Louise de Marillac
Devoted mother, loving wife, cherished friend, founder of a ‘new type’ of religious order for women, advocate for the poor and marginalized, single parent, compassionate teacher, social reformer…
All of those words accurately describe a woman who, for the most part, has remained virtually unknown to most people. For Saint Louise de Marillac, being unknown was in keeping with her strong desire to imitate the “hidden life of Jesus”. In fact, Louise would probably want to be remembered only as a faithful and loving disciple of Jesus, one whose life was strongly rooted in her relationship with God.
Louise was born on August 12, 1591 in or near Paris. Her father was a proud nobleman but there is no record of her mother’s identity. Louise was born between her father’s two marriages and though recognized as his daughter, she was placed in the care of her great aunt, a Dominican Sister at the Royal Abbey of Poissy. She was well cared for and received an excellent education. However, young Louise didn’t experience the warmth and love of family life.
When she was about 12, Louise was sent to a pension operated by a poor lady. She did household chores and organized the other girls to get work from the local merchants. It would seem that from an early age, Louise was preparing for her future work.
Louise believed that God was calling her to religious life, but her frail health meant she wasn’t permitted to enter the convent. In 1613, when Louise was 22 years old, she married Antoine LeGras. Her husband’s family, long-time residents of Paris, were known for their charitable endeavors.
During the years of her marriage, Louise visited the sick in her parish, attentive to their physical and spiritual needs. She shared this concern with other women of noble birth and was successful in enlisting their help.
Louise endured many hardships including the death of several relatives, financial uncertainty, anxiety over her only son’s health, and Antoine’s serious illness. Antoine died in 1621 and Louise suffered with bouts of depression for many years.
Conditions in France were horrific at that time with civil war, extreme poverty, children abandoned in the streets, little or no employment, inadequate housing and no medical services for the poor.
In 1624, Louise met Vincent de Paul for the first time and realized that this man would challenge her. Vincent, in turn, saw her deeply rooted relationship with God, her spirituality and her strong commitment to the poor. He invited her to join the Confraternities of Charity, and soon sent her to set up a Confraternity outside Paris.
Louise knew she was wholeheartedly serving God, but there was also the deep desire to do more. She had a vision of serving the poor with others who have taken vows, consecrated women living in community. In 1633, she began training the young women who became the first Daughters of Charity.
This new community was to be different from those already in existence. The members were not to live behind cloister walls, but to go where they were needed, among the people. The Daughters served in hospitals, ministered to the elderly, the poor, the orphans, the galley slaves. Soon their service extended beyond France to all parts of the world. Vincent de Paul said, “I never thought of it; Mademoiselle never thought of it; God thought of it.” Louise de Marillac went to her eternal reward on March 15, 1660. She was canonized in 1934.