Vincent and Louise: one and the same passion, the poor
by Elisabeth Charpy, DC
For thirty-five years Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac worked together. Both were animated by a twofold passion: a passion for the Son of God who was alive in the midst of the world and a passion for the poor. How could these two people, from such distinct family and social backgrounds and with such different temperaments, work together? What type of a relationship did they have? As we read the six hundred letters that they exchanged we see that their relationship evolved over the course of years. Their relationship passed through several phases before becoming one of true friendship. Every relationship evolves and is built up with the passing of the days and years. A passion for the poor can create differences with regard to the way to orient one’s activity … thus misunderstandings can arise.
Holiness for Vincent de Paul, as well as Louise de Marillac, was innate. Their holiness was supported by their humanness. Their relationship with God and with the poor and their relationship with one another transformed and perfected them and made them more pleasing. The friendship that joined them together so profoundly arose from a series of encounters in which they became aware of their own identity and yet discovered their reciprocal complementarity which resulted in a mutual acceptance of one another. Their relationship led to numerous innovative actions and because of their boldness they were able to attract many collaborators.
Various stages that were quite different from another marked the thirty-five years of Vincent and Louise’s time of working together.
A difficult coming together (1625-1625)
Hesitancy, doubts and uncertainty marked the first encounters between Louise and Vincent. The differences were so great that they have to be explained.
When Louise described her Pentecost experience she spoke about her director: I was also assured that I should remain at peace concerning my director; that God would give me one whom He seemed to show me. It was repugnant to me to accept him; nevertheless, I acquiesced (SWLM:1 [A:2]). On more than one occasion Louise had to meet Vincent since the Hôtel de Gondi was near the house where the Le Gras family lived. Louise noticed that Vincent walked like a peasant and had neither the elegance nor the distinction of Jean-Pierre Camus who for many years had been her spiritual guide. Jean-Pierre had been named the bishop of Belley and now spent less time in Paris. Louise found nothing pleasing about having to meet with her new director, Vincent. It seems that Vincent’s friendship with Francis de Sales, who had died three years before, facilitated this encounter. In fact, the bishop of Geneva had entrusted to Vincent the direction of the monasteries of the Visitation Sisters that were located in Paris.
Vincent, from his perspective, had doubts about becoming the spiritual director of this young, sad, depressed and seemingly scrupulous widow. He was very aware of the demands that Madame de Gondi had made upon him and her unwillingness to separate herself from him and her desire to have him always near to him. Jean-Pierre Camus, a great friend of Francis de Sales, pressured him. In one of the letters that Vincent wrote to Louise he made it clear that he was humbly submitting himself to God’s will: Understand once and for all Mademoiselle, that a person whom God in His plan has destined to assist someone else is no more overburdened by the advice that the other requests than a father is by his own child (CCD:I:212).
During the first months of their relationship Vincent spoke about his fears: Louise was very anxious and agitated during his absences. He continually received letters from her, letters in which she revealed her impatience: I hope that you will excuse the liberty I am taking in telling you how impatient I have become because of your long absence, troubled as I am about the future and by not knowing where you are or where you are going (SWLM:5[L:1]). A letter that Jean-Pierre Camus wrote to Louise also revealed her displeasure with the numerous absences of her new director who was preaching in many different villages in France: Excuse me, my dearest daughter, if I tell you that you are too attached to those who guide you and you rely too much on them. The fact that M. Vincent has had to leave has upset and disorientated M. de Gras (Documents of the Company, p. 985).
The financial situation of Madame Le Gras, which became very precarious after the death of her husband, did not allow her to remain in her house that was located in the parish of Saint Nicholas- des-Champs. She was obliged to move into a simpler house on the rue Saint-Victor, a short distance from the Coll?ge des Bons-Enfants whose superior was Vincent de Paul. If Louise wanted to have her director at her disposal, Vincent wanted to guard his distance. Vincent responded to one of her requests that he found too demanding and said: Our Lord Himself will act as your director. Yes, He will surely do so, and in such a way that He will lead you to see that it is He Himself (CCD:I:24). The tone of the letters exchanged between 1625-1627 was one of reverence and was in accord with the style of the seventeenth century. Despite the initial difficulties Vincent continued to give and receive light from Louise. He wanted to be faithful to the will of God.
A mutual discovery (1627-1629)
In the course of their encounters and through their correspondence Vincent and Louise entered a phase of mutual discovery. The tone of their letters began to change. Beginning in 1628 these encounters were now desired and looked forward to. Vincent expressed this in several letters: If it were not so late as it is, I would come and see you to find out from you the details of the matter you wrote to me about. However, that will be for tomorrow (CCD:I:63). A certain joy accompanied the reception of Louise’s letters. Vincent spoke about this in a very simple way: Mon Dieu, my dear daughter, how your letter and the thoughts [you] sent to me console me (CCD:I:61).
Vincent, very aware of human misery, perceived that Louise, an extremely sensitive woman, was deeply affected by the harsh realities of life. He came to a better understanding of her suffering, her anxiety and her desire to know and fulfill the will of God. Her anxiety ran the risk of prejudicing her physical and psychological balance. Vincent did everything to clam her: Well now, continue, my dear daughter, to remain in this good disposition and allow God to act. … Take good care of your health for love of Him (CCD:I:61). Vincent had seen Louise’s great concern for her son, Michel, and he in turn took charge of this young man’s education: he guided him in his studies and counseled him when his relationship with his mother became problematic.
