Louise de Marillac and Mary Ward ... Founders

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by Benito Martinez



It is not uncommon to present the Ursuline and the Visitation Sisters as the forerunners of the Daughters of Charity. Both institutes moved from a secular to a religious idea in the fullest sense of the word, that is, with vows that were simple and religious. But the Daughters of Mary Ward are often forgotten because they were suppressed. Neither Saint Vincent nor Saint Louise refers to them even though there were discussions in Rome about their continuation or suppression during the same years that the establishment of the Daughters of Charity was being considered in Paris.

In 2010 we celebrated the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Louise de Marillac and in 2009 the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (knows in Spain as the “Dame Inglesse”) celebrated their 400th anniversary of their foundation and the 100th anniversary (1909) of Mary Ward being declared the founder of these two religious institutions. I have asked myself why was the foundation of Mary Ward suppressed in 1629 under Pope Urban VIII while at the same time the Daughters of Charity were allowed to continue uninterrupted in their ministry until the present day?

Mary Ward was born in 1585 to a noble, Catholic family. With her family she suffered persecution under Queen Elizabeth of England. When she was twenty Mary was able to flee to the Lower Countries of Spain and there entered a convent of Poor Clares at St.-Omer as lay sister. But before taking vows she left this order and considered entering the Carmelites. The years that she had lived in England had left a profound impression on her and so she returned to her homeland where she planned to serve as a missionary and to help persecuted Catholics, encouraging them, affirming them in their faith, and thus giving glory to God. Guided by the Ignatian Exercises and the Jesuits, Mary proposed establishing a religious institute for women, an institute that would be similar to the Society of Jesus. Thus they are usually called JES or English women. The trials that Mary Ward endured went beyond the plans of Angela de Merici and Saint Francis de Sales.

Louise de Marillac was born in 1591 into a noble and very Catholic family. Two months after her birth she was being cared for in a Dominican Convent and then at the age of thirteen she was cared for and educated in a secular but Catholic boarding home. At the age of sixteen she considered becoming a Capuchin and at the age of twenty applied for admission into this institute. Her petition was rejected and later she married and had a son. At the age of thirty-four she was a widow and it was then that she asked Vincent de Paul to become her spiritual director. Eight year later Louise and Vincent would establish the Company of the Daughters of Charity to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the poor.

Mary Ward’s idea was to establish an institute of religious women who would serve as missionaries in Protestant countries, especially England. For this to happen it was necessary that these women not be cloistered, not wear a habit or follow the monastic rule (choir) and not be subject to the local bishop. As a result the role of the superior general would be highlighted at a time when women had no civil, legal and economic rights, at a time when women were subject to the authority of their father, husband, brother or tutor. Mary Ward wanted to be wholly supported by a congregation of men, specifically the Society of Jesus, thus making her foundation a type of Second Order. The superior general of the Jesuits, Mutio Vitelleschi, however, feared that such a union would lead to further attacks on the Society and therefore, like the majority of the Jesuits, he was wholly opposed to this idea even though he supported the confessors and directors of Mary (Roger Lee and John Gerard) who were ministering in England. What was even more difficult for Mary Ward was the fact that she continually attempted to obtain the approval of the Holy See for these innovative religious structures and for this provocative and revolutionary form of life. The situation became more complicated when Mary Ward, believing that the Pope supported her position even though he decreed the closing of all the house in Flanders and Germany, wrote to those communities to resist the Pope’s order while her Vicar attempted to impede the suppression of the community.

It is clear that this situation needed people like Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, people who possessed a certain boldness and tenacity but who also possessed a spirit of discernment so as not to confront the Church’s authority or civil authority. Vincent de Paul supervised the development and the expansion of the Daughters of Charity but at the same time he had great confidence in Louise and thus entrusted her with the immediate direction and governance of the Daughters of Charity. Louise de Marillac knew how to carry on this work and also knew how to do this in a way that was acceptable to all. In this way Louise was able to develop the secular structures of the Company.

Step by step, with no harshness but with feminine delicacy and the astuteness of an intelligent woman, Louise found support in a Congregation of men. Even though some members of the Congregation of the Mission were opposed, Louise in fact was able to convince the Missionaries to accept the Daughters of Charity as part of their mission. Louise was also able to convince the Archbishop of Paris that Vincent de Paul and his successors as superior general would also be considered as the superior general of the Daughters of Charity. In the beginning Vincent was not in accord with this arrangement.

Today what is seen as stubborn imprudence in Mary Ward and her vicar as they struggled to have the monastic cloture suppressed and to change the juridical meaning of the religious vows is viewed as holiness in the person of Louise de Marillac who was guided by the practical wisdom of Vincent de Paul. Indeed Louise is seen as one who was attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit who speaks to the founders of religious institutions through the signs of the time. Louise expressed this clearly when she wrote to Monsieur L’Abbé de Vaux:

I greatly feat that our good sister Jeanne spoke of the vows in a way which does not make it clear that they are something other than what is professed by the devout laity. Again let me say that they are not the same, for the laity usually pronounce them before their confessor. We must honor the plans of God and bless Him constantly. I believe that Monsieur Vincent will write to Nantes next week. He told me that he would decide tomorrow what will be done. Please, Monsieur, let me know if in this first article of the Rule of our sisters there is anything which indicates a regular community and is different from the Rule of Angers. This was never my intention; on the contrary, I met with the Vicar General two or three times to explain to him that we were just a secular family and that because we were bound together by the Confraternity of Charity, we had Monsieur Vincent, as General of these Confraternities, for our Director. Once he understood our practice he then explained our type of establishment to the Bishop of Nantes who approved it so wholeheartedly that he signed his name along with the administrators of the city (Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac, p. 293).

Aware of the fact that their idea for this new Company was most radical the two saints did not believe that such an institute would be approved by the Holy See. Indeed it was felt that such an idea would be rejected unless the women agreed to accept the monastic cloture and yet that would mean there would be no ministry with those persons who were poor. Therefore Vincent and Louise were satisfied with diocesan approval as a pious charitable institution.

Other objections were raised by the diocesan and other religious clergy, as well as civil and ecclesiastical authorities and Vincent and Louise were able to confront these objections.

• The dowry of those who entered the Institute of Mary was used for the construction of the schools for girls, thus supporting the evangelization efforts among the Protestants. Once the dowry was spent, however, if the young woman left the order she would become a burden to her family or she would pursue costly lawsuits in her search for an inheritance. This created fear among the civil authorities who imagined these women without resources or work engaging in prostitution in order to survive and at the same time increasing the number of poor in their jurisdiction. It was explained that the Daughters of Charity did not bring a dowry with them when they entered the Company and they maintained the right to own their personal property.

• At that time because of the nature women and the freedom that they enjoyed these women, while ministering in the apostolate, faced serious dangers in the area of chastity. Louise de Marillac was a saint but was also a woman of the world who was very aware of the dangers that existed in society. It was for this reason that the founders were insistent in forbidding the Sisters to allow a man to enter into their home, even a priest. If a sister, because of her obligation to serve the poor, had to remain alone at night, she was advised to ask a neighbor to sleep in her house. Even worse consequences could occur if she was taken by surprise while traveling alone. A large number of illegitimate births were the consequence that befell many young women who were taken by surprise by some solider or itinerant worker on isolated roads or in some rural area. The Sisters were never allowed to travel alone but were always to be accompanied by a companion or a person of confidence. Several times the departure of a young woman from the Company had to be delayed because no one could be found to accompany this woman to the house of her parents. This point was essential and would determine the suppression or the continuation of the Company.

• The previous objection was all the more serious since they did not wear a habit that identified them as single women (something that was not viewed favorably during the seventeenth century). Nevertheless the Daughters of Charity wore lay clothing that was the same in every place and that would become a distinctive external sign even though they did not wear a veil that was common for religious women.

• Priests and religious were very concerned about the missionary work that the Sisters would become involved in and they viewed the public ministry of women as an usurpation of priestly rights. The laity, especially women, were prohibited from exercising public ministry. Saint Louise recognized the danger but rejects this view: The method of teaching used at La F?re is to be feared not only because the sister involved may inject much of herself into it and advance maxims that she cannot explain, but also because public places, such as the rooms in hospitals where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, are used. This could lead others to accuse the Superiors of the Daughters of Charity of allowing the sisters to undertake too much (Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, p. 832).

• Since the women of the Institute of Mary were not prepared in the sacred sciences, they could become the source of heresy like the Valdenses and Beguines. Saint Louise as well as Saint Vincent insisted that the Daughters of Charity study the catechism of Saint Bellamine.

Translated: Charles T. Plock