Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 29

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Index of Abelly: Book One

The Founding of a Group of Women to Serve in the Hotel Dieu Hospital of Paris and for Other Works of Charity in Paris and Elsewhere

The many ills in this valley of tears forces charitable souls to expand their care and increase their ways of meeting the diverse needs of so many suffering people. Monsieur Vincent, as a person totally taken up with this virtue, was ever on the alert to hear of special needs, and his heart was ever disposed to respond. He held to the maxim of never pushing himself into new enterprises. He believed in waiting for a manifestation of the will of God, usually through others, especially superiors, rather than acting by his own initiative. His humility made him diffident about his own perceptions and alert to the possibility that he might be mistaken, especially when it came to knowing the designs of God in unusual enterprises.

This explains why he listened with such great interest and with such respect to those who proposed something that ought to be done, especially when it came from persons with a reputation for virtue. In this spirit he considered a proposal made to him in 1634 by Madame Goussault. <Ftn: In 1613 Genevieve Fayet married Antoine Goussault, a royal councillor and president of the Chambre des Comptes. Her husband died in 1634, and she then dedicated herself to works of charity. She had the idea of an association of ladies for the relief of the sick in the Hotel Dieu in Paris, and was their first superior. She saw that the Daughters of Charity were called to the hospital of Angers. Her name occurs frequently in Saint Vincent's correspondence. She died September 20, 1639.> Her memory is held in benediction because of her great charity. This lady had been widowed in the flower of her age. Although all avenues were open to her, because of her gifts of nature and fortune she renounced all prospects to commit herself to Jesus Christ. She generously resolved to devote herself solely to serve the poor, particularly the sick among them. She often went to the hospital of Paris, the Hotel Dieu, to visit, but did not find things well run there, such as they later became. She appealed to Monsieur Vincent to extend his charity to these poor people and asked advice on how best to bring about some needed changes in this large hospital.

In keeping with his usual prudence and discretion he felt it best not to use the scythe in another man's field. That is, he did not wish to meddle, whether spiritually or temporally, in the hospital already under the direction of those he thought capable of bringing about any necessary changes.

Madame Goussault tried for a long time to persuade him to take an interest in this project, but finally was convinced that she was not going to change his mind. Instead, she contacted the late archbishop of Paris, who informed Monsieur Vincent that he would be happy to see him consider the proposition of this virtuous lady that an assembly of women should be formed to look after the sick in the hospital. The archbishop asked Monsieur Vincent to think how best to bring about this new organization of women.

Monsieur Vincent recognized the will of God in this order of the archbishop and accepted his suggestion. He first brought together several women to discuss the matter. He spoke so effectively that on the spot they agreed to give themselves to this good work. The names of these first women were the following, as we learn from a letter of Mademoiselle le Gras:

Yesterday a meeting was held at the home of Madame Goussault. Present were Mesdames de Villesavin, de Bailleul, du Mecq, Sainctot and Pollalion. The proposal as presented was accepted, and we agreed to meet again next Monday. Meanwhile, we will pray for God's blessing and receive communion for this intention. Each of us will speak to our women friends about this. Madame de Beaufort will take care of this. We need you and your daughters, perhaps four of them. We will also have to think of some way to get some servants. <Ftn: CED I:229-31. The foundation of the Ladies of Charity has to be dated to about June 1634.>

The second assembly was better attended than the first. Among those present were the wife of the chancellor, <Ftn: Coste, Life I:322, note 60, corrects the identification of this person from Elisabeth d'Aligre to Madeleine Fabri, the wife of the chancellor, Pierre Seguier.> Madame Fouquet, <Ftn: Marie Fouquet> Madame de Traversai, and several other virtuous noble ladies, who joined the first group. Three officers were elected by the group, a superior, an assistant, and a treasurer. Madame Goussault was the first superior, and Monsieur Vincent was designated the permanent director of this company. The virtues and example of these first women attracted several others, so that soon more than two hundred women had enrolled, even some from the nobility, such as presidents' wives, countesses, marchionesses, duchesses and princesses, and all considered it an honor to offer themselves to God to serve the poor, recognizing them as the living members of his Son, Jesus Christ. <Ftn: The noble ladies of the court wanted a group of their own Ladies of Charity in imitation of those in the parishes of Paris. Queen Anne of Austria, whose own piety and support of Saint Vincent were well known, wanted to be part of this group. CED XIII:821-22.>