Louise, on the other hand, discovered the many dimensions of Vincent’s personality: she admired his work among the poor people of the countryside and she realized that this priest, who at first appeared to be a simpleton, had a profound love for people who were poor and was able to mobilize other people to assist those who were suffering. She accepted the invitation to participate in the charitable activity that had been initiated in several towns and villages through the establishment of the Confraternities of Charity.
During this time of mutual discovery Vincent played a dominant role: he guided Louise and helped her to become more confident. Louise allowed herself to be guided…..
An intense collaboration (1629-1640)
An intense and effective collaboration was clearly established between Vincent and Louise and this occurred in the midst of incredible activity. Both had reached the age of full maturity: Louise was 40 and Vincent was 50. Two important events should be highlighted, events that occurred during this period and that placed their collaboration on a solid basis.
On May 6, 1625 Vincent sent Louise on a mission and this became the starting point for their collaboration. Vincent had established the Confraternities of Charity on De Gondi estate. As he visited these Conferences he wanted Louise to accompany him: Father de Gondi sent me word to come by coach to see him in Montmirail … Do you feel like coming? … We shall have the happiness of seeing you in Montmirail (CCD:I:63-64). Receiving a positive response from her, Vincent sent her a letter concerning her mission, a letter which was written in a very formal manner: I am sending you the letters and the report that you need for your journey. Go, therefore, Mademoiselle, go in the name of Our Lord. I pray that His Divine Goodness may accompany you, be your consolation along the way, your shade against the heat of the sun, your shelter in rain and cold, your soft bed in your weariness, your strength in your toil, and, finally, that He may bring you back in perfect health and filled with good works (CCD:I:64-65). Was Vincent aware of the importance of this event or did he simply allow himself to be led by the Spirit?
After the first visit during which Vincent was able to observe Louise as she became involved in ministry, Vincent began to rely on her more and more in matters pertaining to the Confraternities. Louise responded to the calls of her director and entered whole-heartedly into the work. During the course of her many visits to the Confraternities she informed Vincent about everything that she saw and experienced: the organizational plans for relief of those persons who were suffering and the plans to distribute goods to those who were poor. She also included references to the spiritual dimension of this ministry. She submitted to Vincent the problems that she encountered but Vincent responded by telling her to act as saw best: You want to know whether you are to speak to the assembled members of the Charity. I would indeed like that very much, they would profit from it, but I do not know whether it is opportune or advisable. Speak to Mademoiselle Champlin about it and do what Our Lord inspires you to do (CCD:I:89).
Day by day Vincent discovered the depths of the personality of his collaborator. He recognized her ability to deal with the Ladies of Charity, her ability to speak with them and he realized that she was not afraid to offer them timely advice. He did not hesitate to send her to those places where the Confraternities had encountered certain dangers (CCD:I:105). He utilized her talents in drawing up the rules for the Confraternities. This work was actually done together: one wrote the rules and the other read and offered suggestions on the work that had been done: I shall send you, by the Pastor or by someone else, the rules for the Charity which I have adapted to the needs of Montreuil. Look them over and, if anything should be deleted or added, please let me know (CCD:I:102). In 1631 Louise established the Confraternity in the parish of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. She wrote up the rule and sent it to Vincent: You are a skillful woman to have adapted the rule of the Charity in this way; I think it is fine (CCD:I:114)
A change in the style of the letters that Vincent and Louise exchanged reveals that their relationship had changed. During the early years of their relationship Vincent, in his letters, would often refer to Louise as my daughter. After 1629 he simply refers to as Madame. They had moved beyond the father/daughter relationship and now they were equally responsible for a common mission.
The many letters during this period (at least one per week) refer to the ministry they were engaged in. Vincent and Louise also shared the news that surrounded the events of their lives, for example, Vincent’s fall from his horse, the lack of water in Saint Lazare, the journey of Madame Goussault (a Lady of Charity) to Angers, financial concerns, their different reflections on events. At times this exchange of letters led them to reflect on their life. Vincent reflected on his actions and saw his selfishness: Remember especially to pray to God for me, because yesterday, finding myself between the opportunity of carrying out a promise I had made and an act of charity toward a person who can do us either good or harm, I set aside the act of charity in order to keep my promise and have upset that person. This does not worry me so much as the fact that I followed my inclination in acting as I did (CCD:I:100). Louise, with total confidence, opened herself to her spiritual director. She shared with Vincent the joy that she found in her missionary activity and her fears of allowing herself to feel content for what she had accomplished. But Louise is comforted by Vincent’s reflection: In the meantime, be at peace. When you are honored and esteemed, unite your spirit to the mockeries, contempt, and ill treatment that the Son of God suffered. Surely, Mademoiselle, a truly humble spirit humbles itself as much amid honors as amid insults, acting like the honeybee which makes its honey equally well from the dew that falls on the wormwood as from that which falls on the rose (CCD:I:94). She is not afraid to speak about here on-going concerns for her son and she accepts the wise counsel of her director. Vincent’s words were at time humorous: Oh! Our Lord most certainly did well not to choose you for His Mother, since you do not think you can discern the will of God in the maternal care he demands of you for your son. Or perhaps you feel that that will prevent you from doing the will of God in other matters. Certainly not, because the will of God is not opposed to the will of God. Honor therefore, the tranquility of the Blessed Virgin in such a case (CCD:I:109). Louise accepted the advice of her director.
Louise, an intuitive and intelligent woman, was not afraid to take the initiative. In 1632 the Tower of Saint Bernard near rue Saint-Victor was preparing to take in infirm convicts. Louise went immediately to visit them. Vincent became aware of this and knew that the action of one individual ran the risk of not being followed up. Therefore he asked Louise if she could involve more people in this activity: Charity toward those poor convicts is of incomparable merit before God. You have done well to assist them and will do well to continue in any way you can until I have the pleasure of seeing you, which will be in two or three days. Give a little thought to whether your charity at Saint Nicolas would be willing to take on the responsibility for them, at least for a time. You could help them with the money you have left. Indeed, it is difficult, and that is what makes me suggest the idea casually (CCD:I:168). Vincent was aware of the many needs of those who were poor and wanted the laity to participate in these charitable activities that had been initiated: It would be well for you to contact Madame Goussault and Mademoiselle Poulaillon to ask their opinion about Germaine. Just two days ago I became aware of that way of acting, which seems cordial and deferential to me. I may perhaps have offended them by having you make the final decision about your work without telling them (CCD:I:167).
The second event that put their collaboration on a solid basis was the process that was involved in the establishment of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. For Vincent and Louise this foundation began to appear as a possibility but they had different ideas about what the final product should look like. During 1629-1630 the Confraternities of Charity were established in several parishes in Paris. Many noble women wanted to become members of this Association. But very soon difficulties arose. Their husbands did not want their wives to go into the countryside to distribute soup or clean the dwelling of an infirm person. They wanted their wives to send their servants. Thus Vincent and Louise began to raise questions about the future of the Confraternities in the capital. Did not the service of the Ladies run the risk of becoming a work that would be entrusted to others and thus not a work of the Confraternity?
During a mission in Suresnes, Vincent met Marguerite Naseau, a woman of great initiative. Pleased with Marguerite’s proposal to serve the sick poor and to do this as a member of the Confraternities, Vincent placed this young peasant woman under the care of Louise who explained to her what was expected of her. Marguerite’s energy became contagious. Very soon other young women came forward to serve in the Confraternities. The Charities in Paris would live. Louise gathered together these young women and sent them to different parishes in Paris where they were able to settle the small conflicts that had arisen among those “servants of the Charities” and the Ladies of Charity. A profound intuition began to stir Louise’s heart and in light of her Pentecost experience she began to reflect on the idea of a small community that would serve the poor, a community where they could come and go among the poor. If these young women were gathered together to form a community, would this not be an effective way to help them? The ministry of service was difficult and those who were ill could be very demanding and discouragement could take hold of these young women. Louise spoke about her plans with Vincent who saw no need for such a step and tried to dissuade his collaborator: You belong to Our Lord and His holy Mother. Cling to them and to the state in which they have placed you until they make it clear that they wish something else of you (CCD:I:71). Louise, however, understood the problems that these young women encountered as they ministered in the Confraternities. She continued to reflect on this idea. She spoke about this with Marguerite Naseau and Louise became more and more convinced that this was the will of God. Again she spoke with Vincent whose response remained the same: I beg you, once and for all, not to give it a thought until Our Lord makes it evident that He wishes it, and at present He is giving indications to the contrary … You are trying to become the servant of those poor young women, and God wants you to be His own, and perhaps of more people than you would be in that way. And even if you were only His, is it not enough for God that your heart is honoring the tranquility of Our Lord’s (CCD:I:111).
God speaks through events. In February 1633, Marguerite Naseau died, a victim of the plague. She had been infected by plague-stricken girl who she made sleep in her bed. Her sudden death raised questions for Vincent and Louise: charity cannot be exercised without considering prudence. Louise’s plan was accepted by Vincent: With regard to your employment, my mind is not yet enlightened enough before God concerning a difficulty which prevents me from seeing whether it is the will of His divine Majesty. I beg you, Mademoiselle, to recommend this matter to Him during these days in which He communicates more abundantly the blessings of the Holy Spirit, rather, the Holy Spirit Himself. Let us persist, therefore, in our prayers, and may you remain quite cheerful (CCD:I:200). So what is the difficulty that was problematic for Vincent? The letter does not explain this matter but it is easy to make a presumption about this. Should a group, a community of the servants of the Confraternities be established? What would be the consequences of having two distinct groups? Another question also became a concern for Vincent: could these young women who would live together in community be asked to consecrate themselves to God? In the seventeenth century religious life was reserved for members of the noble class who were able to contribute a dowry. Was it reasonable to consider community life in a totally new way? I believe that it was Louise, the great lady from Paris, who was able to influence the Gascon peasant. She knew her Sisters, their desire for a life committed to God and their desire to grow spiritually. Bringing these women together meant that they could be given a better formation and would also provide Louise with an opportunity to know these women better before sending them out on a mission. Thus Louise became insistent on this issue.
In August 1633 Vincent made his annual retreat. Louise took advantage of this opportunity to send him another letter. On the last day of his retreat Vincent responded and wrote: I think your good angel did what you told me in the letter you wrote me. Four or five days ago, he communicated with mine concerning the Charity of your young women. It is true; he prompted me to recall it often and I gave that good work serious thought. We shall talk about it, God willing, on Friday or Saturday, if you do not write to me sooner (CCD:I:216). This encounter was decisive. Louise was able to propose to the young women that they attempt to live in this new way. Some accepted the idea while others rejected it. On November 29th, 1638 Louise received four or five young women (the exact number is unknown) in her house and there, her first biographer wrote, they began to live a common life.
Vincent and Louise, aware of their respective responsibilities with regard to this new group, began the formation process of the Sisters. Louise provided the women with basic formation in reading and writing and caring for the sick while Vincent took charge of their spiritual formation. Together they reflected on the response that would be given to the requests they received from the various town and cities. Louise wrote the rule and Vincent read this document and offered suggestions. The ways in which they cooperated with one another were obvious. Vincent’s optimism frequently calmed Louise who was struggling with multiple daily tasks: Do not be astonished at seeing the rebellion of that poor creature. We shall see many more like her, if we live on; and should we not suffer as much from our own as Our Lord from his? Let us be truly submissive to His good pleasure in the situation of the moment (CCD:I:484). On the occasion of the death of one of the Sisters, Vincent, filled with admiration for the work of the Daughters of Charity, extolled the greatness and the beauty of their vocation: She died in the exercise of divine love since she died in that of charity (CCD:I:241).
Slowly Vincent led Louise to accept full responsibility for the direction of the Daughters of Charity. On several occasions he told her: Govern. Simply and gently he pointed out that at times she was too serious: Be cheerful with her, even though you should have to lessen a bit that somewhat serious disposition which nature has bestowed on you and which grace is tempering by the mercy of God (CCD:I:492). At the same time Louise pointed out to Vincent the fact that he appeared to be overwhelmed by so many functions that he easily forgot his promises and his appointments: You have forgotten me and the need which I told you I had to discuss with you (SWLM:15 [L:26]). This mutual knowledge of one another grew and became more profound as the years passed. They recognized one another’s talents and gifts as well as one another’s defects … all of this was further proof of their experience of complementarity. Vincent and Louise made every effort to advance in their knowledge of the truth.
This awareness of their complementarity was advantageous to the new activities that they engaged in, the first of which was on behalf of abandoned children. This work was begun in 1638 as the result of the fact that these children were rejected by society. Vincent encouraged the Ladies of Charity to care for these children who faced a sure and certain death, thus Louise had the Daughters of Charity provide for their education. She also embraced the plan to place some of these children with selected families. These placements were recorded in a Registry. Vincent reconciled himself to this situation that saw the children moved to the homes of nurturing parents and when problems arouse in this ministry Vincent was there to raise questions with the Ladies of Charity and also to calm Louise.
In 1638, shortly after his arrival in Richelieu, M. Lambert wanted to have the Daughters sent to this city and for the first time Louise had problems sending the Sisters so far from Paris. Vincent very gently helped her to overcome her hesitations: The Charity in Richelieu really needs Sister Barbe now because of the great number of sick people. What do you think, Mademoiselle, of sending her to help those good people in this necessity? Their illnesses are not contagious (CCD:I:493-494). When the two Sisters left Paris for this distant city Vincent was very attentive to the maternal suffering of his collaborator: Bon Dieu, Mademoiselle, what happiness for those good Sisters to be about to continue the charity Our Lord exercised on earth in the place where they are going (CCD:I:503).
The great misery of those persons who were ill in the hospital at Angers was described by Madame Goussault and her description deeply moved Vincent and Louise. The Company of the Daughters of Charity could and would move in a new direction in which the Sisters would care for those who were ill but would do this not in the homes of those individuals but in hospitals. This decision was made after much reflection. Vincent prepared some Rules for the Sisters who in December 1639 would be sent to this new mission far from the city of Paris. Louise read this document and contributed her ideas on this matter. The first rule affirmed the end of the Company: The Daughters of Charity of the Sick Poor are going to Angers to honor Our Lord, Father of the Poor, and His Holy Mother, in order to assist, corporally and spiritually, the sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu of the town(CCD:XIIIb:108). Then the rule went on to sum up the essential elements of the life of every Daughter of Charity: The first thing Our Lord asks of them is to love him supremely and to perform their actions for love of him. The second is to cherish one another as sisters whom he has bound together by the bond of his love, and to love the sick poor as their lords, since Our Lord is in them and they are in Our Lord (CCD:XIIIb:108-109).
The same occurred when in 1640 the Daughters began to minister to the galley slaves who were ill. Vincent and Louise had become aware of the extreme misery of those men and Vincent waited for Louise to return from Angers before deciding on which Sisters to send on this mission where they would have to confront a violent situation: We are awaiting you with the affection known to Our Lord. You will come just in time for the business concerning the galley-slaves (CCD:II:35).
An obvious tension (1640-1642)
The year 1640 marked the beginning of a period in which the relationship between Vincent and Louise began to change once again. In previous years certain attitudes became obvious that revealed the differences between these two individuals. Every friendship has to pass through a period of crisis and Vincent and Louise’s friendship was no different. Their friendship which was based on the truth and on trust and simplicity confronted this crisis. Their differences, which until that time had been accepted with a certain calmness, now became a source of impatience and were no longer received as signs of complementarity but rather became a source of misunderstanding.
