Louise de Marillac, a woman of the Church

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appearede in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1999, p. 245-256. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated that the articles were written by various authors].

Louise de Marillac, a woman of the Church

Louise de Marillac often reflected on God’s loving plan and on God’s desires to establish a covenant with humankind. During her retreat of 1657 Louise referred to the greatness of God’s plan as revealed in the creation and the recreation of the human person. Louise recalled the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: the Father gave the Spirit to the whole Church, to all men and women.

The Church responds to the movement of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit makes the Church “the mother of believers”. Thus the Spirit bestows upon the Church a surety with regard to the truth that the Incarnate Word taught during his mortal life. The Spirit allowed the Apostles and allows all Christians to deepen their understanding of the Truth revealed by Jesus Christ.

Slowly the Holy Spirit transformed every believer for you operated in them holiness of life by the merits of the Word Incarnate (SWLM:820 [A.26]). The accomplishment of God’s plan for humanity is therefore accomplished by the perfection of the union that the almighty desires for her.

For Louise de Marillac the Church is not some distant entity or a hierarchical institution to which she must submit herself. All Christians are members of the mystical body and each individual has a concrete function to perform in order to accomplish a common mission, that is, a mission to reveal God’s love to the poor and thus return to the poor their proper place in the Church.

To live and minister as a daughter of the Church

Louise wrote to Monsieur Portail in Rome and pointed out to him the obligation of the Daughters of Charity to live and minister as daughters of the Church. She explained that the Sisters are daughters of the Church in a twofold manner: through their baptism and through their vocation of service on behalf of the poor.

The Spirit inspires the Church to honor the life of Jesus Christ. Louise said that this requires a great perfection, that is, one must discern God’s call to act on behalf of those who are most poor and at the same time one must make every effort to help the poor discover their human dignity, their dignity as children of God.

In order to be truly at the service of those who are poor Louise de Marillac invited men and women to be believers, to enter fully into the Church, “the mother of believers”. From this perspective she wrote a catechism composed of simple questions and answers that were easy to remember and explain. The preparation for prayer that the Sisters engaged in each night before going to sleep was a way of deepening their understanding of the gospels and their understanding of the Word of God.

Pastors and Ladies of Charity became followers of the Jansenist doctrine. Louise researched this new doctrine and discussed this matter with Vincent. She did not hesitate to withdraw the Sisters from Liancourt and Chars when they were obliged to act in a way that was not in accord with the teaching of the Catholic faith. Louise’s one desire, a desire that she prayed for and that she desired for all the Sisters, was that they would live and die in the faith of Jesus Christ from whom the Church had received said deposit of faith.

Knowledge, even profound knowledge, is not enough. Louise invited people to a true Christian life, to a life of intimacy with Christ.

Louise showed that after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles became witnesses to the Risen Lord. To work on behalf of the poor, to work for their human and spiritual promotion, is to give witness to the Risen Lord and this means that one is working on behalf of the gospel. The many commitments of the Daughters on behalf of the infirm, the abandoned children and the galley slaves showed their concern for those who were marginalized and excluded from participation in society.

In order to serve the infirm and the children, the Sisters lived in rented rooms in the various neighborhoods of Paris or in the town and villages. Their Rule referred to the respect that they should have for the Church’s hierarchy. The Sisters openly lived out their Christian commitment … their chapel was the parish church and it was there that they participated in holy Mass. The Sisters were also exhorted to give good example and thus edify the people. Their Rule also stated that they had to obey the pastors in all matters pertaining to their service on behalf of the poor. Louise was aware of the difficulties that Daughters might encounter. When she visited the Confraternities of Charity, the pastor at Villepareux would not allow her to meet with the women. She had to leave that parish. Vincent then wrote to her: Our Lord will perhaps draw more glory from your submission than from all the good you could do (CCD:I:75).

Louise de Marillac formed the Sisters in responsible obedience. Therefore, if the pastor gave the Sisters some norm or order that was opposed to the guidelines of the Company, the Sisters ought to defer carrying out such norms and inform their superiors about this matter. In Chars, the pastor wanted the Sisters to publically beat a twelve year old girl. The Sisters refused to do this because this would show a lack of respect for the young girl. Their rules allowed for the moderate use of corporal punishment, but this was never to be done in public. The pastor was displeased with the sisters and refused to give Communion to Sister Marie.

