The First Daughters of Charity and the Vincentian Charism
[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 299-311. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].
Presentation of the theme
During the seventeenth century society, as well as the church, had lost sight of the gospel understanding of the poor. The poor were not seen as “the image of Christ” but rather viewed as marginalized individuals who were a nuisance. In light of this reality Vincent in 1617 began a movement with laypeople, priests and women religious who had heard God’s call, who learned to view the poor “in relationship to Jesus Christ” and who were willing to dedicate their life to the service of the poor.
Why did these young women (many of them from the rural areas of France) decide to commit themselves as members of the Confraternities of Charity and later, as members of the Company of the Daughters of Charity? What was their reason for doing this? The commitment of these women involved service of the poor and only the poor; their commitment was an expression of their love for God and the Christian life; their commitment supposed a rupture, a conversion to follow Christ and to live a Christian life.
They have heard God’s call
During the conference of March 16th, 1642 the Sisters confirmed, with their words, their understanding of what we today refer to as the Vincentian charism. The Sisters highlighted the fact that they were to serve the poor who were deprived of everything and who were therefore in great need: Another Sister remarked that those who are poor are abandoned by everyone, have many needs, lack consolation in their sufferings, don't always know who God is, and sometimes have not even thought about their salvation. This Sister, as well as most of the others, was deeply humbled at the thought of the grace God had given her in calling her to such a holy vocation; she resolved to have greater respect for it and to be more faithful to God in it (CCD:IX:52).
The Sisters indicated that they were also poor and expressed their joy in being able to offer the poor their own lives instead of money, which they did not have: Since God has not permitted us to have any wealth so as to give great alms, we must at least devote to the service of the poor what little strength and ability he gives us (CCD:IX:52); another Sister said that, since she possesses nothing and that almsgiving is, nevertheless, very pleasing to God, she wants to give herself completely to the poor to honor the life of the Son of God, who died for them (CCD:IX:52).
The Sisters also stated that their commitment was an expression of their desire to follow Christ: by serving poor persons, we honor what the Son of God did while on earth in his holy humanity." (Several Sisters thought of this motive) (CCD:IX:51); we should consider God in the person of those who are poor and, with the intention of imitating him, call to mind the gentleness, humility, and charity Jesus Christ practiced on earth in serving them, making no exception of persons and treating all equally according to their need (CCD:IX:53).
Some of the Sisters, with a deep theological understanding, spoke about their desire to become part of God’s plan for humankind: the souls of poor persons have the image of God imprinted upon them ... [therefore] to assist a soul to save itself is to cooperate in the perfect fulfillment of God's plan in the death of Jesus Christ (CCD:IX:51); she's happy to belong to a Company bearing the name of Daughters of Charity and feels she should honor the poor in it, look upon the little foundlings as such, and care for them as if she were caring for the Son of God himself, as long as she's employed in this apostolate, as he himself asks. Since the principal aim of the Daughters of Charity is to imitate the life of Jesus Christ on earth, she wants to devote her own life to the service of poor persons because the Son of God died on the Cross for them as well as for us. In this way we will be true Daughters of Charity in deed and not simply in name (CCD:IX:52).
The Sisters had taken ownership of Jesus’ words, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40): poor persons have the honor of representing the members of Jesus Christ, who considers the services rendered to them as done to himself (CCD:IX:51); the thought that poor persons are the members of Our Lord was for all the Sisters a strong motive for serving them with greater care and charity than ever before (CCD:IX:52).
A commitment to live in community
When Vincent spoke to the Sisters about Marguerite Naseau, he emphasized the fact that she moved from a position of viewing her commitment as an individual action to an understanding that her commitment was undertaken within a constituted group that was recognized by the Church, namely, the Confraternity of Charity: as soon as she heard that there was a Confraternity of Charity in Paris for the sick poor, off she went, driven by the desire to be involved in this ministry, and, although she really wanted to continue to teach young people, nevertheless she gave up that practice of charity to take up the other, which she felt was more perfect and necessary. And that was how God wanted it, so that she might be the first Daughter of Charity and Servant of the Sick Poor in the city of Paris. She attracted to this other girls, whom she had helped to detach themselves from all superficial things and to embrace a devout life (CCD:IX:66).
During the conference of April 26th, 1643 Vincent realized that the Sisters understood the importance of the community and of the Company in order to remain faithful to their service of the poor. This service was seen as a gift that they had received from God, a gift that together they had an obligation to make fruitful. Some of the Sisters expressed this idea with a great depth of understanding.
