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Louise de Marillac

(1591—1660)


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Saint Vincent de Paul (1581—1660) French priest

 

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(1591–1660),

widow, foundress of the Sisters of Charity. Born of an aristocratic country family, Louise was educated by nuns at Poissy and by her own father, especially after her mother's early death. Her father died when she was only fifteen; although she experienced some attraction towards the cloister, she married Antony Le Gras. They had one son and lived happily together for twelve years. He died in 1625, although nursed most devotedly by Louise. Certain that she wanted to devote herself entirely to God's service, but uncertain in what way, she met Vincent de Paul, who became her director. At this time he was organizing devout, wealthy ladies into helping the poor and the sick in often appalling conditions. It soon became clear that many of the ladies were unfitted to cope with the actual conditions. The practical work of nursing the poor in their own homes, caring for neglected children and dealing with often rough husbands and fathers, was best accomplished by women of similar social status to the principal sufferers. The aristocratic ladies were better suited to the equally necessary work of raising money and dealing with correspondence. Vincent, however, recognized Louise as a woman of clear mind, great courage, endurance, and self-effacement. He chose her to train and organize girls and widows, mainly of the peasant and artisan classes, for the service of the sick and poor. In 1633 four candidates started work in Louise's Paris home in the Rue des Fosses-Saint-Victor. From this humble beginning grew the world-famous institute of the Sisters of Charity. Vincent had not intended to found a religious order. The sisters, he said, should consider themselves simply as Christian women devoted to the sick and the poor: ‘your convent will be the house of the sick, your cell a hired room, your chapel the parish church, your cloister the city streets or the hospital wards, your enclosure obedience, your grill the fear of God, your veil modesty.’ Until 1642 they took no vows at all; to this day they take vows for a year only, which may, however, be renewed year after year until death. Louise's Sisters took charge of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris, of orphanages, and even of schools; Louise herself nursed those ill with the plague in Paris and reformed a neglected hospital at Angers. Her son, married and with a small family, visited her at the end of her life in 1660. She died the same year, exhorting her Sisters to be diligent in serving the poor ‘and to honour them like Christ himself’. She was canonized in 1934. Her Sisters have always been held in high repute and have made foundations in all parts of the world. Their distinctive habit, a grey wool tunic with a large headdress or cornette of white linen, was the usual dress of Breton peasant women of the 17th century and later. In recent times it has been replaced by dress more in accordance with the sartorial customs of the 20th century. Feast: 15 March.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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