Louise de Marillac: a woman of the seventeenth century

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Benito Martínez, CM

[This article was first published in Santa Luisa de Marillac, ayer y hoy, XXXIV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salmanca, 2010].

At the end of the sixteenth century God looked upon two human beings, a woman who had lived in the northern part of France and a man who lived in the southeast. God knew that they would meet in Paris and that such an encounter was essential in order to establish the Company of the Daughters of Charity, one of the necessary institutions in the mission of liberating the poor, both materially and spiritually [1]. Saint Vincent was a well-known saint, but who was this woman? She was named Louise de Marillac. Her life and the life of her director were quite distinct but their lives moved along parallel lines toward the same destiny. It was as though their lives were directed by that divine force that Vincent referred to as Providence. The destiny toward which they traveled was the establishment and the consolidation of religious institutions whose members would dedicate their lives to the task of proclaiming good news to the poor.

The historical hypothesis

Louise de Marillac, without adopting the extreme determinism of the Huguenots or the quasi-determinism of the Jansenists of seventeenth century France, was greatly influenced by the concept that the eternal plan of God was molding the life and the mission of countless individuals.

Without attempting to resolve the indescribable mystery of the relationship between divine action and grace on the one hand, and the freedom of the human person on the other hand, we formulate two hypotheses:

First hypothesis: God did not endow Louise with her personality, her qualities, her family or her life because he wanted to enable her to fulfill the mission that he had marked out for her, namely, the foundation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity … rather he chose Louise to establish the Daughters of Charity because she had certain qualities, a specific personality, and had lived a life that enabled her to establish the Daughters of Charity

Second hypothesis: Saint Louise was a woman of her time and social environment who, as a result of the events of her life, and together with Vincent de Paul, acted on behalf of the poor and gave life to institutions of charity and evangelization that in some form already existed. Borrowing an analogy from the theory of evolution, the Vincentian institutions of charity were the result of the evolution that occurred from the time of the Middle Ages until the time of Vincent and Louise.

In order to clarify the second hypothesis I use the following comparison: Vincent and Louise were two sculptors who utilized in their work the materials that had been given to them: marble, wood, iron, polyester, plastic, etc. They found that the styles had already been defined: classical, baroque, impressionist, abstract, expressionist, pop-art, etc. But as sculptors they had the power to decide if their work would be housed in a museum or given life in the streets and homes and lives of individuals. It is there, among the people of her era, that we must situate Louise de Marillac.

The Charities existed from the time of the Middle Ages. The Vincentian Missionaries were numbered among the members of other lay congregations, such as the Oratorians, the Oblates, the Jesuits, etc. and the Daughters of Charity evolved from the Confraternities of Charity, the Ursulines and the Visitation Sisters. We must also remember Mary Ward and the women’s movement that history benignly refers to as mulieres religiosae or semi-religious … individuals who were not religious and did not profess public vows, but who lived in the world and professed the vows of chastity and poverty while engaging in charitable works. This movement had spread to the Low Countries of Germany and northern France and remained dormant in the midst of the world of women until the seventeenth century. Depending on the value that was given to the vow of chastity in distinct places and at distinct times, these women religious were at times admired and accepted and at other times, ridiculed and persecuted. I think that the Daughters of Charity represent an “explosion” that was promoted by two saints who were involved in lay charitable movements.

In other words, the archetype of the Company had already been experienced, sometimes vaguely and other times very clearly, by some members of the Christian society. But no one had been able to make this dream a reality. The path along which the Confraternities of Charity moved was also not original. After the Council of Trent the confraternities were the only possible way to renew the world and the church through the ministry of the laity [2].

What was original was the priest and the laywoman who accomplished this. They knew how to collaborate with Providence in a timely manner, not rushing ahead nor lagging behind. They knew how to read, listen to and understand the signs of the time and were able to analyze historical events … they were bold and tenacious as they confronted the difficulties that were presented to them by the Church and civil authorities [3].

The most original idea that Vincent explained to Mademoiselle Le Gras was the following: discover the will of God not only in prayer and the Sacred Scriptures, but also in the ordinary events of life, especially those events that have repercussions on the poor because through the poor God, the Creator, speaks to us. Louise was a woman of her time, a woman in the midst of other women and in the midst of events that, like the Word of God, etched out her mission and destiny.

The mystical night [4]

I take for granted that all of you are more or less familiar with the life of Saint Louise de Marillac. Therefore, I begin with the year 1620 when Louise was twenty-nine and married to Antoine Le Gras, who had recently become ill. Louise had a son who was nine years old. Five years later her husband would die. At the beginning of her husband’s illness, without Louise realizing what was occurring, God had presented her with a harsh and terrible manner to purify herself from all those things that she alone was unable to remove from the depths of her interior life. This was the passive Night which Vincent himself had recently experienced. God, in the manner spoken about by Saint John of the Cross, purified Louise until June 1623 and then continued that process in a more gentle manner until the death of her husband, December 20, 1625. God used the illness of her husband to heal her guilt complex which had led her to believe that she had caused his illness because she had not fulfilled her vow to become a religious. Yes, God used Antoine’s illness to purify Louise and to reveal to her the mission that she was destined to accomplish as founder of the Company of the Daughters of Charity (an aspect of God’s plan that began to unfold from the time that she was sixteen). This Night came to an end on the feast of Pentecost, 1623. On that day, June 4th, the Holy Spirit completed the process of purification and placed her, and other young women, at the service of their neighbor.

The passive purification was necessary in order for Louise to accomplish the mission that God has entrusted to her. Only one who had experienced extreme want and need, poverty and humiliation, could understand what the poor felt. As a result of that experience, which Louise recalled consciously or unconsciously, she was able to speak to the Sisters in a manner that encouraged them to sacrifice themselves on behalf of those who were poor. In other words, she encouraged the Sisters to seek the cross in order to be servants of the poor.

Neither during the time of her passive purification nor during the years immediately after did Louise understand the mystical significance and importance of this passive Night for the development of her spiritual life. Louise also did not understand any of this even when God began to reveal his plan to her. Rather Louise viewed this as one of many spiritual realities that was common to all those persons who were seeking God.

The Vigil of Pentecost, 1642 and the collapse of the floor

The shock that opened Louise’s eyes occurred nineteen years later and took the form of a “miracle”. Vincent and Louise and the Sisters were scheduled to meet together in a room on the upper floor of the Daughter’s house. The day was the vigil of Pentecost, 1642. Because the meeting was canceled there was no one in the room when the floor collapsed and, as Louise described it, the Company was saved (SWLM:768 [A.75]). Louise then began to write a type of diary in which she related what she had been told by the divine Spirit on the mystical night of 1623 (SWLM:1 [A.2]).

Reading those pages we find that her life can be divided into three stages: the first stage continued until May 1629 when her life was totally changed. It was then that she offered to help Vincent in his mission on behalf of the poor and at the same time, Marguerite Naseau joined her. Louise was thirty-seven. The second stage extended from 1629-1653 and it was during those years that Louise was focused on the establishment, the consolidation and the organization of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. The third stage encompasses the final seven years of her life, a time when she wanted to share her own spirituality with some of the Sisters (her spirituality was a combination of abstract mysticism and the Vincentian charism focused on the Holy Spirit and Pure Love).