In the Diocese the Sisters were to respect and obey the bishop. This submission demanded discernment. In Nantes, Jeanne Lepeintre clarified the uniqueness of the Company and firmly opposed the idea of cloistering the Sisters who were ministering in the hospital.

Louise wanted to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to the source of the Holy Church, to the burial place of the Apostles … she wanted to pray there to strengthen her faith and to strengthen the faith of all the Sisters. Since she was unable to do this she asked Monsieur Berthe to obtain from the Pope his blessing so that she may receive from our good God … the grace to do his most holy will for the remainder of her days (SWLM:409-410 [L.389]).

Louise de Marillac’s contribution to the Church

Like Vincent de Paul, Louise revealed the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It was the Spirit who brought about the foundation of the Church on Pentecost. It is the same Holy Spirit who guides the Church and who does marvelous things in the Church.

Again, like Vincent de Paul, Louise referred to the role of women in the Church: It is very evident, in this century, that Divine Providence willed to make use of women to show that it was his goodness alone which desired to aid afflicted peoples and to bring them powerful helps for their salvation (SWLM:789 [A.100]).

These words were directed toward the Ladies of Charity whose ministry and concerns were shared by Louise. These words are also valid for the Daughters of Charity, the servants of the poor, who on a daily basis comfort those who are most forgotten and offer those men and women a very humble service.

The life of the Daughters of Charity reveal that Louise had great confidence in those women and in their ability to overcome the difficulties and temptation that they would encounter as they lived their life in the midst of the world.

Through her ministry Louise discovered the role of the poor within the Church. Therefore the poor were not to be ignored or despised since such an attitude would mean that the mystical body of Christ was being ignored and despised: God wills to look upon the poor as his members (SWLM:18 [L.9]).

In order to serve and comfort the poor, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac brought together men and women, priests and brothers and Sisters, religious and laity. The incredible scope of the task that had to be undertaken necessitated a joint effort, a true collaboration, in order to achieve effectiveness. Louise, during times of difficulty, when enthusiasm and zeal had diminished, reminded people about the dignity of the men and women who were poor: We must respect and honor everyone: the poor because they are the members of Jesus Christ and our masters (SWLM:468 [L424]).

Saint Louise, a woman of the Church

An informed theologian, Louise de Marillac meditated upon the mystery of the Church. She knew that the Church could not be separated from the Spirit and she wanted all the Daughters of Charity to live as daughters of the Church and also wanted them to adhere to its teaching and to collaborate in its mission.

Acceptance of the mystery of the Church

In the final prayer of her 1657 retreat, Louise reflected on the mystery of the Church, a church open to the movement of the Spirit: The strong and tender love of Our Lord appeared clearly when he told his Apostles of the consolation that the coming of the Holy Spirit would afford them. He revealed the two forms that this consolation would take. The first was that the Holy Spirit would bear witness to him. O my Savior, had you not given them enough by your words and works both during your lifetime and after your Resurrection? What more could the Spirit of Consolation, whom the Father would send by you, do for them? O profound and inscrutable secret! O Trinity perfect in power, wisdom, and love! You bring to completion the work of founding the Holy Church. You desire her to be the Mother of all believers. To this end, you console her by instructing and strengthening her in the truths which the Incarnate Word had taught her. You infused into this Mystical Body the union of your works, giving her the power to perform miracles so as to enable her to bring to souls the true witness which you willed her to bear to your Son. You operated in them holiness of life by the merits of the Word Incarnate. The Holy Spirit, by means of his unitive love, associates himself to this action in order to produce the same effects by his coming. He thus renders to men the proof of the divinity and perfect manhood of Christ which should be for all a source of joy, emulation, and true detachment from worldly affections so as to form oneself according to his holy and divine actions which should lead to the resolution to live as reasonable human beings. I believe that this is what Our Lord wished to convey to his Apostles when he told them that, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, they would also bear witness to him. This is what all Christians must do, not by bearing witness to the doctrine of Christ, which is the prerogative of apostolic men, but by the perfect actions of true Christians. Blessed are those persons who, under the guidance of Divine Providence, are called upon to continue the ordinary practices of the life of the Son of God through the exercise of charity (SWLM:820-821 [A.26]).

To live as daughters of the Church

“…we have the double happiness of being Daughters of the holy Church…”

Louise wanted the Daughters of Charity to live as true Christians and to be daughters of the Church. On June 21, 1647 she expressed her thought to Monsieur Portail who was involved in a mission in Rome. She asked him to obtain the blessing of the Pope, the representative of Jesus Christ and the head of the Church: I have felt consolation in knowing that you are at the source of the holy Church and near its head, the Holy Father of all Christians. I have so often wished to be there in order to receive, as a child --- though an unworthy one --- his holy blessing. However, as my age and my infirmities, which increase every day, begin to make me lose hope of this benefit I have so desired, and in the knowledge of the great happiness I have had, through God's grace, to live and to desire to die in the faith of Jesus Christ, the thought came to me, Monsieur, to beg you most humbly, for the love of God, to obtain for me this grace, which would be conferred upon me at the moment of my death. However, Monsieur, I wish to go even further and to ask you, if it is possible, to obtain this same happiness for all those to whom God will give the grace to die in the Company of the Daughters of Charity, since it seems that it is the spirit of Jesus Christ that inspired those whom he chose to honor his human life on earth to desire this manner of life. Monsieur, does this not indicate strongly to us that we have the double happiness of being Daughters of the holy Church and, being admitted in this manner, will this not be a new obligation for us to live and to act as children of such a Mother, something which requires great perfection? (SWLM:202-203 [L.179]).


This ecclesial grounding was expressed in three ways:

a] Through an authentic catechesis

“…to become a true Christian…”

On had to live a true Christian life and had to form oneself if one wanted to form others. Thus Louise wrote her catechism to help the Sisters live like Jesus Christ and to help them give life to Jesus Christ. We highlight here the biblical nature of this line of thought: I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the title of Christian which we bear, and I came to the conclusion that we must, indeed, truly conform our lives to the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In order to do this, I thought that I should study the manner in which I had acquired this name and the words employed by Holy Mother Church in conferring it upon us. Finally, I must remember that I received this holy name so as to become a true Christian (SWLM:777-778 [A.36]).

“…What makes us Christian?...”

What makes us Christan? Baptism. What must Christians know and do in order to go to heaven? They must know the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God and the mystery of the Eucharist. They must also know the Our Father, the Creed, the commandments of God and the Church. Is it enough to know these things? No, the commandments of God and the Church must be observed and fulfilled. If one does not observe one of the commandments of God or the Church, does one commit a moral sin? Yes. What is the sign of a Christian? The sign of the cross. What harms the body and the soul? Anything that is evil harms the body and sin harms the soul. Does the sign of the cross have power to free us from evil? Yes, because the Son of God was nailed to the cross. How must we make the sign of the cross in order to be freed from evil? With faith and devotion. What is the meaning of making the sign of the cross with faith and devotion? It means that we believe that the cross frees us and thus we recall what the cross represents. What does the sign of the cross represent? It represents one God in three persons; it represents the incarnation and the death of the Son of God. What does a Christian or a child do when they make the sign of the cross? They give the greatest homage to God because when they make the sign of the cross they proclaim their belief in one God in three persons, their belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God. As Christians they also profess their conviction that they would rather die than renounce their faith. If you saw a fire being prepared would you allow yourself to be thrown into it rather than deny your faith? Yes, with the help of God’s grace. Always be courageous … and consider yourself as a witness and a voluntary martyr. How then must you live as a Christian? In the same way as our Lord did when he was on earth. There is good reason to say this because the name Christian comes from Christ and therefore we have to imitate Christ in our life in order to live like him after our death; but, who is Jesus Christ? The second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God. What surety do we have of being able to imitate Jesus Christ especially when we consider our own nothingness? Jesus personally tells us: If you wish to come after me, take up your cross and follow me. What does it mean to take up one cross and follow Jesus Christ? It means that we practice every form of virtue as he did: Jesus was humble, gentle, charitable, patient, truthful, poor … he did not speak ill of his neighbor and never intentionally caused harm to anyone.


b] Through respect for those in authority

“…He urges you to submit entirely…”

Louise wanted the Daughters to be submissive to the bishop of the diocese and to the pastors, but only in those matters that involved their ministry on behalf of the poor. We know that she carefully guarded the internal autonomy of the Company and placed limits on any demand that would have eliminated their dependency on Vincent: I showed your letter to Monsieur Vincent. He urges you to submit entirely to the Bishop of Chilons to whom we are very indebted. With the Bishop's consent Monsieur Vincent wants you to go to Sainte-Menehould; Sister Barbe is to remain at Chilons with Sister Perrette if she is still there. As for the rest, the number and choice of the other sisters, that is for you, Sister Barbe and Sister Perrette to decide together (SWLM:435 [L.383]).

“…They will go to ask for a blessing…”

The statutes that were approved by the Archbishop of Paris (1656) provide us with an outline of the definitive Rule in the matter of pastoral submissiveness: When they are sent to any parishes, they will go to ask the blessing of the Pastors, which they will receive kneeling. While they are in their parishes, they will show them all manner of honor and submission (CCD:XIIIb:125).

c] Through fidelity to the true faith

“…The Apology of Jansenius…”

Informed with regard to the theological questions of her era, Louise exchanged ideas and impressions with Vincent about Jansenism. On March 10th, 1647 she wrote Vincent and spoke about her concern: The Countess de Maure told me to take care to send back to her a book which she sent you, The Apology of Jansen. She is also sending you this one for your perusal, as she promised (SWLM:193 [L.170].

Maturina Guerín, in her notes on the virtues of Louise de Marillac, affirmed: On other occasions, when speaking about the Jansenists, she was very firm in condemning their errors … this seems to me to be an expression of her faith.

The original contribution of Louise de Marillac

Louise was open to the Church and she would be called the saint of the Holy Spirit. According to her, the Spirit guides the Church and forms the heart of all Christians: I would like to spend eight to ten days in retreat twice a year. One would be during the period between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost in order to honor the grace which God bestowed on his Church by giving it his Holy Spirit to guide it and by commissioning his Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations. At this time, I would strive to be particularly attentive to the Word of God and to his law expressed in his commandments. The other days of retreat would be during Advent. I adore you, O my God, and recognize that you are the author of my existence. Because of the love I owe you, I abandon myself entirely to your holy will in my life. Although I am filled with powerlessness and reasons for humiliation on account of my sins, I trust in your mercy. I beg you, because of the love you have for your creatures, to send the assistance of the Holy Spirit so as to produce the full effect of the plan which your holy will has had, from all eternity, for my soul and for all souls redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ (SWLM:691 [A.1]).

“…It is very evident…”

Louise is more courageous and bolder than she might appear to be at first sight. She contributed to the restoration of women’s place in the Church and thus affirmed women in their role of fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: It is very evident, in this century, that Divine Providence willed to make use of women to show that it was his goodness alone which desired to aid afflicted peoples and to bring them powerful helps for their salvation. No one is ignorant of the fact that, to carry this out, God used the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission through the instrumentality of Vincent de Paul. Moreover, everyone is aware that through his work this great benefit spread so far that it is apparent that it must be continued by means of the meetings of the Ladies of Charity where needs will be discussed and where, it seems, the Spirit of God presides … Was it not by means of this light that the Ladies of the Company of Charity recognized the needs of the provinces and that God gave them the grace to aid these peoples so charitably and so magnificently that Paris has become the admiration of and an example for the entire kingdom? Were not these holy assemblies at which Vincent de Paul, Superior of the Mission, presided, the means which these charitable Ladies employed in order to determine priorities for the distribution of goods to the poor? As we all know, Monsieur Vincent furnished honest and charitable criteria to enable them to discover true needs and to provide for them prudently. In all of this, they sought to meet the spiritual as well as the temporal necessities of the poor, thereby giving honor to God in heaven perhaps even now by his divine foreknowledge of the innumerable souls which will one day be with him. We clearly recognize these truths. Therefore, it seems to be essential for the Company of the Ladies of Charity of the Hotel-Dieu to continue its functions, since, from the origin of this noble group, their visits to the sick of this holy hospital have brought such apparent good to the place itself and to the souls who have found the way to salvation there. Through their ministry, some of the sick poor died a happy death as a result of their good dispositions following a general confession. Others recovered but their confessions led to admirable conversions. The Ladies themselves entered on the pathway to sanctification which is perfect charity, such as that which they have practiced in this place where they have frequently put their lives in danger by their service to the sick. All this has been accomplished by Ladies of noble birth such as princesses and duchesses whom we have seen spending entire hours at the bedside of the sick instructing them in the things necessary for their salvation and helping them to free themselves from the dangers surrounding them (SWLM:789-790 [A.100]).

“…in the service of those who are destitute in all things…”

Louise encouraged cooperation between the Ladies of Charity and the Daughters of Charity. In the Company of the Daughters of Charity Louise gathered together women from different social classes but united them together in service on behalf of the poor. Therefore in this manner the Company gave witness to the unity of the Church as the body of Christ. It could be objected that one of the main functions of the establishment of the Confraternity and the Company of the Daughters of Charity is the spiritual service of the sick poor. We are all convinced of the truth of this. May God be glorified for it! But does not the grace of God act in all the sisters even the most rustic and simple? In the places where they are located, how many people have been turned away from sin? How many general confessions have been made after years away from this sacrament? How many little girls have been instructed by the sisters in the school? How many persons in the families to which she brings food have also profited from her instruction? How many heretics have been converted since the Daughters of Charity have been working in the hospitals? Recall that, in 1659, a sister who had been in the hospital of Saint-Denis said that, during the year, five or six heretics were converted, including the son of a Protestant minister, without counting several previous conversions. All this was done under a veil of silence. Would to God that it had not been necessary to mention it, since this manner of acting is in keeping with the first commandments of the Founder of the Company, Jesus Christ, speaking through his servant. We are told to "honor his hidden life. This is essential for the strength of this Company which, one day, may perhaps have the grace to be employed, not in the city, but in the service of the peasants according to its original end or, rather, according to God's first design for it. This could come about in the course of changes inherent in human history. Oh, what a happiness, if, without offending God, the Company could be employed only in the service of those who are destitute in all things! To this end, this Company must never depart from nor change its poor manner of life. Thus, should Divine Providence provide them with more than is necessary, let them go to serve the corporally and spiritually poor at their own expense. If this passes unnoticed, what does it matter, so long as souls honor eternally the Redemption of Our Lord? (SWLM:833 [A.100]).

“…either for the Church or for the poor or for my household…”

In a summery manner we present the essential elements of Louise, who wanted to give her whole life to the poor and who could not imagine any other ministry for the Daughters but that of serving the poor. In the church of Jesus Christ the poor are our lords and masters. I shall try never to be idle. Therefore, after these few minutes of meditation, I shall work cheerfully, until four o'clock, either for the Church or for the poor or for my household. If I am obliged to pay a few visits or to receive them, I shall attend to such duties at this time (SWLM:689-690 [A.1]).

“…the service of the poor…”

I am sure, my dear Sister, that you have no time to spare for anything else or for any other purpose than the service of the poor. Therefore, you must not think that you are obliged to visit or to write to nuns or to the Ladies, unless there is great necessity. If you have time to spare, I am convinced that it would be better spent earning some money by working for your poor; or you could instruct your poor patients and say a few kind words to them that would be beneficial for their salvation (SWLM:668 [L.647b]).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

1] In sharing her life with the first Daughters of Charity and in her service on behalf of the poor Louise gave witness to the mystery of the Church as the People of God. In our daily life and in our encounter with others, do we live the mystery of the Church as a pilgrim people in which everyone is called to participate?

2] Louise valued the place of women in the Church of her time. Today how do we envision the place of women in the mission of the Church?

3] What do we consider important with regard to the proclamation of the gospel? Does our ministry of evangelization lead us to question our faith, that is, its expression and our witness with regard to our faith?

4] In the proclamation of the gospel Louise states that this is something that should be done by all true Christians. How are we committed to the Church? What guides our action? Are we concerned about the promotion of our brothers and sisters? How are we the voice of the voiceless?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM