St Louise de Marillac (March 15) founded the Daughters of Charity under the guidance of St Vincent de Paul

Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) founded the Daughters of Charity under the guidance of St Vincent de Paul. Since both saints were reluctant to take credit for anything, it is not easy to distinguish their separate roles.

Undoubtedly St Vincent possessed the more relaxed temperament and helped to moderate Louise’s intensity and scruples. But then Louise’s youth had hardly encouraged lightness of spirit.

The illegitimate daughter of Louis de Marillac, a widowed nobleman with connections at the court of Queen Marie de Medici, Louise never knew her mother.

Although acknowledged by her father, she was rejected by her stepmother after he married again, and sent to be educated by the Dominicans at Poissy. It was the kind of French convent where the virtues of aristocracy were not underestimated.

After Louis de Marillac died in 1604, Louise was housed by a charitable spinster. At 15 she wanted to become a Capuchin Sister, but was gradually persuaded by her confessor to accept the greater sacrifice of matrimony.

In 1617 she married Antoine Le Gras, a court official, and gave birth to a son, Michel. Her husband, however, soon fell ill, a misfortune which she was inclined to regard as punishment for her rejected vocation.

While Louise cared devotedly for her sick spouse, by the time that he died in 1625 she had fallen under the influence of François de Sales and Vincent de Paul. Initially, she confessed, she felt repugnance at submitting so absolutely to Monsieur Vincent; gradually, however, he moulded her career.

She became one of Vincent’s Dames de Charité, a group of mainly aristocratic women dedicated to the service of the poor.

It became evident, though, that unaristocratic women might be more effective in meeting the hard and ungrateful tasks associated with a charity that worked in slums and hospitals. Vincent discerned that Louise was the woman to create a new association.

In 1633, therefore, she became director of a centre in Paris, at which robust but largely uneducated girls were trained as missionaries to the poor. Les Filles de Charité, as they became known, did not live in community: “Your convent,” Vincent de Paul told them, “will be the sickroom, your chapel the parish church, your cloister the city streets.”

“You must show the poor affection,” Louise instructed, “serving them from the heart, inquiring of them what they need, speaking to them gently and compassionately; procuring necessary help for them without being too bothersome or too eager.

“Remember that all harshness and disdain, as well as the services and the honour you render them, are directed to our Lord himself.”

By her death, Louise had established more than 40 centres for the Filles de Charité in France. Today the ideals which she shared with St Vincent inspire many organisations throughout the world.