St. Louise de Marillac
Co-foundress of the Daughters of Charity
Louise was the daughter of Louis de Marillac, the Lord of Ferrières, a French nobleman. She never knew her mother who died shortly after her birth. Ordinarily, there is something wanting in a child not brought up in a mother’s care; in Louise, however, this privation in her own childhood made her better understand the love necessary for the little motherless beings that she would one day snatch from death. She was raised partially by her father and partially by her aunt, for whom she was named, a Dominican religious at Poissy.
Intelligent, ardent and pious, she first wished to become a religious but at twenty-two, under her confessor’s advice, she accepted marriage to Antoine Le Gras, a young secretary to Queen Marie de Medicis. The couple was happily married in February of 1613 and had an only son, Michel.
In 1619, Mlle. Le Gras came to know Francis de Sales who was to provide her with great support and consolation in her future trials. Around 1621, Antoine contracted a chronic illness, believed to have been a form of tuberculosis, and eventually became bedridden. Troubled by the thought that she had rejected an early call to the religious life, Louise took a vow in 1623 never to remarry should her husband die before her. Antoine’s illness did, in fact, accompany him to his deathbed and he died on December 21, 1625.
Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva, had introduced her to the spiritual director of his religious of the Visitation in Paris, Monsieur Vincent de Paul. Under his cautious and prudent direction after her husband’s death, Louise gradually became involved in Monsieur Vincent’s works of charity in the French capital.
These charitable works were funded by wealthy and pious aristocratic ladies; however, Monsieur Vincent and Mlle. Le Gras both saw the need for a more formalized organization of charity.
In 1633 Louise invited four young women into her home where she began to train them to serve the poor and the infirm. “Love the poor and honor them as you would honor Christ Himself,” she instructed them. The small group practiced in local hospitals where they were soon in demand.
This first nucleus developed into the religious institute of the Daughters of Charity which received official approval in 1655.
Louise, who had struggled with ill health all her life, led the Daughters of Charity until her death on March 15, 1660, a mere six months before the death of her beloved mentor, Monsieur Vincent.
She was sixty-eight and left more than forty houses of charity throughout France. The order was to spread throughout the world, her spiritual daughters universally recognized by their “winged” white headdress.