The years of the second stage (1629-1653) were entirely dedicated to the Daughters of Charity and this stage can be further divided into two parts. From 1629-1639 the Daughters of Charity assisted the Ladies of Charity and the Daughters of Charity only served in those places where there were Confraternities … the Daughters were the servants of the Confraternities. Louise viewed the Daughters in this manner and she directed them in accord with this vision. But beginning in 1639 the Daughters became autonomous. They were no longer like any other Confraternity but, in fact, became independent of the Confraternities (even though this was not yet formally established). In 1639 Louise personally established the community of the Daughters of Charity in the hospital at Angers so that they would be organized and able to attend to the orders of the administrators (there was no Confraternity of Charity in that place). This event marked the birth of the Daughters of Charity. Vincent and Louise were aware of the significance of this change and yet this did not change the fact that wherever these women ministered with the Ladies of Charity there would always be a bond of respect and deference toward them. But now, however, Louise would direct them and send them forth according to her criteria and those of Vincent.

Another important date in Louise’s personal life that had repercussions on her work was 1645. Perhaps before this date, but certainly in 1645, Louise discovered the disorderly life her son was living. She was also surprised by the possibility that the Company would no longer be under the direction of Vincent but would be guided by the Archbishop of Paris. It was at that time that Louise began to reflect on her life, beginning with the time of her childhood. Those reflections on her life, at the age of fifty-four, were made public three years before her death [5]: the eternal plan of God led me to understand that it was His holy will that I go to Him by way of the Cross. His goodness chose to mark me with it from my birth and He has hardly ever left me, at my age, without some occasion of suffering (SWLM:711 [A.29]).

Nevertheless today we see that her life was not a disgraceful cross because in time she was given the necessary freedom to be the founder of a religious institute. God had chosen her because she had lived in a very specific manner, had certain intellectual and emotional qualities and had received the human formation of a middle class woman. Before meeting Vincent de Paul, Louise had collaborated with God in an unconscious manner, without understanding at the beginning the “why” of these matters … she saw all of this as the unfolding of the events of her life. Now at the age of fifty-four, when she had learned to listen to the Word of God that was spoken to her in every event, she understood that God had given her the charism of a founder precisely because she was a well-formed woman, because she had lived a life that made it appropriate for her to establish the Company of the Daughters of Charity … and in order to do this she was introduced to a great spiritual director, Vincent de Paul, (though in the beginning Louise found Vincent repugnant). Thus the encounter between the woman from northern France and the man from the southwest of France took place. This happened at Christmas, 1624 or in the beginning of 1625.

Formation in the Humanities

Louise de Marillac was a person whom God needed in order to save the poor in a very specific manner. Louise was born in 1591 and was the illegitimate daughter of an unknown member of the Marillac family. Nevertheless, she was accepted as a daughter by the head of the Marillac family who placed her in the best convent/school in Paris. It was there that she was educated and only in 1645 did Louise understood the significance of her formation in the humanities at Poissy and her role as servant at the pension.

At that time there were three alternatives for the education of a young woman: the convent, a lay boarding school or the few charitable elementary schools, generally established by religious institutions for young girls who had no financial resources. Two months after her birth, the Marillac family decided to entrust Louise to a convent for nobles, a convent directed by nuns from the noble class: the Dominican convent in Poissy where a member of the Marillac family, Louise de Marillac, was one of the religious women who resided there. It was very expensive to reside and to study at this convent. This was not a convent that received (for financial interests) students from only one class of society. Rather this was a place where young women from distinct classes were educated, in accord with their age, to take their place in society. Their formation continued for twelve years but at the end of that period the young women had received a quality education.

We should remember that during the seventeenth century there were no schools for girls because it was felt that women could not and should not study. This was stated for three reasons: first, women were not gifted with the same understanding as men; second, if a wife were to be equal to her husband in knowledge, family life would be unbearable, women’s submission to men would disappear and women would no longer want to engage in domestic chores … thus threatening the break-up of the family; third, in a society with a high infant mortality rate the role of women was seen as that of procreation and it would be difficult to fulfill that role if women were engaged in studies. At the same time it would be dangerous if women were educated because then they would be able to teach men and that would be most embarrassing for men (something that Louise experienced in some towns). Also if women were educated they would be able to participate in civic decisions that might influence the law and place obligations on men.

Another argument against the education of women that held sway until the nineteenth century was what I call the ethical argument. At a time when Christian morality dominated every sphere of society, boys and girls were not allowed to study in the same classroom. The mingling of sexes was even prohibited among children

Even though the women’s movement known as préciosité (that which has value) is properly situated in the second half of the seventeenth century, yet from the beginning of that century this ideology began to evolve and a new attitude of protest began to arise against the status quo. This new attitude was encouraged by two fundamental realities, both of which were religious. First, if women could read, this would facilitate their religious instruction; second, if women had the role of being child-bearers, then future mothers should be able to teach Catholic doctrine to their children (just as Huguenot mothers were prepared to teach Calvinist doctrine … a doctrine that was spreading throughout many nations). These two realities also encouraged various religious institutions to establish schools for girls. As though this was quite common, Bárbara Bailly stated that Louise had great zeal for the salvation of souls and moved among the people in order to instruct the poor and establish schools (D. 803).

Finding support in this attitude, girls were taught certain basic skills: sewing, reading, writing, some mathematical operations that would facilitate their management of family financial matters, and religion (which tended to focus on morality). There were, however, some hesitations with regard to teaching the girls to write … many teachers themselves were not proficient in this area. Vincent’s position in this matter is not clear. In a conference to the Daughters he stated: After Mass, you should work at learning how to read in order to be able to teach little girls (CCD:IX:36). Yet in another conference he told them that their Rule obliged them to learn how to read and to write in order to write out your receipts and expenses, send news about yourselves to distant places, and teach poor little village girls (CCD:IX:174). On the other hand when Vincent told Louise that the Daughters should utilize the Ursuline method, she said: I am not saying that [this method] be used in teaching writing, because I do not think it advisable for the girls to learn to write (SWLM:217 [L.192]). In all of this the education of girls was guided by the predominant prejudice, namely, that man and women were rivals and therefore if women were taught “superfluous matters”, they would become vain. More importantly, however, it should be remembered that in the schools children were taught how to live in society and in a Christian society this meant teaching the Christian religion so that individuals were able to know, to love and to serve God. At the same time children were also given an education with regard to civil society which meant that persons with a higher social status were to be shown deference. Courtesy was another dimension of the educational system and it is clear that Louise learned this lesson very well. We see this expressed in her relationships with the Ladies of Charity at the Hôtel-Dieu … where the Ladies had great trust in Louise [6].

The formation that Louise received as a young girl was quite extensive … she was taught embroidery, music, drawing and painting. We should not be surprised by the fact that she learned some Latin (how much, we do not know) since at that time one was taught to read first, in Latin and then, in French. Only in 1650 was the pedagogy of Port Royal imposed and then children were taught to read immediately in French.

Today this might sound absurd, but girls were instructed in the role that society bestowed upon them: to be useful to their spouses. This meant that they were to be “cultured women” who could converse with their husbands and accompany them as they visited the parlors of distinguished individuals. There they were expected to engage in conversation and move with ease in the midst of such an environment. It is clear that in the middle of the seventeenth century the convents, as well as the new religious institutions, prepared young girls for their life in the midst of the world rather than for the cloistered life of nuns.

In the twenty-first century we find it difficult to understand why the education of women moved forward so slowly: there was an on-going tension between the need for them to learn and the belief that their education would intensify the situation of rivalry with men. As a result the education of women became a secondary concern for the society of the seventeenth century. Martine Sonnet wrote: To the degree that the principle of equality between the sexes continues to be viewed as suspect, then despite the incredible efforts of talented professors, women will find that their access to education continues to be obstructed [7].

It was admitted by everyone that this was the result of the social anthropology of that century. Men and women were different sexually and this difference implied an inequality, an inferiority of “the weaker sex” in an hierarchical society … a society that from ancient times was structured by an implicit agreement among men and then controlled by those forces that society most needed: physical manly labor in the areas of farming and war. We should remember that even though the members of the Constitutional Assembly that met during the French Revolution (1789) spoke about the equality between aristocrats and the common people, they did not speak in the same manner about equality between the sexes [8].

Now, at the age of fifty-four, Louise understood that her time at the convent/school in Poissy was not something to be ashamed of but was a grace filled opportunity that enabled her to be the Founder and the Superior General of the Company. Well-educated in the Humanities, she was admired and even needed by other women from a social class higher than hers … she could worthily stand before bishops and civil administrators; she redacted rules and memoirs; she wrote thousands of letters during an era when this was the only way to communicate with distant communities and with the Sisters. In writing these letters Louise no longer felt alone but rather experienced herself as a member of the Company.

Human formation of a servant

Because of her mysterious birth, Louise’s relatives excluded her from the Marillac family and civil law reaffirmed said exclusion. Since she had no “title” or possessions to pay for her stay in Poissy, her “father”, Louis de Marillac, removed her from Poissy and placed her in the pension that was run by a devout older woman [9]. There is always some doubt about this event: was Louise removed from Poissy because she lacked a title and money or, as seems most probable, was she removed in order to provide her with a better preparation for marriage.

At that time in Paris we begin to see the establishment of boarding schools that educated the daughters of nobles and middle class families so that they could enter into marriage with a nobleman from the provinces or some government official or someone from the middle class (something that Louise could also aspire to do). There is little information about these schools and so systematic research in this area is almost impossible. Nevertheless, it is known that these schools educated the young girls so that they could relate with people from every social class, administer the household, perform ordinary domestic chores and direct the servants. Thus, the young girls had to practice cleaning, cooking, doing laundry and other household tasks.

If Louise de Marillac reflected on her past life, she would have had to conclude that God had definitely chosen her to establish the Company because she was the most apt and capable individual to accomplish this task that God, the Father of the poor, was about to set in motion. In this capacity, everything that Louise had learned in Poissy, came into play. All the domestic tasks of service and organization that she had learned there she would need in order to teach them to the Daughters, the servants of the poor and the directors of many organizations. The majority of the young women who joined Louise were young country girls who did not have sufficient knowledge that allowed them to teach young girls or care for the sick or administer a hospital. In fact, some of these young women had no idea how to relate to women from the noble class.

Only if we keep before us the type of formation that Louise received, can we understand how a middle class woman of seventeenth century France could write such precise and pointed Rules for the Sisters who taught in schools and who dedicated their lives to orphans, the infirm, the elderly, the galley slaves and the poor in various parishes. At the same time Louise also formulated Rules for those who exercised various functions in the Motherhouse. The details with regard to the manner to treat, clothe and feed children, the manner to care for the infirm and use towels and napkins, the manner to help the elderly utilize their time well, and the manner to clean the places where the galley slaves worked and resided … all of this Louise learned as a young girl [10].

She should not be a religious

Louise also understood that she was a member of the Marillac family but not a member of the noble class. Because she was a member of the Marillac family she received the education and the formation of a noble religious woman and she married into an upper class family. If she had been a noble she would not have been able to be a Daughter of Charity, in fact, if she had been a noble it would have been easy for her to become a cloistered religious, a Dominican, like her aunt. It was very common for the young girls in the boarding schools at the monasteries and convents to simply change dormitories when they became young women. This is, they would move into the Novitiate building without ever having lived in the world. Louise entered the school two months after her birth and had she been a noble, she would have entered the Novitiate of the Dominicans. Since she was not a noble she could not make her profession in that convent which King Philip the Fair gave to the Dominicans for the exclusive use of the nobles [11]. It is true that the Marillac family had sufficient influence to obtain from the Queen-Regent a dispensation from nobility and from the Church, a dispensation from legitimacy, but the family knew that Louise would never become prioress or abbess and therefore they would not be able to obtain any income from the monastery. At the same time the Marillac family, seen as a devout Catholic family, feared that Louise’s true origins might be discovered and perhaps her birth involved some crime: a sacrilege, incest or adultery. Louise de Marillac certainly became aware of her origins when she left Poissy.

When Louise was sixteen she came to know the Capuchins who had recently arrived in Paris and she began to dream about becoming one of them. She spoke with the Sisters and listened to them as they spoke about the fact that one did not have to be a noble in order to become a member and that her illegitimacy would not be an obstacle and that she would be able to put together a dowry despite her few possessions. It was probably at this time that she made her vow to become a religious. When she was twenty-one she attempted to enter the Capuchins and tested herself to prove that she could endure the penances of the Order. But the Marillac and d’Attichy families obliged her to marry Antoine Le Grac in order to better the political situation of the family (D. 803, 822).

Now Louise understood everything, including her origins. With the providential mentality of that era, she realized that she could not become a religious and that she had to marry … God had chosen her to be a widow with a male child. A married woman had to be subject to her husband in everything while a single woman was viewed with suspicion … only a widow with money (and especially if she had a male child) could experience equality with a man (though not total equality) in the area of freedom, rights and obligations. Let us examine the importance of the situation of being a widow with a male child.

The situation of women

Louise was a woman of the seventeenth century and was very aware of the social position of women during that era. Anyone who studies the situation of women during the seventeenth century immediately notices that there was a clear distinction between the world of the peasant and the world of the royalty/nobility and therefore one cannot describe the position of women in these classes in the same manner. In general, however, we can say that women were excluded from society. It can seem strange that I classify women as persons who were excluded from society since by doing so I am excluding half of France’s inhabitants from participation in the social life of that era. But such was the reality. Let us listen to the words that Michel de Pure places in the mouth of one of the heroine’s of his novel La Preécieuse: I was an innocent victim, sacrificed for unknown reasons and obscure family interests --- I was sacrificed like a slave, reviled and crushed and deprived of the right to breathe or to reveal my desires or to chose … They took advantage of my youth and my submissiveness and they buried me alive on the bed of the son of Evando [12]. These are the words of a protagonist in a novel but in reality they could have been spoken by Marie de la Noue, who at the age of thirteen married M. Chambert, 55, a brutal, infirm man, covered with ulcers [13] or could have been uttered (as Tallement des Résaux tells us) by many other women.

Women were excluded from the civil arena and they were unable to decide their future or act as free adults. With few exceptions (the Queen Regent), they were excluded from political citizenship and from the right to exercise political power. When Louise de Marillac attempted to sign the contract that would enable the Daughters of Charity to minister in the hospital at Angers, the administrators opposed this action because she was a woman. She was only allowed to sign after Vincent, director of the Charities, authorized her to sign as his delegate (CCD:II:2, 8-9, 11). Women were excluded from civil citizenship and thus deprived of the right to own property, the right of free expression, the right to their own beliefs and to live their life as they saw fit. The only exception was that of widows if they had sufficient funds to care for their children (such was the case with Mademoiselle Le Gras). Finally, women were also excluded from social citizenship and thus enjoyed no right to equal participation in public life or to equal sharing in social goods (this exclusion did not apply to Louise because she had to defend the rights of her son who was a minor).

We should be mindful of and yet not scandalized by two cruel but significant phrases that Madame de Sévigné wrote about young women who remained widows: 1] Young widows have nothing to be sorry about; they will be happy if they take charge of their own life or if they change masters; 2] It is little consolation to find oneself a widow since this favor from heaven is always late in arriving and our better days have already passed. These words were written by a wealthy, beautiful woman, a niece of Saint Jeanne-Françoise Frémoit Chantal, who was widowed at the age of twenty-five and left to provide for two children. She rejected numerous offers to remarry. We are also told that Louise, a young and beautiful widow with one son, rejected similar offers (CCD:I:138).

From the moment that Louise was born as an illegitimate child, her dependence upon man, regardless of her social status, was defined (be that father, husband, brother, or guardian). The courts appointed a guardian for Louise and this individual would defend her rights and her property (D. 825). There was a perfect continuity from being dependent on a father to being dependent on a husband and Louise was part of the patrimony of both these individuals. The authority of the father was followed by the power of the husband. On the one hand, these individuals had legal responsibility and Louise was expected to be submissive; on the other hand, these same persons defended and protected Louise from violence and the many harsh realities that were so predominant during the seventeenth century. Single or married she was legally seen as a minor and therefore could be treated and even beaten by her husband in the same way as she had been treated by her father.

If the theatrical presentations and comedies of Moliére were so successful at that time and if, in fact, they are still seen as relevant, it is because they reflect the crude realities in the midst of which so many women find themselves.

Since a woman was subordinate to her husband, an adulterous woman could be enclosed in a convent or condemned to death while an adulterous man could only be temporarily exiled or fined. Since nobility was not transmitted through the mother, a noble woman who married a “commoner” lost her nobility while a noble man preserved his status when he married a “commoner” [14].

A wife had to be submissive to her husband, her master because this was the person who gave her lodging. At the same time a woman who worked was paid less than a man despite the fact that every woman who considered marriage could never be a burden to her husband. She either brought to this relationship a good dowry (if she were from the upper class) or else she worked (if she were poor) … otherwise no worker or peasant would marry her. Thus young girls began to work at the age of twelve so that they could put together a sufficient trousseau in order to form a family.

A wife’s dependency on her husband had tremendous social, economic and psychological consequences when her husband died, unless she was a member of the noble class or at least had sufficient material resources to live and educate her children with a certain ease (as was the case with Mademoiselle Le Gras who had only one child). Nevertheless this was the primary reason that the initial conversations to find a wife for her son failed and that conversation with the family of a second young woman (a woman that her son would eventually marry) was nearly terminated. It is admirable that Louise understood this and wrote to Vincent: To tell you the truth, Monsieur, I am beginning to share the feelings which human prudence is giving this fine girl. Knowing my son, and knowing the little I can give him, she feels that he could never hope for any acquisitions since, between them, they have only enough to maintain a small family. She is afraid to risk this danger since she is aware that expenses usually come to those least able to support them, and in the event of death, poor orphans would be left (SWLM:308-309 [L.274]) [15].


Despite the exceptions and our stereotypical mentality as we reflect on the situation of women during the seventeenth century, we have to admit that the inequality and dependent situation of women is very clear in the writings of that period. Nevertheless, if women desired, they could find multiple escapes that would enable them to affirm their own sense of responsibility and freedom. One of these escapes was piety (or, as referred to at that time, “devotion”) and collaboration with ecclesiastics. The authority of the clergy weakened the authority of the head of the family and indirectly gave a certain autonomy to women from the upper class. In contrast with the superiority that society bestowed upon men, the ethical ideal (piety) was more accessible to women who were viewed as superior to men in the area of holiness.

Another escape was to visit religious women in their convent, thus the visitor’s parlor became a place where women, who were victims of domestic violence, could find relief. But the more common escape was to enter the convent. No one, not even one’s parents, could oppose a single woman or a widow who wanted to enter the convent. In fact, parents often encouraged or even obliged one, two or three daughters to become religious in order to safeguard the inheritance of the oldest son or the dowry of another sister whom they hoped to marry with someone of rank. The dowry that the convent requested was less than that which was required in order to enter into matrimony with an aristocrat/bourgeois. This custom, which was affirmed by the Church as part of a normal vocational call, explains in a certain sense, the large number of women religious and convents for women.

It must be remembered that marriage at that time was a family business. Representatives from both families came together and discussed the “titles” and “goods” that each of the intended partners would bring to the marriage. Such a contract could not be set aside by the courts except in the case of consecrating oneself to God in the priesthood or as a member of some religious community.

The young Louise de Marillac entered into this search for a husband. The Marillac-d’Attichy family had achieved the height of prestige and power and intimidated the Provincial of the Capuchins to reject Louise when she requested admittance to the convent. She was given a dowry of 6,000 livres and her marriage with the young man, Antoine Le Gras, the secretary of the Queen-Regent, Marie de Medici, was negotiated. In every sense this was a good investment for the de Marillac’s: it guaranteed them access to the secretary of the government and they were able to present themselves in society as good Catholics who were concerned about an orphan who shared their blood.

Louise de Marillac not only entered into this search for a husband, but the president of the Confraternity, M. Goussault, interested her and involved Vincent de Paul in the marriage of her daughter (CCD:I:357, 512). Louise entrusted other people to speak in her name with the family of the young woman who had been chosen as the wife of her son, Michael (SWLM:311 [L.272b]).

The common attitude

Seldom did anyone raise a voice against this unnatural inequality between the sexes. Rich and poor, beggar and aristocrat, people of every western society accepted this reality, a reality that Aristotle wrote about when he stated: woman is a frustrated man. Thomas Aquinas wrote that woman is born as the result of a mistake of nature. This Dominican theologian and saint explained his theory by using criteria from that era and today his explanation sounds like a child’s fairy tale: As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). [16]

The Church certainly recognized that women had an immortal, human soul and that Christ had also died for them, but the Church’s position with regard to the marginalization of women was equally harsh. The ecclesial hierarchy, composed of men, was very aware of Saint Paul’s affirmation: I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife … for man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority over her head (1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-9).

The male hierarchy, theologians and the majority of friars found in this social attitude an explanation and a way to excuse the scandalous behavior of many priests and religious … poor naïve men (they said) who were seduced by the erotic acts of women who (according to Tertullian) were the object of temptation and the door of the devil . The dichotomy of the feminine image appears in art and literature as Eve-Mary, the angel-the devil, goddess-animal, life-death. Since women religious were distrusted they had to be placed in cloisters behind high walls [17]. Naturally women remained marginalized as a result of the common morality which was “modernly” expressed with the three “c’s”: cocina, cama, convento (in English three “c’s” does not work since these words are translated, kitchen, bed, convent). So rigid was this feminine morality that if a woman so much as looked out a window this was seen as a grave fault for a decent woman.

Vincent and Louise’s attitude

In the time of Louise de Marillac a few individuals raised their voices against the social injustice of that era … this definitely occurred in the parlors of Madame Rambouillet and Mademoiselle de Scudéry. Indeed during the second half of the seventeenth century the voices of women who were members of the préciosité movement were heard. We must remember, however, that Mademoiselle Scudéry did not dare sign her name to the novels that she wrote but used the name of her brother. Influenced by the few feminists of the sixteenth century, women such as Christine de Pisan, Marguerite de Navarre and Louise Labe, other women in the seventeenth century (Marie Gournay) raised their voices and demanded recognition of their rights. In ecclesial circles we note here the voice of Marie Guyart (an Ursuline Sister better known as Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation). At that time there came into existence the querelle des femmes (the women’s debates) that revolved around the question of women’s rights.

In certain aspects Vincent and Louise could be considered as defenders of the rights of women. I say “in certain aspects” because both our Founders accepted, in theory, the social situation of women and did not confront this situation (this was especially true of Louise). We should remember, however, that Mademoiselle le Gras was a widow who had to defend the rights of her son (a minor) and this gave her greater autonomy and certain rights. At the same time, however, Louise was marginalized by civil law and by family members and said exclusion was the direct result of being a woman and an illegitimate child. She had to accept the social structures which she did not dare to rebel against … nor was she able to rebel against. Alone, without the assistance of man, a father or a husband to defend her, Louise had to be declared an adult at the age of nineteen and thus she was able to defend her limited possessions. Weary as a result of struggling, she understood the defenselessness of women. Thus for the greater part of her life she sought support in her director, Vincent de Paul. This was one of the reasons that led her to demand that the Superior General of the Company should be Vincent de Paul and also led her to ask the Daughters of Charity to view the superiors of the Congregation of the Mission, if they resided in the same place, as their own superior. The same reality enabled Louise to accept the situation that a man should have the role of procurator in the Confraternities of Charity, a reality that was further demanded by civil law [17].

Louise’s sense of inferiority can be seen by comparing some of her words with those of the feminist, Louise Labe [19] or by analyzing the draft of the plan for the General Hospital which was administered by the Daughters of Charity [20].

Vincent de Paul was freed from this inhuman way of thinking. We cannot, of course, attribute to him the modern ideas of the present feminist movement and we cannot reproach him for being a man of the seventeenth century. It would be foolish to attribute to Vincent the mentality of one living in the twenty-first century. Vincent followed a twofold principle: first, the indigent needed women and second, God also needed women in order to accomplish a mission on behalf of the poor. Convinced of these realities Vincent included women in the social dimension of life and made them protagonists in his ministry because he viewed them as being as capable as men (end even more capable) as they engaged in charitable-social activities.

The Ladies of Charity

Through the Confraternity of Charity (today known as the AIC) Louise was able to organize and give responsibility to thousands of women from the upper class. It would be good for us to pause and reflect on this reality since Louise was one of the Ladies of Charity and president of the Confraternity at the parish of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. Furthermore she was also a member of the Charity at the Hôtel-Dieu. In this regard Vincent wrote to Louise and stated: As for Mademoisells Viole’s document, the power of attorney she mentions will have to be drawn up early tomorrow morning in your name, and you should sign it as one of the officers of the Confraternity of Charity of the Foundlings. You are indeed one of them and one of the most important (CCD:II:635).

In the time of Saint Louise these beneficent associations for pious and devout women, such as those who were members of the Confraternities, provided an incentive to imitate Christ. It was taken for granted that all Christians knew that the best place to encounter Jesus Christ was among the indigent and that helping those who were poor was helping Christ. At the same time the poor prayed for the salvation and the holiness of those who assisted them. Vincent spoke about all of this with Louise when she decided to dedicate her life to the service of the poor (CCD:I:64-65).

Women also felt a certain satisfaction in this ministry because in marriage they often experienced themselves as objects of pleasure and reproduction or as some negotiable asset in a family business. The beneficent associations provided these women with an experience of being able to establish new relationships of love and gratitude with those persons whom they were helping. If we read Louise’s Rule of Life in the World that was written soon after becoming a widow, we see that between the lines she refers to similar ideas.

Finally, thanks to the beneficent associations, upper class women were able to enter a world that offered them a significant role and thus beside attending to their family obligations, they were able to engage in meaningful activity. This was a form of liberation and not even a woman’s husband could oppose her involvement in such matters. Like many ecclesiastics, Vincent knew that women could become involved in these good works without the permission of their husbands (and even if their husbands opposed this, their wives could still continue in such activities). Here I refer to “good works” because distributing alms was the sole right of women who were members of the upper class, among whom was Mademoiselle Les Gras.

Until Louise met Vincent, she was not overly concerned about the poor, especially if we leave aside for the moment those alms proper to women of her social standing. Louise was concerned about uniting herself to God and sanctifying herself, her husband and her son. Nevertheless, there came a time when Louise identified her life with that of the poor. In this she was influenced by Vincent de Paul [21]. Her commitment to God remained firm but from May 1629 until her death she committed herself to God in order to serve God in those persons who were poor … and she served the poor through the Company of the Daughters of Charity which she established and was herself a member.

As a priest, Vincent de Paul committed himself to hundreds of noble and middle class women in a beneficent ministry on behalf of those persons who were marginalized. Vincent empowered those women in a way that enabled them to move out of the shadows and take their place in the front lines of religious society. In a letter that Vincent wrote to M. Baltiron, he expressed his preference for ministering with women: I can give this testimony in favor of women, that there is no fault to be found in their administration because they are so careful and trustworthy. On the contrary the men want to assume entire responsibility for the women and the women cannot tolerate this. He concluded with this drastic resolution: we were obliged to remove the men (CCD:IV:76) [22].

It can be affirmed that Vincent de Paul found it very easy to work with women because he was convinced of their effectiveness: It may seem that the care of foundlings is a work for men and not for women, Reply to this that God makes use of whomever He pleases (CCD:XIIIb:420). On another occasion Vincent stated: As to this not being a work for women, Ladies, you may be assured that God has used persons of your sex to do the greatest things ever done in this world. What men have ever done what Judith did, what Esther did, what the Maid of Orléans did in this kingdom, what Saint Genevieve did in providing Paris with good during a famine? (CCD:XIIIb:426).

It has also been said that Vincent had a certain perspective and special qualities that enabled him to relate to women in the manner that he did. Louise affirmed this reality (D. 831). Here we must also state that Vincent was an astute man who understood the inferior situation in which women found themselves. He was very aware of Bérulle’s struggle with Duval and Gallemand in order to control and direct the Carmelites who had arrived from Spain. Vincent was the only individual who, as a member of Bérulle’s circle, could oppose him. Even though Vincent was from humble origins and the Carmelites were nobles who could discuss Bérulle’s ideas yet Vincent was aware of the fact that they were women and that Bérulle and he were men and also priests.

Even though there was a constant harmony between the two Founders and even though Louise admired her director and Vincent admired his collaborator, we must be mindful of the differences in their formation and their sensitivity with regard to the position of women in society … we must be careful not to attribute to one what was proper to the other.

The Daughters of Charity

Nevertheless the great importance and complete trust that was placed in women from the lower classes of society are attitudes that can be attributed to both Vincent and Louise. Being outside the civil sphere of influence, the Daughters of Charity were introduced into the activities and the social and religious life of the members of the upper classes of society. Almost all the members of the Daughters, with few exceptions, were from the lower classes of society, more specifically, they were peasant women. Yet the Daughters become protagonists in the society of common women, leveling the playing field as the years passed, so that they, like upper class women, were able to dedicate their life to charitable activities [23]. Vincent, with his firm conviction, clarified this in one of his conferences to the Daughters; “they are men”; but you may say, “but women?” Do you know, sisters, that many persons, even of your sex, are crossing the ocean to go to render service to God by serving their neighbor (CCD:X:406).

This impressive social inclusion of the Company of the Daughters of Charity had many specific consequences, yet Vincent and Louise did not immediately implement all of their ideas in this regard for fear that the Company would be suppressed … for example, Louise felt there should be one Congregation with two branches, a masculine group, the Vincentian Missionaries and a feminine group, the Daughters of Charity. With all the research that I am aware of I would affirm that the relationship between the two groups was more institutional than that which existed between the First Order of Friars and the Second Order of Nuns that Louise had experienced among the Dominicans while studying as a young woman at Poissy or that she experienced among the Capuchins with whom she had lived or the Discalced Carmelites whom she visited after she left the d’Attichy estate.

As the months passed the Founders discovered the great potential of this new Confraternity of women, servants on behalf of the poor … they also discovered the heavy responsibility that they were accepting as they confronted the social class system.

It is difficult to imagine the fear that was instilled in the Company, but both Vincent and Louise were well aware of the opposition of the Court and Parliament and the upper classes of society the Daughters of Charity … and they had their reasons, three in particular. First, the Daughters of Charity did not renounce their goods and preserved all their rights to an inheritance. They could also abandon the Company at any time without having to request a dispensation or receive authorization from a bishop or the Holy See. To return to their family implied costly and on-going litigation with regard to their inheritance and family possessions. Second, while this might scandalize us today but this was the custom during the seventeenth century … this new institution, whose purpose and internal structures were attractive, could also scandalize young women from the upper classes of society who possessed the majority of the monastic stipends which provided considerable income to their families and could be lost if they entered the Company rather than some monastery [24]. If this second reason scandalizes us than the third reason we will find repulsive, but again it was the reality at that time. The Daughters of Charity were women from the lower classes of society and were not very educated, yet they became the directors and administrators of large charitable institutions [25], thus turning upside down the social order in society, in monasteries and in religious houses. It is not strange then the Procurator General of Parliament in Paris and the legate of Beauvais attempted to prohibit meetings between the three hundred Ladies of Charity which a certain priest named, Vincent, had established in that city [26].

The ecclesiastical authorities did not approve of this class of “lay woman” but their opposition arose from their concern about chastity. The possible scandals and dangers in traveling, in visiting the homes of the infirm and in walking the very streets of the city were not figments of someone’s imagination. But the question was: who would direct these religious women? The motives that we have already mentioned caused Mary Ward’s group of women to be suppressed. It was the last point that concerned the civil authorities: if the women left the order and had neither the possessions nor work, then the number of poor persons would increase … or they might become involved in prostitution in order to survive.

This was no small problem. In order to find work, a young woman living apart from her family could be seduced and if she had a child no one would hire her. Thus she would either abandon her child or become involved in prostitution. In the Middle Ages prostitution was legally permitted and regulated and this was seen as necessary in order to preserve the chastity of decent women. At the same time, prostitutes were placed on the lowest run of the social ladder … this was influenced by Christian morality, a situation in which these women were accused of spreading licentiousness and diseases, inciting quarrels and other civil disturbances, leading other young people along evil paths and ruining families. As a result prostitutes were viewed as a criminal element in the population and therefore civil and religious authorities pointed out these women (together with vagabonds and witches) as individual who had to be eliminated [27].

Louise was very aware of this situation and even though she did not expressly dedicate herself to dealing with women in this situation, she was concerned about assisting young women who arrive in Paris so that they would not fall into the vice of prostitution. We should not forget that the young woman who at one time nursed her became involved in prostitution [28].

The Daughters of Charity, single women

Louise de Marillac, Mademoiselle Le Gras, was a holy woman but she was also a woman of the world who was well aware of the intrigues of society. She was also aware of the risks and scandal that a Sister might cause if she remained alone in her house or if a man was seen entering her house. Therefore Louise was most insistent when speaking with the Duchess of Linacourt that she be told the truth as she attempted to discover the root of the calumny that was moving through the city … it was being said that during the night some men were seen entering the house of the Daughters of Charity. Both Founders spoke on numerous occasions about not allowing any man, not even a priest, to enter their house. If a Sister, because of her service on behalf of the poor, had to spend a night alone in the house, then she should ask one of her neighbors to sleep in the house with her. A Sister ran many risks if she traveled alone. There were many illegitimate births to young women who were taken by surprise as they traveled from one place to another, women who were assaulted by soldiers or by migrant workers. Therefore the Sisters should never travel alone but should always be accompanied by a companion. Several times Louise delayed the departure of a young woman who was found unsuitable to be a Daughter because no traveling companion could be found.

This situation surprises us today but these were very real risks at that time. Every woman had to be espoused either to a man or to Jesus Christ. The single woman was marginalized because she was a woman and because, at a marriageable age, she was still single. A single woman was identified as a desolate woman and an insidious temptress. In William Shakespeare’s drama, Measure for Mesaure when Mariana tells Duke Vicentio that she is not a maid or a wife or a widow, he remarks: Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow nor wife! Lucio, a single man, states: My Lord, she may be a punk [a whore] for many of them are neither maid, widow nor wife! (Act V, scene I). Remember that one of the arguments that Saint Louise presented to the town council of Paris when she requested permission to place a fountain in the patio of the Motherhouse was that the Sisters had to listen to crude and indecent remarks from young men when they went to fetch water from the public fountain that was only a few meters from their house (D. 721). We must also remember that Louise mentioned this event just two years before her death.

Even though the Daughters of Charity had been approved by the Archbishop of Paris in January 1635 and by King Louise XIV in November 1657, they were not viewed as religious but rather as members of an association or a confraternity. In other words, the people saw the Daughters as single women or widows. Louise understood that single women were viewed as lewd women or as women who were easy to conquer. She, together with Vincent, felt responsible for the morality of these young women, and they realized that the survival of the Company depended on the morality of the Daughters.

Louise understood that the Daughters, like the majority of women, had an affective, emotional dimension to their life. So did she and she confessed that, like everyone else, she experienced temptations against chastity (D. 822). Affectivity is an indispensable quality if one wants to serve the poor with kindness. However, at the time of Louise, affectivity could be a danger for single women. Even though they were consecrated, many of the Daughters of Charity saw themselves as members of a lay confraternity.

The Daughters of Charity had just been approved by the Archbishop of Paris when Louise discovered that one of the galley slaves had fallen in love with one of the Daughters who cared for him. This woman was compassionate toward him and, carried away by her affectivity and sensitivity, she agreed to sign a marriage contract. She presented the galley slave to the pastor so that he might preside at the marriage, but did not mention that she was engaged to him. The pastor realized what was happening and spoke to Louise. Quickly a council meeting was held and even though Vincent was ill, he rose from his bed and attended this meeting in which Abelly, M. Portail, M. Almeras, and Louise and himself requested the assistance of the Ladies of Charity who were asked to speak with the Daughter involved (D. 619). We do not know how this situation was resolved but this event is simply one more indication of the various situations that Louise, as superior, had to confront.

A woman as Superior General

Louise de Marillac had shown herself to be a competent woman, one who was able to establish the Company of the Daughters of Charity, as well as form and prepare the young women who joined this new Confraternity. In other words she was the ideal woman to be Superior General of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. But then we begin to wonder: how does a woman as Superior General harmonize with all that we have spoken about concerning the marginalization of women in society and in the Church of France during the seventeenth century?

I do not see any contradiction in this because historically, to be Superior General in that era, was not the same as it is today. From the time of the Middle Ages, the control of women’s monasteries and convents (usually referred to as “second orders”) was entrusted to the priors of men’s orders (“first orders”), on whom the women were dependent in matters with regard to the celebration of the sacraments, some financial matters and in certain areas concerning their internal rule. The bishop was on a higher level in the hierarchy. We see all of this reflected in the process that Theresa of Jesus undertook as part of the Carmelite Reform which gave the necessary authority to the Provincial or Superior General of the Dominicans, Carmelites and Franciscans that then allowed them to establish women’s convents.

Louise de Marillac, who was educated by the Dominicans, was very aware of this reality. In fact when she attempted to enter the Capuchin’s she spoke with their provincial, Honoré de Champigny, who denied her request [29].

The Capuchins were a branch of the Order of Saint Clair. In 1538 they received from Paul II the Rule of Saint Clair and were placed under the spiritual direction of the Capuchins. Louise was twenty-one when she requested to enter that Order but and it seems that she had met members of that religious group when she was sixteen. She had obviously spent time with them, since she hoped to be admitted as a member. She also had to know something about the Rule of Saint Clair and the promise of obedience that the members made to Saint Francis of Assisi and his successors. In her rule Saint Clair stated: After the Most High Heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed Father Saint Francis, shortly after his own conversion, I, together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience … Just as I, together with my sisters, have ever been solicitous … so, too, the Abbesses who shall succeed me in office and all the sisters are bound to observe it inviolably to the end [30]. Is this not similar to what Louise expressed in the vow formula which has been preserved: I vow obedience to the Venerable Superior General of the priests of the Mission (SWLM:782 [A.44b]).

Saint Francis accepted this obedience and in the same Rule stated: Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the Most High King, the heavenly Father, and have taken the Holy Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers to always have that same loving care and solicitude for you as [I have] for them [31]. Vincent was aware of the dependence of the Daughters of Saint Clair on the Franciscans and after he consulted and studied their Rule and their lifestyle he spoke about this in a letter that he wrote to Cardinal Antonio Barbeini (CCD:IV:483-493). He also wrote something similar to Jean Dehorgny who was in Cahors: As Superior of the Missionaries, he [M. Cuissot] should still regard those Sisters in the same way he does the seminarians and that those who hear their confessions, instruct and direct them should do as he recommends and not independently of him (CCD:VIII:270-271).

Mademoiselle Le Gras gradually adopted this same vision. Why do I say this? … because for many years Vincent and Louise had different opinions about this matter. There were solid reasons for this disagreement. Vincent de Paul knew Canon 13 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which stated that no Congregation of men could assume the direction of a congregation of women without the authorization of the Holy See … and it was impossible to obtain this authorization unless the women were cloistered. At the same time Vincent was aware of the fact that many Missionaries were opposed to accepting the direction of a congregation of women. If the Daughters of Charity were to be dependent on a priest, even though that priest be Vincent de Paul, it was doubtful that the Company would be approved by the Archbishop of Paris. If however, like any other lay Confraternity, it was dependent on the Archbishop, it would be approved more easily. Dependence on the Archbishop would reflect the nature of the Confraternity and make it clear that the Company was not a “religious institution”. For these reasons Vincent wanted the Company to be dependent on the Archbishop in the area of the apostolate and its internal life, that is, dependent on the Archbishop as Christians and as Daughters of Charity.

Louise was in complete disagreement with Vincent on this matter and expressed her opposition in a clam and understanding manner to Vincent. Louise was realistic and observant. She knew the Sisters and understood their psychology … she realized that in their difficult mission these simple peasant women needed the support of priests who were well-prepared (as occurred in Poland) and this led to the creation of what today we refer to as the provincial Director. Louise also feared that the Daughters would be rejected in Dioceses if they remained under the authority of Archbishop of Paris. In fact, she felt that if they were dependent on the bishops where they ministered, they would be directed according to the desires of the local ordinary and the Company would become divided. Yet the Missionaries, who had the same founder, the same purpose, and the identical charism and spirit, would continue to live as one body. Therefore it was easy for Louise to conclude that the suppression of the Company would not depend on the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission [32].

Louise was also influenced by the experiences of her youth and the interior insecurity that resulted from society’s and the church’s position of giving no value to women unless they possessed a title and/or wealth. The women, who became members of the Company, were women from the countryside, women of humble origins who practiced a “popular religion” … defenseless women who had no rank in society or the church. Therefore in order to carry out their mission in an effective manner these women needed to be related to a prestigious congregation of men, such was the Congregation of the Mission during Vincent’s life.

With this attitude it is not surprising that Louise wrote the following in the rule for the Daughters who were sent to Le Mans: give obedience to the Superior of the Mission (SWLM:765 [L134]). We are also not disturbed by the words that Louise wrote to Sister Charlotte Royer in Richelieu: Please convey my very humble and respectful greetings to your Reverend Superior (XSLM:665 [L.646]). Convinced of the need to live in this manner, Louise counseled the Sisters at the hospital in Nantes to consult with Monsieur Lambert in important matters when unable to do so with Monsieur Vincent or Monsieur Portail.

If this was possible for religious, it should also be possible for the Company

If Louise held this position it was because she felt that it was possible … and she felt it was possible because she had lived and experienced this reality. When she left Poissy she was (according to the view of that era) seen as a young marriageable woman of twelve years. Yet it was most probable that she had seen the Dominican priests direct the Sisters in the convent and might have even witnessed the same priests expel some of the young girls who were studying there. When Louise wanted to become a Capuchin she was told that the Provincial would have to approve her admission. When her husband became ill, she and her family left the estate of the d’Attichy family and lived with the Discalced Carmelites who, fifteen years earlier, with the permission of the Father General of the Carmelites, had arrived in France (having traveled there from Spain). The Holy See had named the superior of this group of religious women, first Pierre Bérulle who then alternated in this role with André Duval and Jacques Gallemand. Louise was aware of the struggle that Berulle encountered in order to continue as superior and how the Sisters did not submit themselves to the authority of the Discalced Carmelites who had recently arrived in France from Falnders [33]. If this was possible for religious it should also be possible for the Company.

Louise was a woman of her time, a woman in the midst of other women and in the midst of events that, like the Word of God, etched our her mission and destiny.


      • Translator’s Note: Throughout the text there are references that are marked with a “D” followed by a number. These are citations from La Compañía de las Hijas de la Caridad en sus Orígines: Documentos, Editoria CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2003.

[01] Vincent constantly referred to God as the Founder of the Company: CCD:IX:106, 166, 191-192, 194-195, 358, 359, 472, 536-536 …

[02] Council of Trent, session xxiii, chapter 8; Clement VIII, Quicumque (1604); Paul V, Quae Salubriter (1616).

[03] I have set forth these ideas with greater detail in the biography of Saint Louise: Benito Martínez, Empañada en un paraíso para los pobres, CEME, 1995, pp. 81-88.

[04] For further details see Benito Martínez, op.cit., pp. 30-32.

[05] As a result of comparing this meditation with the last paragraph of the letter that was sent to Sister Margarita Chétif on October 15, 1657, I am inclined to date this meditation [A.29] with the year 1657. Sister Geoffre --- who gives me great security in doing this --- places this reflection after A.28, A.26, and A.27. There is no doubt that A.26 was written in 1657.

[06] Letters that involve the duchess d’Aiguillon, the Marquise de Comlet and a Lady of Honor to the Queen: D.869, 838, 743, 799; CCD:I493-494; SWLM:118 [L.125b], 121 [L.111], 206 [L.182b], 210 [L.184], 237 [L.203], 264 [L.226], 264 [L.226], 350 [L.303], 355 [L.526], 364 [L.316], 387 [L.281], 392 [L.342]…. Translator’s Note: in my opinion none of these citation seems to refer to the topic.

[07] Martine Sonnet, “La educación de una joven” in Georges Duvy and Michelle Pierrot, Historia de la mujeres. 3. Del Renacimiento a la Edad Moderna, Taurus, Madrid, 1993, p. 178.

[08] August 26, 1789. See, Isabel Martínez Benlloch, “Tolerancia y procesos de discriminación” in Fundació Bancaixa, op.cit., pp. 117-126; Maria Luisa Cavana, “Diferencia” and Ángeles Jiménez Perona, “Igualdad”, in Celia Amoros, Diez palabras clave sobre mujer, Verbo Divino, Estella, 1995.

[09] Gobillon, La vie de Mademoiselle Le Gras…, Chez André Pralard, Paris, 1676, pp. 6-7.

[10] SWLM:738 [A.91], 743 [A.90], 746 [A.88], 749 [A.84], 754 [A.91b]….

[11] Gallia Christiana, vol. viii, Paris, 1744, col. 1337.

[12] Pol Gallard, Les préciesues ridicules. Les femmes savantes. Moli?re, Hatier, Paris, 1979, p. 8.

[13] Tallement des Réaux, Historiettes, II (annotated by Antoine Adam) La Pléiade, Paris, 1961, p. 91. Saddened by the fact that she was a widow at the age of eighteen, she married an octogenarian who died five weeks after their wedding.

[14] Today we become angered by the case of Jacques Chevallier, a married man who had a lover named Gillette de la Vigne, a single woman who was the mother of five or six of Jacques’ children. Accused of adultery he is exiled for one year and fined 400 livres while Gillette was condemned to death and executed (cited by Claude Dulong, op.cit., pp. 65-66).

[15] Translator’s Note: this letter was not written to Vincent de Paul as stated in the text but was addressed to the Count de Maure, the husband of Anne d’Attichy, Louise de Marillac’s cousin.

[16] Summa Theologica http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1092.htm (I, q.92, art.1).

[17]CCD:I:323;VIII:276-279; IX:463-464, 527-528.

[18] E.77 is a reference to the Spanish edition of Louise’s writings; this document, however, is not found in the English edition; D.558).

[19] Compare the beginning of the preface that Louise Labe wrote a half a century before Louise, a preface to one of her books on women’s rights: It is time that the severe laws of men stop preventing women from studying science and other disciplines. I think those of us who can avail ourselves of this freedom, coveted for so long, must study to show men how wrong they were to deprive us of this honor and opportunity. Louise wrote something similar: 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.60]). It is clear that Louise accepted the inferiority of women: her conviction that women were the weaker sex does not indicate inequality but inferiority since it was Providence that chose them because they were inferior to men and revealed that they were to assist the poor.

[20] If you look at the work as political, it seems that men should engage in this activity, if you look at it as a charitable work, then women can do this ... Women should do this alone, since it seems that men cannot nor should not engage in this work. It would be desirable however, that some men of mercy ... unite themselves with these women and as one more member of the group express his opinion with regard to the different processes and other actions of justice ... It is to be hope ... that men will not disdain this role, because humanly speaking, it seems that this is the manner of acting would not be reasonable unless it were also the ordinary way of acting.

[21] In Spanish the citation reads SVP:I:73-74, however there is no such page in the Spanish edition of Coste so this is an obvious error and I do not know the correct citation.

[22] Twenty years earlier Vince had written to Louise: You must take care not to let the curate keep the money because of the many difficulties that might arise … experience has shows that it is absolutely necessary for the women not to depend on the men in this situation, especially for the money (CCD:I:70).

[23] SWLM:81 [L.547], 149 [L.136], 196 [L.174], 381 [L.333]. 390 [L.341], 422 [L.368], 677 [L.655], 823 [A.61].

[24] See, Claude Dulong, La vie quotidienne des femmes au Grand Si?cle, Hachette, Paris, 1984, pp. 282 ff.

[25] SWLM:292 [L. 481], 317 [L.283]; CCD:IX:430-433.

[26] CCD:I:91, in the first footnote of letter #58 Coste cites Alphonse Feillet.

[27] Sara F. Matthews Griego, “El cuerpo, apariencia y sexualidad”, in G. Duby and M. Perrot (eds.), op.cit., p. 87.

[28] See the biograph of Saint Louise de Marillac: Benito Martínez, Empañada en un paraíso para los pobres, CEME, 1995, pp. 87.

[29] Gobillon, p. 8-9; D.803.

[30] http://www.stanthonyshrine.org/PoorClares/Rule_St_Clare.pdf

[31] Ibid.

[32] CCD:II:599-604; SWLM:133 [L.124b].

[33] See Julen Urkiza, Comienzos del Carmelo Teresiano francés. Búsqueda de candidatas (1604), Monte Carmelo, Burgos, 2004.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM