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Literacy is a priceless gift to give the next generation. Literacy is a powerhouse for responsible adulthood and the basis for self-esteem, participative democracy, and the development of job skills. Such is an investment in the future of our country. It also contributes to family life and the human development of family members.
The story of Marguerite recalls our own journey of learning and being mentored by tutors and friends. Hers is a journey of mutuality in mission and responsiveness to the signs of the times. Her legacy is in our hands.
The Holy Spirit led Marguerite to see the unmet needs of poor persons all around her. Through her literacy project we glimpse the Vincentian virtues of humility, simplicity, and charity, which radiated through her spirituality of servanthood and her legacy of charity. May Marguerite's story inspire us to accomplish our mission with her enthusiasm and generosity.
Marguerite's Story Marguerite was the oldest of nine children. When God inspired her to seek out people in need, he sent her to Monsieur Vincent, who had established the first Confraternity of Charity at Châtillon-les-Dombes in the year 1617 and a second one at Villepreux. He was giving a mission at Villepreux when Marguerite met him.
Life, mission, and ministry. Marguerite, was a simple country woman who, from the time she was about twenty, had taught herself and others to read. She was driven by a gospel vision of missionary zeal. In a manuscript dated 1642, we read what Vincent de Paul told the first Daughters of Charity about Marguerite.
Moved by a powerful inspiration from Heaven, the idea occurred to her that she would instruct children and so she bought an alphabet but, as she could not go to school for instruction, she went and asked the parish priest or curate to tell her what were the first four letters of the alphabet.
On another occasion, she asked what were the next four, and so on for the rest . . . Little by little she learned to read, and she then taught the other girls of her village. She afterwards made up her mind to go from village to village instructing the young, accompanied by two or three other girls whom she had taught. Marguerite had given herself to God to instruct the little children of her village to know and love Him. She purchased an alphabet and learned to read almost by herself, for nobody taught her. She studied the letters of the alphabet in groups of four letters while she was minding the cows. When people passed her on the road she would stop them and say: “Please, sir, tell me what are those letters? What is the meaning of that word?” In this way she learned to read little by little, then went into the villages to teach others. Her goal was to help village girls of all ages to become literate. After Marguerite had learned anything, she shared her new knowledge with several companions whom she also taught to read and they taught other girls in turn. Sometimes they went to other villages and took turns going into different areas. She did this without any financial resources or help from anyone except Divine Providence.
Vincent and his priests went to give a mission in Villepreux. God blessed their efforts and something new was born in the Vincentian Family. Marguerite went to confession to Vincent and told him of her plans for teaching girls to read. She became greatly interested in the Confraternity of Charity at Villepreux, and told Vincent: “I would like very much to serve the poor in that way.” Vincent brought her to Paris and placed her under the care of Louise de Marillac. At that time the first confraternity in Paris at Saint Savior was composed of women of rank who were looking for a maid to carry soup to the sick.
Louise met with Marguerite and asked her what she knew, where she had come from, and if she was willing to serve poor persons. Marguerite readily expressed her desire to serve in the Confraternity. After Louise had interviewed Marguerite, she placed her in the parish of Saint Savior where she served effectively as a servant of the poor for the Ladies of Charity. She was sent to the confraternity in the parish of Saint Savior where Dr. Levesque, of the faculty of Paris, taught her how to administer medicines and render whatever nursing services were necessary. Next Louise sent her to the Confraternity at Saint Nicholas-du-Chardonnet (also located in Paris). Marguerite worked there with the Ladies in the Confraternities for about three years. Marguerite caught the plague from a girl whom she had nursed and soon died “her heart filled with joy and conformity to God's will.” When Marguerite realized her own condition she said good-bye to her companion in the Confraternity and went to the Hospital of Saint Louis on the outskirts of Paris and died there sometime about February to March 1633.
Vincent called Marguerite the first Daughter of Charity because she was the prototype of all who followed her. Her example showed the way to others. Marguerite was so virtuous that others who presented themselves were accepted by Louise and Vincent. They became new servants of the poor and did what she had done. Vincent said that she “was the first Sister who had the happiness of pointing out the road to our other Sisters, both in the education of young girls and in nursing the sick, although she had no other master or mistress but God.”
Marguerite struggled against the illiteracy of her epoch. Marguerite used her initiative to address the unmet need among girls for literacy education. She was quite accepting of individual learning rates and never grumbled about the inconveniences entailed in her ministry. It was not so much her personal satisfaction as the desire to communicate knowledge to others that seemed to be the value driving her efforts when she began her educational efforts about 1614. She was not satisfied with the status quo so she saved some coins to purchase a set of the alphabet. Her decision to teach herself to read by grouping the letters could be considered a primitive plan for personal programmed instruction.
She intuitively sowed the seeds of new vocations by selecting others and inviting them to join her in her literacy project as mentors and instructors. How much it must have cost her to have approached persons whom she may not have known to ask humbly for their help? Despite obstacles resulting from such collaboration, she persevered in her learning and yielded to the control of the process of those from whom she sought input and guidance. Then she shared her acquired knowledge with other girls. As they learned, she encouraged them to also go to other places to share their knowledge in order to open other minds to truth.
Marguerite's attitude was important. She encountered others for the purpose of transmitting knowledge to them . This is still a valuable motive today in attempts to foster a taste for reading among others. At times there is such a vast difference in assimilation between what we would like to motivate others to learn and what they actually learn. Perhaps one her most important gifts to us is her example that the best pedagogy is that of soliciting the good will of the learners first. Marguerite even appears to have engaged in a type of apostolic reflection or self-evaluation of the learning process with her companions. On their return from instructions in the villages, Marguerite used to ask her collaborators how the learning experience had gone and if their lesson plans were able to be carried out successfully. She did not rely on her self alone but sought advice, beginning first with Vincent de Paul with whom she had initially discussed her desire to teach the other girls of the fields. He responded, “Certainly, certainly, my daughter, I advise you to do so.” Marguerite's missionary dynamism was fueled by her humility and docility to God's will. Her simplicity and charity “attracted to the work other girls whom she had helped” and who wished “to embrace a devout life.” She was driven by a vibrant apostolic spirituality. So are we. The Vincentian virtues of humility, simplicity, and charity still give witness and draw others into mission in the Vincentian Family when we live these values consistently and with credibility.
Marguerite was mission-oriented. She was a woman of faith on fire with charity. Her companions remembered her patience and kindness: “Everybody loved her because there was nothing in her that was not lovable.” ?Spirituality of Servanthood. The Holy Spirit called Marguerite into mission. The same Spirit continues to call contemporary women and men into the same mission of charity and evangelization. The call is ever the same. It still comes and may be heard by those who tune into the Divine in their hearts amidst the busyness of life. The challenge we face today is to be still and listen, then reflect on God's message and presence in our midst, focusing attention on how God reveals Divine Love in events and service opportunities. Is our response radical and innovative like Marguerite's whose work was exhausting but she undertook it without any motive of self-promotion or self-interest, with no other design but that of the glory of God. She was not discouraged by ingratitude, calumny, and mistrust. The more she worked at teaching, the more the villagers mocked her. That only made her more zealous. She depended on God alone.
She also saw to the studies of several young men who had insufficient financial resources and wished to study for the priesthood. She gave them food and encouraged them in the service of God as priests. Her zeal was sustained by personal mortification. Her spirit of detachment was so great that she gave away all that she had, including at times what she needed for herself. Persevering Humility. Marguerite is a model for all who are interested in promoting human development among people oppressed by poverty and illiteracy. She is an exemplar of humility as a servant in the Vincentian tradition. • Her decision to learn to read was a real adventure with the risk of failure • Her fresh starts and her perseverance in overcoming difficulties without giving way to discouragement • Her willingness to accept delays before attaining any results • Her recourse to guidance and advice in her spiritual journey, from both Vincent and Louise • Her acceptance of proposals for service different from her first choice • A modest manner of life in solidarity with the poor • Total dependence on God's Providence Legacy of Charity. Our call is to preserve the heritage we have received and to transmit it to the next generation. We are challenged to live out of our heritage as from our unique Vincentian niche. This means we must work at fulfilling our mission in creative fidelity to the needs of the world today for a better tomorrow for humankind. We are called to build the city of God in our midst of foundations of love and justice for all people. “It was very remarkable” how Marguerite “undertook all this without money or any other help save that of Divine Providence.” Marguerite was very devout and overlooked inconveniences and sufferings, often fasting for whole days, and staying in hovels with only bare walls. She conducted her ministry with a spirit of asceticism and had an admirable adherence to living the mystery of the cross in her life. We, too, are called to give the same counter-cultural witness to Gospel values according to the Vincentian tradition.
She had great trust in Divine Providence on whom she relied for everything, including food. “On one occasion, when she had been without food for several days, and yet had not told anybody of the state of distress in which she was, on her return from Mass, she found sufficient food to last her for quite a long time.”
Some may call Marguerite a martyr of charity. Her martyrdom was both physical and emotional in self-sacrificial surrender to God's will.
She gave herself totally to God in the following manner. • Death from of the plague. • Dying alone in the hospital of Saint Louis • Total self-surrender of her own will since she was still young (39) and filled with the desire to serve needy people when God called her to Eternity.
Marguerite's life unfolded in the light of Gospel values. She offers the Vincentian Family a model of • A living faith • Mission-minded philosophy of life and creativity to meet human needs • Respect for human dignity and belief in human potential • Firm adherence to the will of God • The witness of authentic servanthood in a spirit of humility, simplicity, and charity
In order to accomplish her ministry, Marguerite took steps to enlighten her faith through study and reading. Her knowledge and informed faith made her more qualified to render assistance to those whom she wished to serve. Marguerite is a model not only for the Daughters of Charity but also for the entire Vincentian Family and anyone seeking to serve the needy in the Vincentian tradition. She led a strong interior life, nourished by reading, study, and contemplation in order to communicate knowledge and to promote reading skills. She was concerned to spread the Good News. She pursued the task in the face of obstacles and insecurity. Saint Vincent perceived in her the characteristic spirit of servants of the poor: charity and a humility so profound that she forgot herself completely.
Humility formed part of her constitution but it was continually acquired as she sought more and more to learn the truth about God, her neighbor and herself. Humility gave her a simple lifestyle. She knew herself to be poor, therefore she had nothing to lose, not even her good name. Marguerite's example also teaches us about the liberating joy that comes from serving the God of Love. Her life speaks to us in the language of compassionate service as expressed in the light of the gospel. She was a woman of the Beatitudes. She lived Jesus' 'teaching “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right . . . Happy are you when they abuse you on account of Me . . . rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:3-11).