The first Sister who was asked to comment on this simply stated that she did not understand the meaning of the theme that was being presented in the conference but felt that it was important to be united to the other Sister in order to fulfill the will of God: I really had a hard time understanding the meaning of the word “union.” I thought, Monsieur, that it was a virtue Your Charity has frequently explained to us and that all of us should have it in order to do God's will (CCD:IX:79).
The other Sisters emphasized the need for unity in order to fulfill what God desires: Monsieur, disunion seems to me to be like a building that's falling down (CCD:IX:79).
Several Sisters pointed out the importance of living together in accord with God’s plan, a plan revealed to men and women through the Incarnation of the Son of God and a plan that was being lived out in the midst of the Church: since, when God created our souls, his plan was to unite us to himself, and he sent his Son on earth to help us to do so, we would really be very contemptible if we didn't love union and, by disunion and disorder, put ourselves in danger of losing what God has given us by his love. That would be to oppose oneself deliberately to the most holy will of God. Another reason for always maintaining perfect union among ourselves is that disunion in the Company would be a hindrance to the reception of God's grace, which it really needs to survive. Otherwise, it could happen that the Company might begin to weaken or --- what is worse --- might become a scandal to the world, and God wouldn't be glorified by the service his goodness wants it to render our neighbor for love of him (CCD:IX:82).
For the love of Jesus Christ and in order to serve Jesus in the poor
The interventions of the first Sisters during Vincent’s conferences reveal their understanding of the source of Vincent’s dynamism: his love for Jesus Christ and his love for the member of Jesus’ body, the poor. The Sisters wanted to commit themselves to God in order to serve God made visible in the poor. How then did those Sisters live?
Very quickly the Sisters manifested that their decision to serve was not simply a personal decision, but was rather a response to needs, a response that demanded they go wherever needed, and frequently this meant that they go far from their family and the Motherhouse. Many Sisters would go to places that were quite different from anything they knew, unknown lands where people spoke other languages. In Hennebont, where a low form of the Breton language was spoken, Anne Hardemont was obliged to have another woman act as her interpreter as she attempted to communicate with the infirm. The Sisters did not hesitate to go to Poland where they had to learn a new language and several Sisters were willing to go to Madagascar, willing to respond to the call of the Missionaries who had discovered the needs of the poor in that country. In January 1658 Louise wrote to Brother Ducourneau: Most of our Sisters do not want to see the ship leave for Madagascar without them (SWLM:584 [L.561]).
Every departure is a rupture. The letter of Jeanne Dalmagne who had been mission to Nanteuil reveals the pain of her separation and the manner in which she was able to overcome this pain by serving the poor in one of the villages there.
Because of their willingness to go everywhere, the Sisters found themselves missioned to dangerous places. The events surrounding the sisters who went to Calais revealed the Sisters’ total commitment to Christ in the person of the poor. In June 1658 four Sisters were sent to Calais in order to care for the soldiers who were wounded. Soon thereafter, two of them, Françoise Manceau and Marguerite Ménage were afflicted by an illness that had spread throughout the military hospital and they died at the end of June and the beginning of July. On August 3rd, Marie Poulet wrote Louise and stated and that her companion Claude Muset had fallen ill and that she, herself, had been bedridden for the eight days. Both of them were preparing for death and wanted to say farewell to their superior … they also asked Louise to communicate this news to their families. None of these Sisters showed any sign of being distressed by the approach of death.
On August 4th Hentiette Gesseaume, with three other Sisters, were sent to Calais to continue the ministry there. It seemed that nothing could detain the zeal of these women … quite the contrary, the sight of the misery there motivated the Sisters: We have met with some people who informed us of the death of two of our Sisters and told us that the other two Sisters are ill. This news does not discourage us. On the contrary we are eager to arrive there in order to provide for the people who are in need. We are twenty-four leagues from Calais and we are happy to be approaching our destiny … there are just four of us. I believe that our service is vital … there are many helpless individuals resting on straw that has been thrown on the ground … it is painful to see them in that situation (D.726) .
Not all the Sisters were exposed to such tragic situations. Nevertheless many of the Sisters were aware of the difficult work involved in caring for the infirm … a work that involved on-going presence. Many of the Sisters had worked themselves to the point of exhaustion and asked for reinforcements.
A letter that Marie Joly sent to Louise de Marillac reveals their ingenuity in softening the disastrous consequences of the war in Sedan: ruined harvest and hunger. Marie explained how the money that had been sent was utilized: When I saw that all these people in the village were devastated I bought that which they would like the most. This money had been sent to me thank to God and therefore I used this gift to sustain the poor (D:544).
They learned to live according to the spirit of their founders
Vincent and Louise had formed the Sisters in the habit of prayer. On May 31st, 1648 the Sisters shared their thoughts and experiences on this topic. They expressed and professed their desire to enter into a true dialogue with God. One of the Sisters stated: after Holy Communion, prayer is the food of the soul; and as we need food for the body daily, so do we need spiritual food for the health of our soul ... in prayer we learn God's will, we advance in perfection, we gather strength to resist temptations, and we are affirmed in our vocation; lastly, that's where our soul has the happiness of speaking heart to heart with God. On the contrary, when we haven't made our prayer, we become weak, and we don't experience God's presence during the day ... Our Lord made use of prayer throughout his holy life ... Since the Son of God has shown us the example, we must imitate him ... a Daughter of Charity who doesn't pray every day couldn't be pleasing to God nor persevere for long in her vocation; and she can't be a true Daughter of Charity, since it's in prayer that we find the strength to be sustained in the service of God and our neighbor (CCD:IX:320-322).
The Sisters were very open in speaking about the difficulties they experienced in prayer. Some pointed out the lack of time due to the demands of their service on behalf of the poor; others indicated that no one in the little community knew how to read while still others spoke about falling asleep during prayer: One of the Sisters protested that she had a very hard time making her meditation and had no attraction to it (CCD:IX:42).
Vincent comforted and reassured the Sisters but insisted that they be careful about using their time well: Sisters, even though prayer is extremely necessary for a Daughter of Charity, nevertheless, I'll tell you that, since your principal ministry is the service of your neighbor, when there's question of helping him and reason to fear it may be detrimental to him if you put this off, then you are obliged to leave your prayer. Furthermore, if there were no other time to assist him but the time for Mass, you should omit it --- and I don't mean only on a working day, but even on a day of obligation --- rather than leave him in danger, for assistance to the neighbor has been established by God himself and practiced by Our Lord Jesus Christ, but the obligation of hearing Mass is only of ecclesiastical institution. I'm glad to have the chance to tell you this, Sisters, so that, although you should be as punctual as possible for all your spiritual exercises, nevertheless, you may be sure that you must leave everything for the service of the poor. Still, Sisters, as far as you can, you must accommodate Martha to Mary and arrange your duties in such a way that both prayer and work may be reconciled (CCD:IX:339-340). Vincent and Louise frequently spoke about the need for prayer.
The vocation and the mission of the Sisters were sustained by the rule. Let us listen to Sister Jeanne Delacroix as she spoke to M. Portail: Monsieur Almeras had given me hope that we would soon have our Rules. Will we die without having the joy of seeing these rules? I beg you, Monsieur, to ask our honorable father, Monsieur Vincent, in my name, for these rules. In the name of God and for the love of God, on my knees and with folded hands, I ask that as an act of charity this important benefit should be bestowed upon the Company so that it will be forever remembered here on earth as it is in heaven (D:660).
The Sisters understood that the Rule was given to them in order to help them attain perfection, that is, to remain faithful to their commitment to dedicate their life to God in the service of the poor: Since God has taken me into his service, he expects great perfection of me (CCD:IX:163); it seems to me that the only means of helping us to please God and to do his most holy will is the observance of our Rules (CCD:IX:164).
Other Sisters realized that the rules helped them, in the spirit of the Company, to serve the poor in an effective manner: Father, I thought that, by observing the Rules, we honor truth and shun hypocrisy, since our Superiors, outsiders, and our Sisters believe that we've given ourselves to the Company to do everything that's done in it. Another reason is that God wills it; he manifested that to us when he called us to this way of life. It's good to recall frequently that it's God whom we are serving, that he sees us surmounting for love of him the minor difficulties we have in it, that he knows we're grateful for it and that, for a little work, he'll reward us in the end with a happy eternity. Faults against our Rules gradually diminish our fervor, put us in danger of losing our vocation, give bad example to our Sisters and, what is worse, sadden God (CCD:IX:165).
The Sisters in Nantes, who were in a difficult situation, realized that they had not been faithful to the Rules nor to the counsel of their superiors: Mademoiselle, I assure you that my soul is disturbed as I look at everything that is happening between our Sisters and the chaplain … many things are against our Rules …In the first place the Sisters speak of the difficulties raised by Sister Isabel and many times the Sisters ridicule her. At times she has found all the other Sisters together and told them calmly that such behavior was not good. They responded that neither she nor the other Sisters had any right to tell them what to do and rejected her advice with much bitterness … Once I found the chaplain and Sister Catherine in the barn and I was dismayed … I pray that this situation be remedied for it has caused me much pain. An accident has occurred here: a woman has died without confession. She arrived here at one o’clock and died at four. When she arrived the chaplain was not home … Some others who were of age to receive the sacraments but had not received them, have also died (D:433).
The Sister Servant should guide the Sisters toward the total living out of their vocation. In Nantes conflicts in the community became an opportunity for the Sister Servant to ask the Sisters for their help: I greet you at the feet of the Crucified Christ. Mademoiselle, my dearest Mother, I write you these words in order to inform you about some difficulties that I encounter. I feel like a balance wheel and I do not know toward which side to incline. For quite some time I have fought against the things that I see here, things that I am not accustomed to see and that are against the counsel of Monsieur Vincent (D:435).
In Nantes the Sisters were perplexed by the demands of the bishop and therefore they wrote to Louise de Marillac in order to receive some clarification about these matters: I believe that the spirit of our honorable father is to do nothing without the authority of the bishop and here I take the liberty, my esteemed Mademoiselle, to entrust to you this matter which I am unable to decide. I know that your charity will make up for what is lacking in me … I simply write to you about these matters so that you in turn will write about this to our honorable father and will then send us a response (D:490).
In the letters that the Sisters wrote they expressed their understanding of the importance of meeting with the Sister Servant as well as the importance of communicating with superiors as a way of making progress: Excuse me for being so bold in expecting that you would do us the honor of writing us in order to encourage us in the practice of virtue. Allow me to also tell you that when someone feels an affection for another, then that person’s advice and counsel have a greater possibility of being internalized. This does not mean that one would reject the opportunity for self-denial, which, with the help of God, would enable us to be humble servants and loving daughters of our Lord (D:716).
All of these writings of the first Sisters reveal that they had heard God’s call, that they knew how to find God in the poor and that, following the example of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, they had no hesitation in dedicating their life to God in order to serve the poor. The Sisters imitated the Incarnate Son of God and felt that they had found the strength to live together and to remain faithful to their demanding commitment in prayer and in contemplating the plan of God as well as the mystery of the Trinity. The community sustained the Sisters and reinvigorated them. The first Sisters put a face on the Company and today we are called in incarnate the charism of our Founders.
The first Daughters of Charity
The first Daughters of Charity were truly co-founders. This is most clear as we listen to the eloquent words of Sister Marie Denyse and Sister Barbe Angiboust who found it impossible to remain in the service of the future Duchess of Aiguillon: Yesterday, because I was being hard pressed by Madame de Combalet to send her the Sisters, and since it was for her, I spoke to Marie Denyse about it. She seemed to me better suited for the situation, but she gave me an answer worthy of a girl with a vocation from God to the Charity, which was that she had left her father and mother to give herself to the service of the poor for the love of God, and she begged me to excuse her if she could not change her intention in order to go and serve that great lady. After that, I spoke to Barbe, the older one, without telling her for whom or why, and sent her to wait for me at Madame de Combalet's house. There I told her that this good lady would employ her part-time in her service and part-time with the poor of the parish. She began to cry, but since she consented, I placed her in the hands of one of the ladies-in-waiting of that great lady. However, I was quite astonished when immediately afterwards she returned to Abbé de Loyac’s house where I was, just opposite. She told me that she was startled to see such a grand court, that she could not live there, and begged me to take her away. She said that Our Lord had given her to the poor and she entreated me to send her back to them ... What do you think of that, Mademoiselle? Are you not delighted to see the strength of the spirit of God in those two poor young women and the contempt that he has given them for the world and its greatness? You could not believe the ardor that this has given me for the Charity (CCD:I:321-323).
Young women who have heard God’s call
“…From all eternity…”
What touches me deeply, and what should strongly move you to love the service of the poor, is what one of you said, namely, that from all eternity God had chosen and elected you for that. O Dieu! What a compelling motive! Yes, it's true, Sisters, from all eternity God had his thoughts and designs on you and for you; and from all eternity you were in the mind of God to be in your present state because, Sisters, not only all that has been, and all that is happening now, but also all that will be in the future (CCD:IX:191).
“…love for our vocation…”
God himself has given us an attachment to our vocation, and we must endure all sorts of losses rather than consent to anything whatsoever that might lessen the love we must have for it (CCD:IX:354).
Women committed to live in community
“…the image of the Most Blessed Trinity…”
Union is the image of the Most Blessed Trinity which is composed of three Divine Persons, united by love. If we're closely united, we'll all be of one will and in complete harmony (CCD:IX:80).
“…the beautiful name of communion…”
Union is so excellent that Our Lord willed to give himself to us under the beautiful name of communion. That's why we must ardently desire that union always exist among us, since God loves it so much (CCD:IX:81).
Women dedicated to God and the service of the poor
“…To be Daughters of Charity is to be daughters of God…”
Now, to be true Daughters of Charity, it's necessary to have left everything: father, mother, possessions, and the hope of establishing a household. This is what the Son of God teaches in the Gospel. We also have to renounce ourselves; for, if we leave all things, but retain our own wills and don't renounce ourselves, nothing has been done. To be Daughters of Charity is to be daughters of God, daughters belonging entirely to God; for whoever is in charity is in God and God in her (CCD:IX:13-14).
The example of the Sisters of Calais is most eloquent, especially the witness of their zeal and courage … the Sisters moved from an affective love to an effective love for the poor: I also recommend the Daughters of Charity we sent to Calais to nurse the poor wounded soldiers. Of the four we sent there, two of them, the strongest and healthiest among them, have died. One of these, Sister Manceau, the niece of M. Manceau, priest of the Company, was the Sister Servant; that is, the one who had the charge and care of the others. She was one of the strongest Sisters in that Little Company of Charity, yet she was the first to succumb beneath the weight of this heavy duty. Just picture that, Messieurs. Four poor Sisters in the midst of five or six hundred poor sick and wounded soldiers! Please consider for a moment the guidance and goodness of God in raising up such a Company in these days. And to do what? To assist the poor corporally, and even spiritually, saying a few good words to them, especially to the dying, to help them to prepare to die well. O Sauveur! O mon Sauveur! History makes no mention to us of there ever being such a Company of virgins --- true, there are a few widows among them --- who have given themselves to God in the way those poor Sisters do to nurse the sick and the wounded. For my part, I can’t remember either having heard or read of any. God willed to wait until now to do this… The Queen has written to Mlle. Le Gras and to me to send other to Calais to help those poor people, and we are going to do that. Four are leaving today for that purpose. One of those poor Sisters, who’s about fifty years of age, came to see me last Friday at the Hôtel-Dieu, where I happened to be, to say she had heard that two of her Sisters had died in Calais, and she was coming to volunteer to be sent in their place, if I agreed. “Sister,” I said, “I’ll think it over.” And yesterday she came here to find out what answer I had for her. See the great zeal of those poor Sisters, in volunteering like that, my dear confreres! Isn’t it wonderful how they offer themselves to go to risk their lives as victims, for the love of Jesus Christ and the good of their neighbor? As for me, I don’t know what to say about it except that those poor Sisters will be our judges on Judgment Day. Yes, brothers, those Sisters will be our judges at the Judgment seat of God, if we aren’t prepared, like them, to risk our lives for God. And, believe me, the man who hasn’t yet reached that stage is still a long way from holiness. (CCD:XII:34-35).
“…to be the first…”
I urge you, Sisters, to accustom yourselves to make them and to think often of your obligation to work at your perfection in your way of life. You don't realize its grandeur. I can't tell you enough, Sisters, that it's one of the greatest in the Church, after that of the Nuns of the Hotel-Dieu, of whom I'll speak to you some day. Isn't your heart touched when you think, “Quoi! God has chosen me, a poor country woman, for such a holy ministry! He passed by my mother, all my relatives, and so many others in my village, and cast his eyes on Genevieve, Jeanne, Marie, etc., to be the first! What a great grace of God! O guidance of Divine Providence, you will be forever blessed!” This thought, dear Sisters, will surely give you the desire for great perfection (CCD:IX:32).
“…You will learn to be true Daughters of Charity…”
Your way of life also prescribes that you make a short annual retreat, that is, the spiritual exercises, and you do that, Sisters, in order to recognize your failures of the past year and to rise from them more courageously. Those eight days of silence are a harvest time. What a happiness if you use well that time God gives you to speak with him heart to heart! It is then that Our Lord's promise to lead your soul into solitude is fulfilled. That's why I beg you, Sisters, not to fail to make it. You'll learn there to be true Daughters of Charity; you'll also learn there how to serve the sick well. You'll go over in your mind the actions of Our Lord when he was on earth, you'll see that he spent a good part of his time serving his neighbor, and you'll take the resolution to imitate him. What do you think Our Lord did? He wasn't satisfied with restoring the sick to health; he also taught them how to act when they were well. Imitate him (CCD:IX:176).
Questions for reflection and dialogue
[A] How do we collaborate with others in effective service on behalf of the poor?
[B] What is our understanding of the Vincentian charism?
 La Compañía de las Hijas de la Caridad en sus Orígenes: Documentos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salmanca, document #544. Future references to this work will be indicated by the Letter “D” followed by the number of the document that is being cited. These references will appear in the text and not as footnotes.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM