Women in the Church at the time of Saint Vincent

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Luigi Mezzadri, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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Women in general

In the modern time, there were two positions with regard to women.1 On one side, there was a strengthening of the view regarding the inferior position of the woman as revealed in the following instances:

  • A misogynist reaction against the rule of women, like Catherine of Medici (Italian). There was the “gynecocratique dispute” led by Jean Bodin and shared by Protestant authors like the Scottish reformer John Knox (against Mary Stuart) and the Anglican theologian, Christopher Goodman (against Mary Tudor).
  • Inability of the married woman to administer her inheritance: “The husband is the lord of the goods of the community in marriage….” “The married woman cannot sell, cannot go to court or commit herself without the consent of her husband.”
  • The right to choose the groom belongs to the family, he/she who marries without the consent of the family could be dis­inherited. To incite the son or daughter to go against this was a crime punishable by death (1556, 1589).
  • The midwife had to denounce secret pregnancies.
  • Cases of witchcraft were mostly against women.

On the other hand, women had greater influence:

  • There was an interesting literary debate on the role of women (Marie de Gournay, Equality between men and women (1622), Poulain de La Batre, Equality of the sexes, Education of women, The Excellence of men against the equality of the sexes. Gabrielle Suchon held that women had a right to govern and to travel (A Treatise on Morality and Politics).
  • With the edict of 1581 and 1597, women could not have res­ponsibility in business (except in embroidery, tailoring and confectionary). The widows could succeed their husband’s enterprises, provided they were not put in charge of the workers, nor had to watch over the apprentices and did not marry again. Until Mme. de La Fontaine (1655-1738), women could not be professional ballet dancers. It was Lully who introduced the women in his ballet dancing. At the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the women were allowed to play musical instruments publicly. In 1669, the women were admitted to stage plays in the theaters.

The Missionaries (Lazarists) took on a negative role. I take from the history of the Congregation. Since the beginning, there sur­faced the problem of the theater. The missionaries were notoriously against theatrical representations whether in the missions or in the seminaries. This was a particular case. Racine wrote deliberately for the boarders, Esther and Athalie. Everybody remained enthusiastic about the presentation given by the girls. Francois Herbert (1657-1728), parish priest of the main parish of Versailles, was among those who opposed this type of spectacle. They came to perform amidst praises in the court. But Herbert did not hide his displeasure. For moral reasons he did not want to offer similar presentations to the attention of the men in the court. He allowed the theater in men’s colleges. Man has public roles so that when he presents himself on a stage play he is just rehearsing the scenes of real life that will follow. But for the women it is not so. In fact, “to be wise, they must stay at home, avoid being seen around and remain hidden.”2 It was afterwards decided that the presentations could continue in public without men, except the king and without the ecclesiastics. This is reflected in published documents (cf. L. Mezzadri, J. M. Roman, Histoire de la Congregacion de la Mission I, Paris, 1994, 2190-227).

Women and service

1. In the Middles Ages

One essential phase in the liberation of the women happened with the community of women for service. Already in the Middle Ages there existed communities of women who dedicated themselves to the assistance of the sick in hospitals or in the homes. Nuns in grey could be seen; whether those formed in the federation of Saint Omer like those in the chapter of Utrecht (1399) and in Zepperen (from 1450). There were also the communities of Aarschot (1200), Diest (1348), Tienen (1326), Velzeke (1344) and Zoutleeuw (1371). Following the example of the holy queen Elizabeth of Hungary (+1231) were the Elizabethan communities of France, Austria, Germany. They gradually became religious with simple vows then afterwards solemn vows.

An interesting phenomenon was that of the “beguine.” In the 11th and 12th centuries many monasteries began to allow some women that wanted to live the same life of perfection as the monks or the nuns to live in their vicinity. Unfortunately in 1170 and the following years, a movement that rejected this practice was started most espe­cially because the monasteries could not afford anymore to support these women who quickly became very numerous. These women then were forced to live an eremitical (hermit) life in the midst of the people. Many of them began to lodge in small houses in the vicinity of a hospital or of a leper colony in order to assist the sick. In 1216, contrary to what the Lateran Council IV had decided, the Pope granted the beguines permission to live together in their homes encouraging one another with pious exhortations. That was the beginning of the beghinaggi. These were real villages built inside the Flemish cities, surrounded by a wall and a canal. The “beguines” did not take public vows, but only private vows of obedience and chastity. They were living in sobriety, working with their own hands in order to imitate the apostolic life. They took care of the sick and educated young girls.

2. Contrasting Tridentine reforms

The critical point at this moment in history was constituted by the restoration of the cloister with the Council of Trent and with Pope Pius V. It did not deal with an exaggeration, nor an abuse, but a necessity.

In the autumn of the Middle Ages, life in many religious houses left much to be desired. They were monasteries rich in material and human resources but poor in interior life. The Church had become worldly. The contagion had entered the monasteries. On October 8, 1498 the theological faculty of Paris condemned the following proposition: “It would be better to take one’s daughter by the hand and bring her to a house of prostitution rather than put her in a reli­gious house unreformed.”2 The worst were not the scandals, but the fact that those who entered the monastery did so not to follow Christ but to follow the will of the family. It was during those years that the turning point happened.

From Italy came the experience of Saint Angela Merici. She did not have in mind to found a religious congregation. In Brescia, there was the outbreak of the syphilis plague. She saw in this situation (syphilis was considered incurable) a call of Providence. She began to visit the sick, then the families. She found in many cases, many girls that needed protection. Two ways were chosen. The first was more practical i.e. to put together the girls in a kind of a shelter. So from 1532 Elizabeth Prato opened the Orphanage of Piety. Angela iden­tified another way i.e. to educate the girls but leaving them in the family. Among many girls, Angela found some ready to consecrate their virginity. In 1535, she founded the Company of Virgins of S. Orsola. It took the form of an Institute for Assistance oriented towards education.

The novelty gave rise to many contrasts. The first Superior after the death of Angela, Lucrezia Lodrone imposed a leather belt before giving a religious habit. Nonetheless, the sisters continued to teach catechism and to serve the sick.

The Ursulines prospered because it was the idea behind their beginnings that attracted. It was a sign that responded to the needs of the time. With their spread also came monasticism as it happened in Italy and in France.

But from Spain came a push towards the opposite. The reforms of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) had an immense importance. In 1554 her monastic life had a salutary turning point. She became con­scious of a dryness in her relations with God. God was not everything for her. She started a new chapter in her life with the foundation of S. Jose of Avila (24-08-1562).

The reforms of Saint Teresa tended to centre life on contem­plation and prayer as contacts with Christ in friendship within a frame of a more strict penance, but with awareness of the situation of the world, like the spread of Protestantism, the profanation of the Eucharist and the missionary adventure to the New World.

3. Religious life in France

When France experienced peace after the religious wars, it started to renew the traditional monastic life. One of the instruments used to reform certain decadent monasteries was the restoration of the cloistered life. But it also imposed new realities. In 1610, the bishops obliged all religious to profess solemn vows and to be enclosed in the cloister. Three years later the congregation of Notre Dame of Pierre Fourier was constrained to be cloistered and to abandon the schools. The same happened to Saint Francis de Sales when he founded the second monastery of the Visitation in Lionne and to the Ursulines, with the exception of those of Anne de Ziantonge (1606) since Dole was then a part of the Franca Contea Spagnola.

Saint Francis de Sales did not think of founding an active com­munity, but only a contemplative community with a style of life less austere than those of Saint Claire or the Carmelites. He wanted, too, to allow persons of the nobility to enter the monastery without imposing on them excessive fatigue. The cloistered life did not allow this. When he wanted to found the second house, he chose the diocese of Lionne. With such cases involving more houses, one could think of a new order but now demanding enclosure and solemn vows. It was what the archbishop of Lionne, Denis de Marquemont, required them to observe.

Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal were not opposed to this new form that was not in contrast with their intention. The prodigious success of the Visitation (in Paris alone while Vincent was still alive, five monasteries were founded) showed that they responded to the need of the times.

If we take into consideration the French foundations in the 16th century, we can find some constants:

  1. The Daughters of Providence were founded by a Lady of Charity and spiritual daughter of Saint Vincent, Marie Lumague, widow of Pollalion (1599-1657) in 1641. They constituted the nucleus of the community of the Christian Union of Saint-Chaumond.
  2. The Daughters of Saint Genevieve, founded in the Parish of Saint Nicholas of Chardonnet by Madame du Bioscot under the direction of Bourdoise. Upon the death of the Foundress, the nuns united in 1662 with the Daughters of the Holy Family founded by another lady, Marie Bonneau di Miramion (1629­1696). She had remained a widow with a daughter after six months of marriage. Aside from being young, she was very rich. Therefore she was a good catch. She had refused fiery pretenders among whom was Bussy Rabutin who tried to kidnap her. She was advised by Vincent to enter the Visitation. Energetic, convincing and personal, she was at the origin of many initiatives of charity.
  3. Sisters of Saint Agnes founded by Madam Jeanne Biscot (1601­1664). She had a great desire for solitude. She even enclosed herself in a small cell, but a confessor made her understand that this was not the will of God. A little later she was made to understand that her vocation was to take care of poor children. Her community began in 1643.
  4. The Augustinian Hospitallers of Charity of our Lady was founded in Paris in 1628 by Simone Gauguin, who took the religious name Francoise de la Croix (1591-1657). Their Con­stitutions were examined by Vincent and approved by Pope Urban VIII in 1633. They took care of the sick.
  5. The Daughters of the Cross were founded by Pierre Guerin and Marie L’Huillier de Villenueve (1597-1650) for the educa­tion of the youth. Villeneuve, widow at twenty-six years of age with two daughters, intended to found a teaching congregation like the Visitation but without cloister. She asked the Visitation for some Sisters. When they were asked to make the profession of vows, a group returned to Saint Georges and started the Daughters of the Cross of Saint Quentin. The other group remained. The Foundress gave them the Rule in 1646 based on the suggestions given by Saint Francis de Sales. Her untimely death put the Institute in crisis. It was saved through the merit of Saint Vincent. It was an institute not cloistered with private vows. Each house was autonomous and put under the guidance of the bishop. The work was the education of poor girls and the spiritual exercises/retreats. The Bishop of Lavaur in 1685 founded the institute of Daughters of the Cross modeled after that in Paris.
  6. The Madelonnettes have a strange origin. In 1618 a wine mer­chant, Robert de Montry, was approached by two prostitutes in Paris. He invited them to change their lives. For the two women it was easier to promise him that to do it. Then the pious merchant strived together with some friends, among whom was the Capuchin, Atanasio Mole, brother of the famous president of the Parliament of Paris, to come to help them. A house was bought and the sister of Cardinal Franceso di Gondi was in-charge of guiding the internal life (community life) of the new community. In 1620 the monastery was transferred to Rue des Fontainesdu Temple. In 1648 the chapel of the monastery was inaugurated in the presence of Anne of Austria. For their direction, four Visitation sisters were in charge at first upon the advice of Saint Vincent; then they were replaced in 1677 by the Ursulines. They were succeeded by the Hospitaller Sisters of the Mercy of Jesus and finally by the religious of N. D. de la Charite, signs that the internal life of the community was not easy. There were in fact four categories of members:
    • The detained/imprisoned
    • The converted prostitutes called Daughters of Saint Marta, in grey habit, with temporary vows. These could get married at the end of their vows.
    • The Daughters of Saint Magdalena with solemn vows
    • The congregation of Saint Lazzaro made up of prostitutes of the high class like Ninon de Lenclos and Madame de Lescalopier. The way they were served made their seclusion sweeter for them.
  7. To these communities we may add the short-lived Congrega­tion of the Filles de l’Interieure de la Vierge for which Madame Ann Campet de Saujon had asked advice from Saint Vincent in 1660.3 She was one of those unstable persons desirous of applying their dreams to others. She stayed in Carmel and then with the other ladies started a communitarian experience. At the death of the first superior, Madame Tronson, she was nominated to replace her, notwithstanding the advice given some years before by Olier not to give her responsibility of authority. The Archbishop himself deposed her after having verified that the many protests were true. Then she took revenge by asking the court to suppress the community.

We have already mentioned the Visitation, so we have to add other communities not connected with or related with Saint Vincent.

  1. First of all, the foundation of Lorain by Blessed Alix Le Clerc (1576-1622) and Saint Pierre Fourier (1565-1640). At nineteen years of age, she felt uncomfortable with the life she was living. On Christmas of 1597, advised by Fourier, the parish priest of Mattaincourt, she consecrated herself with four com­panions to do everything good possible in which apostolic and religious life could be united. Thereafter, they concretized these ideals in teaching young girls. In 1615, they transformed them­selves into a religious order, the Compagnia di Nostra Signora delle Canonichese of Saint Agustin. The change was requested by some nuns since the families were having difficulties in entrusting their children to an “invisible order.”
  2. Some time after, precisely in 1605, arose in Bordeaux the Com­pagnia di Maria Nostra Signora (Ordre de Notre Dame). Saint Jeanne de Lestonnac Eyquem de Montaigne (1556-1640) was the daughter of a Catholic father and a Calvinist mother. During the first phase of her life, the influence of her mother and uncle, the famous thinker, Montaigne, was determinant. Under the Jesuit influence, she entered into herself, strengthened her own faith and separated from her mother. She married Gaston de Moderrand with whom she had seven children. The order could have been made the women counterpart of the Society of Jesus. The purpose was the defense of the faith. They committed themselves at once to the teaching of the faith to remove many girls from the danger of heresy. The long struggle which the Foundress had to sustain was interesting. In the end they obtained permission for what might be a monastic order with apostolic goal. The nuns were exempted from the choir, reciting only the Office of Our Lady, and had a long and articulated period of formation, with the imprint of the Jesuit spirituality which did not give preference to corporal penances but to the availability of the will. Finally, the cloister assumed in the beginning was modified and mitigated in view of the daily tasks of teaching.
  3. Schools for the education of poor children existed in Rouen, but they lacked well-prepared teachers. Nicolas Barre (1621­1686) of the Order of Minimi tried to respond by founding the teachers of the School of Bambino Gesu from which derived the Institute of the Holy Infant Jesus. The teachers who took part in it did not have vows but only promises. After the death of Barre, the Institute was divided into two branches (1689) which were reunited in 1970.
  4. Summarized reflection on the types of consecrated life in the 17th century.
    1. Of twelve Congregations, six were founded by widows. All were women from the nobility or the upper middle class, persons accustomed to relate with people, and to command; suitable, therefore, to guide persons through difficult paths in the world.
    2. The aversion to the cloister and the attempt to synthesize the desire for perfection and commitment to the apostolate was very strong in most cases.
    3. There were most often two figures involved—a masculine and a feminine figure. The women’s initiative was not subordinate. Chantal, Madam Villeneuve and Madame de Miramion were not pale figures. By that time, the women were no longer timid Adam’s ribs. They ordered, regulated and demanded.
    4. To assure the attainment of the proper goal of the Institute, many introduced the 4th vow.
    5. As for the ministry, there were two venues: education and service of the sick.

In education, some communities ended up with works chosen according to social classes, accepting only girls from the aristocracy. For all the communities, religious and moral formation prevailed over the cultural. Could we not see in this fact the reason why for gene­rations women were close to the Church?

Saint Vincent and women

Saint Vincent had an excellent rapport with women, from his family (mother and sisters) and with those he encountered.4 In the conference of January 23, 1643 he cited the country women of his village: “I will talk very willingly about the virtues of the brave women of the villages, for the knowledge I have of them, for the direct experience and by nature, being the son of a poor farmer and having lived in the country until age of fifteen.”5

Saint Vincent came in contact with great ladies, Marguerite de Silly, countess of Joigny and Madame of Montmirail, who suggested the idea of preaching in Folleville6 and was the “Foundress” of the Congregation of the Mission. Louise de Marillac was the lady who collaborated with Saint Vincent. The Sisters whom popular piety named “Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul” could have been called “Daughters of Mademoiselle Le Gras!” Louise de Marillac was at the same time co-Foundress and Superioress General, under the spiritual guidance of Saint Vincent de Paul. She was a great mystic and a wise administrator.

We remember then Saint Giovanna Francesca de Chantal, Marie Madeleine de Vignerod, Duchess d’Aiguillon, founded the house of the mission of Notre Dame de la Rose of Marseille with an annex hospital for galley slaves of Richelieu of Rome besides the Consulate of Algeri and Tunisi. Genevieve Goussault, Mademoiselle de Pollailon, Mademoiselle du Fay, cousin of S. Luisa, Madame di Villeneuve, born Marie Lhuillier, Madame of Miramion, Madame de Lamoignon, (“one of the holiest women I know,” Saint Francis de Sales said of her), Marie de Fouquet, Madeleine Seguier, Madame de Traversay, Mademoiselle Viole, the princess of Conde, mother of Gran Gonde, the duchess of Nemours, Marie d’Orleans, Luisa Maria Gonzaga, queen of Poland.

For this reason Saint Vincent could confess; “since about 800 years ago or thereabout, women did not have a public role in the Church. Before there were the deaconesses, whose duty was to instruct the women about the ceremonies they used to participate in. But towards the time of Charlemagne, because of a secret plan of Divine Providence, this custom was stopped and the feminine sex was deprived of this privilege without anybody intervening in their favor. Behold now, the same Divine Providence speaks today to some of you to come to the rescue of the poor sick of the Hotel Dieu. You are just answering to God’s plans and more and more of you joined those who were called first. The Lord asks them to be the mothers of the abandoned babies, the directresses of the hospital and dispensers of the alms of Paris for the provinces and above all for the most abandoned. These good souls answered the call with ardor and firmness by the grace of God.”7

Their role in the Church is expressed in this citation: “There is then this difference between these (The Daughters of Charity) and the religious, that the religious’ aim is their own perfection, while these Daughters are occupied, as we are, for the salvation and welfare of their neighbors. And if I say ‘as we,’ I do not say anything contrary to the Gospel, but really what was the custom of the primitive Church, because our Lord accepted the care of some women that used to follow Him and again we read in the Acts of Apostles that women administered what was necessary to the faithful and that they were considered having an apostolic function.”8

  1. P. Bugnion-Secretan, Mere Angelique Amauld, 1591-1661, d’apres ses ecrits (Paris, 1991); J. de Viguerie, Une forme nouvelle de vie consacree: enseignantes et hospitalieres en France aux XV1Pme et XVIIP”‘ siecles, Femmes et pouvoirs sous l’Ancien Regime (Paris, 1991); C. Cessac, Une femme compositeur sous le regne de Louis XIV(Arles, 1995).
  2. CD. L’Argentre, Collectio iudiciorum de novis erroribus, 1/2 (Paris, 1728), p. 340.
  3. Coste VIII, Letter 3224, p. 473.
  4. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 195, p. 607; Cf. Coste X, Conference 86, p. 290.
  5. Coste IX, Conference 13, p. 67.
  6. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 180, p. 418.
  7. Coste XIIIb, Document 198, p. 432.
  8. Coste VIII, Letter 3077, pp. 278-279.

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