From Simple Acts of Kindess to Organized Service
Deeply moved by poverty and suffering all around him in Paris in the 1600s, Vincent de Paul reached out to assist those in need through simple acts of kindness that would, in God's providence, develop into the charism of the largest religious congregation of women in the Catholic Church today.
During that era in the Church, religious women were cloistered and did not play an active role in healthcare or charitable works, unlike men and their lay associates. Although Vincent de Paul was able to get well-to-do ladies of the parish to assist him, he soon realized that it was not enough for charity to be generous and personal; it had to be organized.
Ladies of Charity...And Their Helpers
Thus, in December of 1617, the association of the Ladies of Charity was officially formed. Although gladly willing to assist with this ideal in the beginning, it became easier, as time went on, to send a servant to do the work of actually visiting, nursing and feeding the poor in their homes with the food and supplies provided by the Ladies of Charity.
In recruiting some helpers for the Ladies, Vincent turned to simple village girls in the country districts of France. Being accustomed to hard work and a simple lifestyle, they were motivated by love for others and faith in the providence of God.
Marguerite Naseau of Suresnes: Loving Sacrifice
The first of these helpers was Marguerite Naseau of Suresnes, a poor country girl who came to Vincent to offer her life in service to the poor. She would later die of the plague after giving a sick woman her bed. Such was the loving, giving spirit of these first Daughters of Charity.
Louise de Marillac and the First Daughters
Realizing that these young girls would need some formal religious and secular education, Vincent turned to Louise de Marillac, his friend and collaborator in many charitable works, and asked her to train these first recruits.
On November 29, 1633, she took four peasant girls into her simple home in Paris and fashioned them into true servants of the poor – the first Daughters of Charity. There had never been a religious community like this. To be religious meant to be cloistered.
Simple Vows; Simple Attire
But the absence of gates and grilles was not the only difference between the Daughters of Charity and their predecessors. They bound themselves to God by simple, not solemn, vows. Early in their history, the practice of annual, not perpetual, vows was established.
In order to move more freely through the streets and hospital wards, they wore the simple peasant attire of the day. They were to have "as a convent, the houses of the sick; as a cell, rented room; as a chapel, the parish church; as a cloister, the streets of the city or the halls of the hospitals; as enclosure, obedience; as grating, the fear of God; and as a veil, holy modesty."
The Daughters of Charity went out into the streets of Paris and cared for the sick poor in their homes and, later, in hospitals, schools and foundling homes. Anyone in need was the focus of their care – gallery slaves, wounded soldiers, the aged and the mentally ill.
Becoming a Worldwide Community
A missionary spirit developed during this small beginning in Paris and they moved on to establish a hospital in Poland, the first step in their journey to becoming a worldwide community, seeking to help those most in need of God's loving care.
No form of Christian charity was foreign to the zeal of the Daughters of Charity then, nor is it today. You will find these flexible, available and mobile Sisters in hospitals, orphanages, settlement houses, schools and anywhere you come face to face with the poor.
This worldwide mission of the Daughters of Charity resulted in expansion to the United States in 1850, when they officially united with the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Continuing this missionary spirit, the Daughters of Charity established ministries from coast to coast and are still noted for their expertise and leadership in health, education and social ministry.
In 1910, a second province was established in St. Louis, Missouri, in addition to the original one in Emmitsburg, Maryland. A decision was made in 1969 to establish three other provinces in Albany, New York; Evansville, Indiana; and Los Altos Hills, California. Each of the five provinces serves the needs of the poor in the states located in its particular area.
Serving with Sensitivity
True to their community motto "The Charity of Jesus Christ crucified urges us," the Daughters of Charity reach out to those most in need in a spirit of respect and devotion. St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac always encouraged the Daughters to be very sensitive to the dignity of those they served. It is not always easy to be on the receiving end and Vincent reminded the Daughters that it would only be because of their love that the poor would forgive them the bread they gave them.
The Community virtues of humility, simplicity and charity, always precious to the Daughters of Charity, have been the essence of their spirit throughout history. Remaining true to the teachings of their founders, and encouraging those with whom they work to do the same, they seek to find Christ in those they serve in a simple, humble and loving way.
They help others to see that it is not just that they serve, but how they serve, if they are to truly imitate the love of Christ for the poor.
In the Spirit of the Saints
The friendship of these two saints, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, has given the world a legacy of charity that has touched the lives of others throughout history. Service in the Church throughout the world has been influenced by their keen insight into human needs, their respect for the dignity of each person and their extraordinary organizational skills.
In the spirit of their founders, the Daughters of Charity seek Christ in the poor. They do this through a life of joyful service which has its roots in union with God through prayer and the support of a life in community with others, as they continue to bring the message of God's love to those in need.