This company, under Monsieur Vincent's direction, began in that year, 1634, a fruitful service to the Hotel Dieu hospital which lasted all his life and even after his death. The women provided both corporal and spiritual aid, which this father of the poor urged them to add to the past usage of the hospital, either because of insufficient care or lack of certain facilities. It held a thousand or even twelve hundred patients, with this number increasing to over two thousand later. There was a constant coming and going of these poor sick people. Some remained for a week or two, and others stayed longer, for a month or more. On some days, fifty, sixty or eighty, were admitted, and sometimes a hundred. Each year at least twenty to twenty-five thousand passed through the hospital. Some were cured, some died. In either case a harvest of souls was ready for the reaping. It offered a favorable occasion for reforming their lives by a general confession and a conversion of morals, or possibly by preparing themselves to crown their life by a happy death.

Monsieur Vincent did not experience much difficulty in bringing together these women or in having them work for the poor. The question of working in the Hotel Dieu hospital was otherwise. From his first talk to them, he pointed out the likelihood of their service being misunderstood, for their charitable service would emphasize the deficiencies in the administration of the hospital, leading to obvious difficulties. He had spoken of the great good they could do, but at the cost of great opposition. The women should prepare themselves well, he said, and consider carefully how best to carry out their ministry. He himself thought it best to contact the administrators of the Hotel Dieu to alert them to the good intentions and virtues of these charitable women, as well as to inform them of the directive he had received from the archbishop. To their credit, the administrators agreed to allow the women to come into the hospital, to serve the sick in many different ways.

After appointing those who would begin these visits and others to follow, he provided a set of practical recommendations: (1) Each day, before entering the Hotel Dieu hospital, they should invoke the help of our Lord, the true Father of the poor, and the intercession of the Virgin Mary and of Saint Louis, the founder of the hospital. (2) They should present themselves to the religious sisters in charge of the hospital, offering to work with them in serving the sick, to participate in their merits before God. (3) They should esteem and respect these religious as visible angels and speak of them with kindness and humility, always with an entire deference. (4) Should their good intentions not be appreciated, they should be understanding, seek to appreciate their perspective, and never try to get the better of them.

He said to them:

We say we are trying to help the poor and to aid them in their search for salvation, but we will do neither without the help of these good religious in charge. We must show them every respect, as mothers of the poor, as spouses of our Lord and as the ladies of the house. The Spirit of God works gently. This is how we must act if we hope to succeed in our mission.

In this spirit, then, Monsieur Vincent began this holy work and directed wisely and prudently these good women as they began to serve the poor in the hospital. They found easy access to all departments because of their kindly and respectful attitude towards the sisters in charge. This extended not only to the services the sisters provided for the sick and convalescent but also even to their relatives when occasion arose. They were free to go from ward to ward, from bed to bed, consoling the sick, speaking to them of God, and bringing them to make good use of their sufferings.

So as not to come to these poor with empty hands, the ladies worked out with Monsieur Vincent that they would bring some sweets between dinner and supper, to supplement their words of consolation and edification. They rented a room near the hospital to prepare and store the fruit, jellies, or other small items suitable for the sick. They also asked the Daughters of Charity to buy and prepare these things, and help in their distribution.

Monsieur Vincent was away when the Daughters were invited to help. When he learned of it, he wrote to Mademoiselle le Gras, "God bless you, Mademoiselle, for sending your Daughters to the hospital, Hotel Dieu, to help out. Be careful of your health, for you know how much you are needed." <Ftn: CED I:371.> Because this good Mademoiselle was so zealous for the service of the sick poor, she ever feared she was not doing enough to cooperate with the designs of God upon her, although she was doing everything humanly possible. Monsieur Vincent wrote to her:

It is not helpful to remain at the hospital, but to come and go would be all right. Do not fear to do all the good that comes your way, but do fear the wish of undertaking more than you are able, and more than God gives you strength to accomplish. The thought of going beyond this makes me tremble with fear, for it seems to be against the designs of Providence. I thank our Lord for his grace to your Daughters which makes them so generous and so well disposed to serve him. There is good reason to believe his goodness, as you said, will supply for whatever might be lacking on your part when you are obliged to attend to other things, such as directing the company. <Ftn: CED I:304-05.>

With this rented room and the Daughters to help, the ladies prepared soups appropriate for the often numerous sick, and distributed these each morning. Around three o'clock in the afternoon they would then bring a snack for everyone. It consisted of white bread, cakes, jelly or preserves, raisins or cherries in season, and in winter tea, cooked pears or sugared toast. Later they had to stop the bread, cakes, and tea because of the expense, and also the soup because the hospital itself began to supply it. Each day four or five of the ladies would go to distribute this snack. Putting on an apron, each would go to a particular room, where she would go from bed to bed, distributing what she had brought. This service was given to these poor sick people, or rather to Jesus Christ in their person, to help them in their bodily needs. <Ftn: CED I:253-54.>

To help them spiritually, they would speak to the sick with great kindness, with compassion for their suffering, and with a recommendation to accept their state with patience and submission to God's will. When they came across women or girls not well enough informed about things necessary for salvation, they would gently bring them to understand what must be believed and done to assure salvation. They helped prepare them for a good general confession if it appeared they would benefit from it. If it seemed the illness was mortal, they would help prepare them for a happy death. In those cases where a cure was hoped for, they would try to bring them to resolve to live good lives in the future.

To help out in this charitable service Monsieur Vincent had printed a short tract containing the main points for the instruction of the sick. This booklet contained four recommendations for the ladies: (1) This booklet should be held in the hand when the poor were spoken to, to show that the conversation was not to be general or about themselves, but only of what was in the booklet. (2) They should dress as simply as possible on those days they went to the hospital, or at least keep from vain and fancy clothes so as not to cause difficulty to these poor people. Seeing the excesses and extremes of the rich, they ordinarily think more of the things they do not have than of those things which they need. (3) They should treat the poor with great humility, meekness, and affability, speaking to them in a familiar and cordial manner, the better to gain them to God. He then spoke of the best way to prepare the sick for making a general confession, in simple, colloquial language, which will show the reader the charity that filled the heart of this father of the poor.

My good sister, has it been a while since you have gone to confession? Would you be willing to make a general confession if you are shown how to do it? I have heard how important it would be for my own salvation to make a good confession before dying. This would remedy faults I may have had in making my ordinary confessions and help me have a greater sorrow for my sins, seeing all I have committed in my whole life and the great mercy of God who has put up with me and has not condemned me or sent me to hell even though I deserved it. Instead, he has waited for my confession to pardon me and give me paradise if I turn to him with my whole heart, as I hope to do with the help of his grace. You may have the same reasons as myself for making a general confession and giving yourself to God by living a good life. If you want to know what to do to recall your sins and to confess them, I was told to examine myself like I will tell you. . . etc. I was also told how to have true contrition for my sins, by making acts of contrition, . . . etc. I was also taught to make acts of faith, hope, and love of God, . . . etc.

This is how the virtuous and charitable ladies, following the advice of their wise director, handled this matter in dealing with the sick poor, to teach them and prepare them for making a good confession. They did so in such a way that there were no complaints, but rather much edification at their good example.

Some two years after the establishment of this company, Monsieur Vincent thought it appropriate to designate every three months a certain number of these ladies to be particularly responsible for the instruction and spiritual consolation of the sick poor. They would leave it to the others to take care of their physical needs. Experience had shown that it was difficult for those who worked at one of these tasks to be competent at the other. Those who had shown a greater aptitude for the spiritual works of mercy were chosen to devote themselves entirely to this aspect of the work. The company was called together in assembly, where they approved this organization and immediately put it into execution. Fourteen ladies were chosen to carry out this plan for three months. <Ftn: They were called the "Assembly of the Fourteen," or the "Little Assembly," and were held besides the general assemblies. See CED II:283; XIII:762-67, 788, 826.> The next day a delegation called on the canons of Notre Dame, who were responsible for the direction of the hospital, and then began their visits, two each day of the week, to visit, console, and instruct the sick. Every three months, at the rogation days, another group would take over. The group finishing their tour would meet with those about to start in the presence of Monsieur Vincent and the other officers of the company in their rented room near the hospital. They would hear how the others had carried out their assignments, and which ones seemed to have God's special blessing. What succeeded became the rule for the following group, and they took great encouragement from the successes reported. When appropriate, Monsieur Vincent added a word of advice as to what should be done or avoided, especially in their relationships with the religious of the hospital and the sick.

After the patients had been instructed and disposed to make a good general confession, the ladies would ask several religious priests to follow up, but this led to some difficulties. With the approval of the superiors, two other priests were asked to be available with a decent stipend as encouragement. One of these priests spoke several languages, which made it convenient for those patients from outside France. The two priests were not able to attend to all the poor, since the number of patients increased noticeably. The ladies were overburdened in their efforts to instruct them all. Further, it was not fitting for them to work with the male patients in preparing them for making a good general confession.

All these considerations led them to ask the superiors of the Hotel Dieu if six priests might be assigned there to instruct the men, and hear the confessions of both men and women. These priests would replace those already in residence at the hospital who were obligated to attend the divine office in choir, and so could not give enough time to the sick. These six priests would have as their sole responsibility the spiritual help of the poor with no obligation to attend the public recitation of the office. Before beginning their service in the hospital, the six priests were to make a retreat at Saint Lazare, where Monsieur Vincent lived, to dispose themselves to exercise their charity worthily towards the sick. Each year they were to return to Saint Lazare to renew their dedication to their charitable duties. The ladies gave each priest a stipend of forty ecus, arranged for them to say their mass at Notre Dame, and provided room and board for them at the hospital. <Ftn: These six priests were the first to take part in the Tuesday conferences mentioned in ch. 27 above.>

To understand better the great good the company of women had produced for the salvation and sanctification of the sick poor, we should remark that previously it had been the custom to have the sick person make his confession upon admittance to the hospital. Ordinarily they were poorly prepared and ill disposed, not to mention their discomfort, depending on which sickness had brought them to the hospital. As a consequence, many of these confessions were null or sacrilegious, not to mention that some heretics among the sick would not reveal their religious affiliation for fear of being sent away. They would go through the appearance of confessing, just like the others. One result of this great abuse was that there were few true conversions. No one spoke to the patients of general confession, nor of any other kind, unless it were at the approach of death. Even then, many did not know how to make a good confession.

The goodness of God met these deplorable conditions by raising up this company of women. By their charitable and zealous dedication, all directed prudently by Monsieur Vincent, they brought a remedy to all these ills. More than this, they contributed much to the salvation and sanctification of these sick poor. Only God knows what great good was effected through his grace. He alone knows the number of those helped to die as a Christian or to begin to lead a new life of virtue. We can say the number must have been large if we judge by the number of persons converted to God in the Catholic Church. In the first year alone, not to speak of the ones following, God's blessing was so manifest upon this enterprise that more than seven-hundred sixty persons, estranged from the true faith, renounced their errors and returned to the Church. <Ftn: Coste believes this number to be exaggerated; Life I:285, n. 25.> Whether Lutherans, Calvinists, or even Moslems, some of whom had been wounded, captured at sea, brought to Paris and then to the hospital, all embraced the Catholic faith. The extraordinary blessing of God upon this charitable work in the hospital earned it such a reputation, that when a certain lady in Paris fell ill, she asked to be taken at her own expense to the hospital for the poor, for she preferred to receive the attention and help given to the poor to what she would receive elsewhere. Her wish was granted.

Monsieur Vincent had the consolation of seeing these marvelous fruits for more than twenty-five years. They continued after his death, thanks to God's constant blessing. One day he invited the ladies of the company in their assembly to thank God for having chosen them as the instruments of so many blessings.

Ladies, how you should thank God for his inspiration to care for the bodily needs of the poor. By helping them this way, you caused them to begin to consider their salvation. Most would never have been so well prepared for death were it not for your help. Those who recovered from their illness would not have changed their lives if you had not cultivated in them such good dispositions. <Ftn: CED XII:803-04.>

Index of Abelly: Book One