: Cartas y escritos de Santa Luisa de Marillac – Madrid (Spanish edition) – contained 726 letters, 374 of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1961: Louise de Marillac. Ses écrits – Paris, Impr. P. Kremer (French Edition) – contained 727 letters, 383 of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

1983: Sainte Louise de Marillac, écrits spirituels – Tours, France, Imp. Mame Y (French edition and in 1985 a Spanish edition) – contained 737 letters, 383 of which were addressed to Daughters of Charity.

  1. La Compañía de las Hijas de la Caridad en sus orígines. Documentos. [The Company of the Daughters of Charity in its origins. Documents], Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 2003, p. 817.
  2. Ibid., p. 811.
  3. Ibid., p. 810.
  4. Ibid., p. 811.
  5. This is an island situation in front of the coast of Britan, in the Morbihan section. From 1572 it belonged to the de Gondi family and in 1658 was bought by Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances, the son of Marie Maupeou. The wife of Nicolas Fouquet was a Lady of Charity.
  6. La Compañía …, op,cit., p. 812-813.
  7. The Notebook of Marguerite Chétif is preserved in the archives at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity. There are two volumes: volume one contains the letters that Sister Marguerite copied and that are usually referenced with the initials “Ms. A. sor Chétif 1”; volume two contains some of the spiritual writings of Louise de Marillac that were also copied by Sister Marguerite and are referenced with the initials “Ms. A sor Chétif 2”.
  8. Cf., Sister Elisabeth, “Sor Margarita Chétif 1621-1694” in Ecos de la Compañía, 1985, #19, p. 436-437. See also, Louise de Marillac, Correspondencia y Escritos, Editorial CEME, Salamanca, 1985, p. 8.
  9. The thirty-five letters are the following (the numbering here is according to the English edition of SWLM): 70b, 125b, 186b, 200b, 287b, 290b, 360b, 378, 381, 388, 390, 394, 396, 400, 402, 405, 415, 424, 426, 429, 435, 437, 441, 448, 458, 468, 469, 485, 508, 519, 520b, 546, 564, 574, [the last one is listed as #471 in the Spanish text and in the copy of I have there is no #471 so I did not know how to list this last number].
  10. Louise de Marillac, veuve de M. Le Gras, sa vie, ses vertus, son esprit, Tomo I, Imprime par al Societe St. Augustin, Bruges, 1886, p. 299.
  11. Vandamme, A., Le corps de Saint Vincent de Paul, Imprimerie F. Paillart, Abbeville, 1913, p. 81.
  12. This text is taken from the page v of the introduction to the 1845 French Edition of the the Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac.
  13. This work was entitled Conferences spirituelles de Saint Vincent de Paul pour les Filles de la Charité. It was put together in three thick volumes. The first volume was entitled: Conférences spiritualles tenues por les Filles de la Charité, par Saint Vincent de Paúl, leur Instituteur; recuellies de mémoire par quelques soeurs présentes, et revues par un Prѐtre de la Congregation de la Mission. The second volume had the title: Circualires et notices. The third volume was entitled: Conférences des Superieurs Generaux et des Superieures Generales aux Filles de la Charité. This work was edited by Adrien Le Clѐre and published by Nouvelle édition, Paris, 1845. We know there was a first edition to this work (also three volumes0 that was published in 1825 but because we were unable to consult this work we do not know if it includes the letters of Louise de Marillac.
  14. This work was published in Madrid by Imprenta de la Esperanza. Volume one was published in 1867 and volume two was published the following year, 1868.
  15. Louise de Marillac, veuve de M. Le Gras, sa vie, ses vertus, son esprit was published by the Saint Augustine Society, Bruges, 1886. This was a four volume work. Volume I was a reprint of the biography of Louise de Marillac that had been written by Gobillon in 1676 and also contained some other documents. Volume II contained Louise’s spiritual writings and volume III and IV contained her letters.
  16. Sister M. Derieux was superior general of the Daughters of Charity.
  17. Louise de Marillac, veuve de M. Le Gras, sa vie, ses vertus, son esprit, Saint Augustine Society, Bruges, 1886, Volume I, pp. iii-viii.
  18. See Louise de Marillac, veuve de M. Le Gras, ses lettres, Saint Augustine Society, Bruges, 1886, Volume III, p. v.
  19. The work contained 771 letters. Father Castañares included 45 letters that Louise had received from different individuals.
  20. Cartas y escritos de Santa Luisa de Marillac cofundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad, traducida del francés, de los autógrafos de la Santa, anotadas y comentadas por el R.P. Rosendo Castañares de la Congregación dee la Misión, Blass, S.A. Tipográfica, Madrid, 1945, three volume work.
  21. Father Castañares spoke about this book serving as a source and a work that he was able to consult but, at the present time, we do not know its precise location.
  22. Louise de Marillac. Ses Éscits. Imp. P. Kremer, Paris, 1961, p. i-iii.
  23. Saint Louise de Marillac, Correspondencia y escritos, Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 1985.

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