Spiritual Moderator: Founding Stories of the Ladies of Charity

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

The Founding Stories of the Ladies of Charity

Opening Reflection

You must do what the Son of God did when He was on earth. After submitting His will, … He labored unceasingly for his neighbor, visiting and healing the sick and instructing the ignorant unto their salvation… You have the happiness to be … called to this holy work. SV, Conference July 5, 1640.


Foundation of the Ladies of Charity in Paris

Historically, the organization of Ladies of Charity is the first of the great foundations of St. Vincent de Paul. At the time of its origin, St. Vincent was Pastor at Chatillon-les-Dombes in the diocese of Lyons. On a Sunday in August 1617, he was vesting for High Mass. A lady came in and informed him that on a farm about a half mile away, all the members of the family were ill and in dire need. He was greatly affected. In his sermon he spoke so feelingly and urgently of these poor people that many kindhearted persons went to assist them, bringing bread and other necessities. After Vespers, Vincent de Paul also went to the farm. Seeing the large crowd of people going and coming in response to his appeal, and finding that a superabundance of provisions had been donated, he realized the efficacy of his words. “These good people are exercising great charity,” he said, “but it is not well regulated. This poor family will have too many provisions at one time and some of them will be spoiled or wasted; in a short time these persons will be reduced to their former state of need. Would it not be possible to induce these good women to give themselves to God to serve the poor permanently?”


A few days later, on August 23, he assembled several women of the parish and suggested to them that they band together to carry out this good work. They agreed. He outlined rules which received the approbation of the Archbishop of Lyons and resulted in the formation of the first Association of the Ladies of Charity. It was canonically approved December 8, 1617, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Manual of the Ladies of Chrity of the United States of America, p. 1


Foundation in the United States

The first American Lady of Charity was a twenty-three year old wife and mother named Catherine Harkins. Born in Ireland, Catherine was brought to New York by her parents. The family soon moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where Catherine received her education. (At this time the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg were conducting St. Ann’s School in Pottsville.) The family moved again to Paris, Kentucky, where, at the age of 19, Catherine married Captain Hugh Harkins, a Mississippi steamboat owner whom she had met in St. Louis. The couple took up residence in St. Louis in 1857, settling in St. Vincent de Paul Parish.


Shortly after their move to St. Louis, Mrs. Harkins had a vivid dream of St. Vincent walking through snow-covered streets and gathering neglected children under his cloak. He spoke to the dreamer and directed her to assist the poor too. When the dream had been repeated three times, she decided to mention it in confession. The priest told her it was more than a dream; it was more like a vision. He directed her to return home and pray for enlightenment, and to come back to the same confessional the next day.


She did as directed, but found a different priest in the confessional – Fr. Urban Gagnepain, CM. He encouraged her to repeat her story, listened with interest, and promised to offer the Holy Sacrifice for guidance, while directing her to continue her prayers. He later directed her to gather some assistants to form a society for the care of the poor, adding that, if the inspiration was not from God, the work would not progress.

The association was formed December 8, 1857 and called the Ladies of Charity Colette Padberg and Sister Daniel Hannefin

Reflection Questions

As you reflect on these two founding stories of the Ladies of Charity both in France and in Paris, what images, words come to your mind?

As you reflect on the Vincentian call to serve the poor today, how do you image it? Briefly describe what comes to mind.

Describe an experience where you perceived your call to serve the poor as life-giving.

Closing Reflection

Do the impossible in order to go to the poorest of the Poor. There are so many of them today. In the name of the Church, I bring to your attention… to the charity of God, which burns in your hearts, the refugees, the unemployed, the starving, the victims of drugs and of marginalization. The more available you are to the most unfortunate, the more you will feel the need to live in your own life that material poverty of which St. Vincent spoke so ardently: “You have a right only to food and clothing, the rest belongs to the Poor.” The whole Church needs to remember that while evangelization cannot snap its fingers at modern means, evangelizers must be seen to be disciples of the poor Christ. Go, through the entire world! The Church counts a great deal on you. Pope John Paul II, to the Daughters of Charity, June 20, 1985.

Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created. Esther 4:14


Prayer Texts

  • Lk 2:19,51 Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.
  • Ez3:2-3 I opened my mouth; God gave me the scroll to eat and said, ‘…feed and be satisfied by the scroll I am giving you.” I ate it and it tasted sweet as honey.
  • Phil 4:4-13 Rejoice in the Lord Jesus always … in the one who is the source of strength, I have strength for everything.