During Louise’s stay in Angers, the administrators of the hospital asked for a written contract. Vincent thought that this agreement could be done verbally. Louise asked herself: who is able to sign such a contract since the Company of the Daughters of Charity has no legal status? No statement in this regard had been formulated and it is possible that Louise resented the adverse effects of Vincent’s “prudent hesitation”. Vincent had written: Seeing that those Gentlemen want to communicate in writing, do this, in nomine domini. Have the contract drawn up in your name as Directress of the Daughters of Charity, servants of the sick poor in hospitals and parishes, under the authority of the Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Mission, the Director of the aforesaid Daughters of Charity (CCD:II:2). The letter continues with some further complicated explanations. Louise was not satisfied with this response and she expressed her dissatisfaction. In Vincent’s fourth letter, dated January 28, 1640, he confirmed what he had stated in his first letter of January 11th: I have told you my opinion concerning the stipulations and the status you should assume in them (CCD:II:13). Louise obeyed and on February 1st she signed the contract that established the Daughters of Charity in the hospital at Angers.
The following year, the selection of a new Motherhouse for the Daughters of Charity became a focus of further tension. The house where they had been living was inadequate to accommodate the influx of candidates and a new house had to be decided upon. Louise took advantage of this opportunity to restate her desire that she had expressed in 1636 and that had been rejected by Vincent, namely that their house should be near Saint-Lazare. Vincent again objected and stated that he did not feel that such a move would be prudent. When the people in the neighborhood see a priest of the Mission enter the house of the Sisters or a Sister enter Saint-Lazare they would begin to whisper and to comment. The Ladies of Charity began to look for a house for the Daughters but Louise rejected the sites they had proposed. In February, 1641 she expressed her impatience. Vincent, who was sick at the time, responded in a lively manner: I still see a little of the human in your feelings as soon as you see me ill. You think all is lost, for want of a house. O woman of little faith and acceptance of the guidance and example of Jesus Christ! For the state of the whole Church, this Savior of the world refers to His Father with regard to rules and order, and for a handful of young women who His Providence has manifestly raised up and brought together, you think He will fail us (CCD:II:177). A few months later a house in front of Saint-Lazare was put up for sale and in October 1641, the Daughters of Charity established this place as their Motherhouse.
From the beginning of the Company of the Daughters of Charity, Vincent was accustomed to visit the Sisters on a regular basis and on those occasions he would preach a conference to them and these conferences were greatly appreciated by the Sisters. During the course of several months Louise became aware of the fact that Vincent was always finding some excuse so as not to have to visit the house and preach a conference: he was too busy, or he would promise to go there and then did not keep the promise, he preferred speaking with the Ladies or the priests or the queen, etc. Louise was very unhappy with this arrangement and she commented on this situation. At the beginning of Vincent’s conference on August 16, 1640 Louise transcribed the following: I was nearly unable to come at all today because I had to go far into the city; therefore I won’t have much time to talk to you (CCD:IX:30). On August 16th of the following year Vincent spoke to the Sisters (it had been a year since his last conference) and Louise highlighted the excuses that he gave: I should have brought you together long ago but was prevented mainly by my own wretchedness and my business affairs. Well, Sisters, I hope that God’s goodness itself has made up for what I should have done for you (CCD:IX:34). With greater sternness Louise wrote at the beginning of the Conference of March 9 1642: on March 9th, because of urgent business, M. Vincent was unable to be present at the beginning of the conference His Charity had intended to give to us… M. Portail began the conference … and in the middle of the text she noted: M. Vincent arrived around five o’clock, and after listening to what some of the Sisters had said, His Charity continued: “Sisters it’s getting very late … but we have to postpone the discussion until next Sunday” (CCD:IX:49-50). The few conferences that we have between 1640-1642 are the only ones that have such notations.
Despite this tension in their relationship and despite their different points of view the life of the Company moved forward: numerous postulants were received, new establishments were begun in Nanteuil-le-Haudoin, Fontenay-aux-Roses, Sedan, and preparations were being made for the celebration of the taking of vows in the Company [March 1642].
Suddenly an event of apparent little importance shook both Founders. On Saturday June 7, 1642, on Pentecost eve, the floor of the room where the Sisters ordinarily gathered together for Conferences collapsed. The meeting that had been scheduled for that day was postponed because Vincent had once again excused himself from this responsibility. Vincent who was always attentive to events felt himself deeply questioned by what had occurred. On Pentecost morning he shared his reflections with Louise: Mon Dieu, Mademoiselle, how shocked I was this morning when Monsieur Portail told me about the accident that happened at your house yesterday. I told the Company about it and mentioned to them what Our Lord said to those who were questioning Him about the people who had been crushed under the ruins from the fall of the tower of Jericho. That did not happen because of the sins of those persons, nor those of their father and mothers, but rather to manifest the glory of God. And, to be sure, I say the same to you, Mademoiselle … you have in this encounter a new reason to love God more than ever (CCD:II:290). Louise was also totally transformed as a result of this event and the only reflection that we have about this was one that she wrote several years later on the anniversary of the accident: [I am] reminded once again of my profound interior conversion at that time when His goodness gave me light and understanding concerning the great anxieties and difficulties which I encountered …it seemed that something great had acted in our Most Honored Father and in the souls of some of our sisters, leading to the solid foundation of this little family (SWLM:768 [A:75]).
Vincent and Louise accepted this light from God. They became more aware of the reality that God was the author of this little Company, that God looked over this foundation with special care and invited them to continue the work that had been begun and to do this for the glory of God and the welfare of people who were poor. On Pentecost day 1642 the Spirit of God had moved Vincent and Louise to overcome their present crisis and thus they were changed. A difficult phase had been concluded and now a lengthy period of deep friendship opened before them.
A profound friendship (1642-1660)
For seventeen years (1625-1642) Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac had journeyed together. They had come to know one another and to esteem and respect one another. This freedom, this spirit of independence which is neither dominating nor fearful nor prejudiced, would now become the foundation for their relationship. This freedom became a support for both of them as they carried out their multiple commitments, thus revealing their common passion for people who were poor.
True collaboration does not attempt to dominate or convince but rather through the exchange of ideas and different points of views this same collaboration leads one to a deeper knowledge of oneself. Louise de Marillac wanted a relationship that would reveal these differences but also allow her to grow: I beg you very humbly, Monsieur, not to let the delicate sensibilities which I have revealed to you lead your Charity, in a spirit of condescension, to think that I want you to defer to my ideas. That is very far from my desire. I am never happier than when I am reasonably contradicted. God almost always gives me the grace to acknowledge and appreciate the opinions of others even when they are completely contrary to my own. This applies particularly to the advice of your Charity in which I am certain to see the truth clearly even in matters which are hidden from me for a while (SWLM:340 [l:118b]). The decisions that they made were enlightened by the light of the gospel and by their own reflections. Louise proposed some changes in their ministry in the parish at Chars where the pastor (who was a Jansenist) appeared to be quite intransigent: So as not to distress too greatly the Pastor in Chars, it occurred to me yesterday to suggest to your Charity, that if it is agreeable, we send Sister Jeanne-Christine in place of Sister Turgis, and that we keep Sister Jacquette for Chantilly. I suggest this because I foresee that we will still have to remove the remaining Sister from Chars so as not to ignore the advice of the unknown person (SWLM:241 [L:207b]).
Vincent sent to Louise a letter that he had just written to Abbé de Vaux, the spiritual director of the Daughters at the hospital of Angers: I have just written to Abbé de Vaux that you have given me information about sending the Daughters to eight other places before sending them there to him. Look at this, Mademoiselle, to see if there is any contradiction between this and the other things that you said to him.
In 1650 the Marquise de Maignelay requested that two Sisters be sent to the parish of Saint-Roch. The request was urgent since the Marquise wanted the Sisters sent on the following day. Louise is quite hesitant in this matter and explained her reasons to Vincent. A former Daughter of Charity who had since married was living in the house where the Daughters would reside and this house was located in a dangerous neighborhood. I beg you very humbly to take the trouble to let me know how I should act in this matter so as not to displease Madame la Marquise or prejudice our interests (SWLM:319 [l:283]). Louise understood Vincent’s problem with regard to this situation, that is, his difficulty in saying no to this woman who was the sister of the former General of the Galleys, Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi.
Vincent and Louise did not want to influence one another. Louise was not interested in having her own opinions prevail over the opinions of Vincent and the same could be said for Vincent; even less did they want their opinions to be highlighted or emphasized. They simply wanted the work that they were involved in to lead them to greater humility toward those whom they served and also wanted to be able to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. It was this disinterest that allowed them to express their thoughts to one another. Reading the minutes of the Council Meetings of the Daughters of Charity we discover that Vincent and Louise’s opinions were often opposed to one another and yet they did not hesitate to explain their reasons. Together they sought the will of God and that which was most beneficial for those who were poor. The Council Meetings were a time of formation for the Sisters who participated in those meetings.
The Council meeting of October 30, 1647 studied two problems: the acceptance of both boys and girls into the schools and the possibility of taking in boarders at the Motherhouse in Paris. Vincent, who always presided at the Council meetings, explained the first point: Mademoiselle Le Gras questioned whether it is advisable for our Sisters in the towns and countryside who teach school to take both boys and girls and, in the event that they do take boys, to what age they will keep them (CCD:XIIIb:285). Louise explained her reasons. These children would have the opportunity of learning the rudiments of piety and this might be the only opportunity to provide them with this type of instruction. Also Louise explained that in many towns there were no teachers. The parents also wanted their sons to be as well instructed as their daughters. There was agreement on the fact that these small boys (younger than six years of age) would not be a source of temptation for their teachers. Vincent developed reasons that expressed the opposite opinion: Coed education was forbidden by a royal decree and by a similar ruling from the Archbishop. The Sisters ought to be the first ones to carry out these orders. Vincent also supported his words by calling to mind the fact that some girls were going to class in a teacher’s residence and because the teacher assaulted these children he was burned alive. The discussion continued as the other Sisters shared their opinions: one of the Sisters was in agreement and another was opposed. M. Lambert (Vincent’s assistant) was in agreement. Louise insisted on this matter and stated that on some occasions she had allowed this to occur because often the girls cannot come to school unless they bring with them their brothers since their mothers were not at home to look after them. After explaining his reasons once again Vincent concluded: It will be well not to admit them at all. Two or three of us feel the same way. It should be left at that (CCD:XIIIb:288). Louise was advised to reconsider those situations in which she allowed the boys to come to school.
After the above matter had been decided the Council addressed the question of taking in boarders and here also there was a difference of opinion between the two Founders. Louise saw certain advantages to taking in these guests: the girls would receive good moral training and the house would benefit financially. Vincent saw many inconveniences arising if boarders were taken in: the children would need special food since the menu of the Sisters would not be adequate for the young children; the Sisters sometimes clash and the boarders would notice this and such situations could ruin the reputation of the house. Despite Louise’s insistence Vincent’s decision is quite formal: I feel the same way Sisters; namely, that you should not take them. Oh no! not at all (CCD:XIIIb:289). Louise had to communicate this decision to the different houses and at the same time not let it be known that she was opposed to this decision. She was aware of the reality that when a decision was made as the result of the reflection of the community then such a decision should not be questioned by any member of the community. Total adherence is indispensable,
On April 8, 1655 the Council reviewed the issue of the withdrawal of the Sisters from the hospital at Nantes since on-going conflicts had demoralized the sisters and created problems for them at work. Vincent explained the problem by expressing the reasons for remaining at the hospital and other reasons for withdrawing. Each one of the members of the Council who were present listened and then expressed their own opinion. Three members of the Council were convinced of the need to withdraw. Louise’s advice was clear: the Sisters should leave since they have already had to endure many trials. M. Portail proposed changing one of the Sisters and then waiting to see what happens. M. Almeras, who two years before had visited the community, thought it prudent to tell them that this was a time to wait and with the passage of time we will see what happens. The final decision might appear to be surprising but it shows that Vincent did not make a decision unless he was sure that it was in accord with the will of God. He concluded the meeting by saying: However, so that we do not overlook anything in such an important affair, I think it will be well to recommend it to God. And since we do not want to do anything not in conformity with his holy will, we must pray for inspiration in order to know it (CCD:XIIIb:322-323). It was difficult for Louise to accept the reality of maintaining the community when the Sisters were suffering. On August 28th she received a letter from Nicole Haran, the Sister Servant, who stated: There is an on-going war against us … here we are useless because of the limited advances that are obtained here (Nicole Haran to Louise de Marillac, August 28th, 1655, Documents of the Company p. 705). During the following Council Meeting of September 8th, 1755 Louise asked that the situation be reviewed once again. She referred to Nicole’s letter and restated her own concern for the Sisters. Vincent’s response was the same: the matter should be commended to God (CCD:XIIIb:329). The Sisters would not leave the hospital at Nantes until 1664!
In re-reading the lived events of the community at Nantes, Vincent and Louise sought to discern the will of God. The multiple complaints that Louise had received from the administrators and the bishop led her to become greatly concerned for the Sisters and this situation also affected her health. The care of the infirm was adversely affected by these difficulties. It seemed to Louise that if some service could not be carried out correctly, then it should not be continued. Vincent read the same events in a different manner. Every work that is carried out in the name of the Lord brings with it certain difficulties and hindrances. One should not allow oneself to become discouraged but as Jesus Christ did while was on earth, one must confront these difficulties. Louise accepted Vincent’s decision.
Louise shared with Vincent her vision regard the future of the Company of the Daughters of charity. As an intuitive woman she felt that in the seventeenth century her community (which was something totally new) would not survive if it were dependent on the bishops. Her thinking was distinct from that of the Council of Trent which affirmed the responsibility of the bishops with regard to regulating the Christian life in their diocese. Louise repeatedly stated that the Daughters were not religious but simply baptized young women who were members of a particular parish. Why remove themselves from the authority of the local bishop? In Louise’s mind the future of their service with the poor depended on this issue. She knew that many bishops were opposed to consecrated woman ministering in the world: the Visitation Sisters of Francis de Sales were cloistered by the bishop of Lyon; in Bordeaux, at the insistence of the bishop, the Congregation founded by Jeanne de Lestonnac had to remain within the confines of their establishment. If the Daughters of Charity were unable to come and go through the streets of the towns and villages then the poor would not be able to be served in their homes.
Louise made every effort to convince Vincent to accept the juridical and ecclesiastical responsibility for the Daughters of Charity. This would be a long struggle. Vincent rejected Louise’s proposal and did not want to infringe on the authority of the bishops, thus he accepted the decision of the Council of Trent. Besides, the Congregation of the Mission had as its purpose the preaching of missions in the rural areas and also ministered in seminaries. It therefore was not concerned about caring for consecrated women.
In 1640 Louise wanted Vincent to take the necessary steps that would lead to the official recognition of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Between 1642-1643 Vincent had drawn up several petitions but it was not until August 1646 that he sent the petition to the Archbishop of Paris. Louise had not read the last redaction of this document because she had been in Nantes where she had just brought six Sisters.
In November 1646 Vincent rejoiced. The Archbishop had signed the decree that approved the Company. This text was later submitted to Parliament for official recognition from the King of France. As Louise de Marillac read the text she reacted strongly. With a certain vehemence she wrote to Vincent and expressed her disagreement. She had before her the text of the Archbishop: I did not think to ask you if I could communicate this to our sisters and so I did not do so (SWLM:187 [L:130D]). She explained her question: according to the decree the Sisters were to be called “Servants of the Poor of the Charity” and she wanted the Sisters to be called by the name that was commonly used when referring to them, “Daughters of Charity”. But even further she did not want to have the Daughters of Charity dependent on the Archbishop of Paris. To do this would place their ministry of serving the poor in great jeopardy. Thus she concluded her letter with a firm request that went straight to the point: In the name of God, Monsieur, do not permit anything to take place which even slightly draws the Company away from the direction which God has given to it. You can be sure that immediately it would no longer be what it is. The sick poor would no longer be helped, and thus I believe that the will of God would no longer be accomplished among us (SWLM:187 [L:130D]).
Vincent was aware of Louise’s strong feelings on this matter and so he judged it prudent to say nothing and wait. Six months passed. Vincent believed that time had calmed the situation. During the conference of Thursday, May 30th, 1647 Vincent announced to the Daughters: Now God wants to bind you more closely by the approval He has permitted the Most Reverend and Most Illustrious Archbishop of Paris to give to your Rules and your way of life. This is the petition presented to him; here are the Rules, then here’s the approval. I’ll read them for you one after the other (CCD:IX:255).
Louise, who was present, was most upset. More than six months would pass before she became calmer. Then at that time she once against expressed her thoughts to Vincent and stated that she was opposed to placing the Daughters under the authority of the Archbishop of Paris. In her letter of November, 1647 she wrote: It seems that God gave my soul great peace and simplicity during my imperfect meditation on the need for the Company of the Daughters of Charity to remain continuously under the guidance given it by Divine Providence in spiritual as well as temporal matters. At that time, I believe that I came to understand that it would be more advantageous for His glory for the Company to fail completely then to be under another’s guidance, since that would seem to be contrary to the will of God (SWLM:234 [L:199]). Louise received no response to her letter which was written very simply and also written with the hope of creating peace between herself and Vincent. Vincent was also looking for the will of God with regard to the Daughters of Charity. On numerous occasions Louise would return to two points: the will of God and service of the poor. She knew that Vincent was very sensitive to these issues and she had also learned to be patient. Indeed, she would have to wait several years.
As the years 1652-1653 passed Vincent saw that the Daughters of Charity had become established in many dioceses including those of Poland and he also realized that Louise’s health had become more and more fragile. He wanted to regulate the situation of the Daughters of Charity. He redacted a new petition and in January 1655 the Cardinal de Retz approved the new Company and placed it under the authority of Vincent de Paul, superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and his successors. Louise was very pleased, not because of her success but because she felt that the Company, following God’s plan, would be able to continue the work that had been begun. The members of the Company would be able to be faithful to the charism that God had entrusted to them.
Vincent, who for so long had been hesitant to accept the responsibility of being the superior of the Daughters of Charity, defended his acceptance of this role when speaking to his confreres about this responsibility of the Congregation of the Mission. If we have the direction of the house in which they [the Daughters of Charity] are formed, it is because the guidance of God has made use of us to bring their Little Company to birth, and you know that the same things God uses to give being to things He also uses to preserve them … The Daughters of Charity have become, in the order of Providence, a means God has given us to do by their hands what we cannot do by our own in the corporal assistance of the sick poor and to say by their lips a few words of instruction and encouragement for their salvation. Since this is the case, we are also bound to help them in their own advancement in virtue so that they can carry out well their charitable works (CCD:VIII:277, 278). Vincent and Louise learned to fully accept the decisions that they made after having reflected and considered these matters together. Once the decision was made they did not look back and debate the positions that led to the decision that was made.
Experiencing the approach of death both Vincent and Louise felt the need to express their gratitude for the gifts they had received from one another. In March 1659 Vincent wrote to Louise: Never has her kindness seemed so worthy of esteem and so amiable. God be praised for manifesting Himself so well through the kindness of Mademoiselle, whom I thank once again with all the gratitude of my heart! (CCD:VII:478)
In January of 1660 Louise expressed her gratitude to Vincent for the continuation of the work of God which, my Most Honored Father, your charity has firmly sustained against all opposition (SWLM:677, [L.655]). Vincent and Louise helped one another prepare for their departure from this world in order to be born again in a new world. The wishes that they exchange at the end of 1659 reflect their mutual knowledge and their hope of always acting in accord with the will of God. Louise spoke first: I implore God to preserve your little health until His designs have been accomplished in your soul for his glory and for the benefit of many others (SWLM:664, [L.644]. Vincent responded with a letter that was written by his secretary: I wish Mademoiselle Le Gras as her New Year’s gift the fullness of the Spirit and, for her Company, that of the preservation of such a good mother, that she might give them an ever greater share of the gifts of this Spirit (CCD:VII:640).
In accord with their desire to live according to the will of God Vincent and Louise slowly accepted the reality that soon they would not see one another. Their friendship had moved beyond any encounter and now their relationship was so simple and transparent that it no longer needed human support. On March 14, 1660 Vincent sent a brief message to Louise who was dying: You are the first to depart but if God forgives me my sins I hope to go there soon to see you in heaven.
Vincent and Louise had learned to put aside their differences and to work together in such a way that they were sure of fulfilling God’s will. God’s great love for humanity which they had discovered as they meditated on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God gave them strength. Their exchanges were the result of an authentic relationship, a relationship based on acceptance and respect for one another and was also based on the fact that they complemented one another. Their friendship became one of communion that reflected the image of the Blessed Trinity, the great mystery of God who lives the gift of reciprocity, union in diversity.
Vincent and Louise have enriched the Church with their different establishments that have served humanity and that have evangelized the poor. They have enlightened the world with their simple and humble and loving witness.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM