Monday, March 14, 2016

St. Louise de Marillac: Patroness of Social Workers

The saint of the day for March 15 is St. Louise de Marillac, the co-founder, with Saint Vincent de Paul, of the Daughters of Charity. She is the patroness of: disappointing children, those rejected by religious orders, widows, sick people, and social workers.

Louise was born in Ferrières-en-Brie (near Meaux), Auvergne, France, on August 12, 1591. Born out of wedlock in Paris in 1581, Louise never knew who her mother was but was acknowledged and raised by her father, a member of the aristocracy. When her father married, Louise had a difficult time adjusting as she was sent as a resident student to a Dominican convent where her aunt was a religious. This experience deepened her intellectual skills, as well as her desire to be a religious. When her father died and resources were limited, she lived in a boarding house where she had the opportunity to learn many domestic skills, as well as the secrets of herbal medicine.

When Louise was about sixteen years old, she developed a strong desire to enter the Capuchins. Her spiritual director discouraged her from entering the religious order.  Since her father had died, it was time for her to decide on a vocation. Consequently, she married Antoine Le Gras, a young secretary under Maria de' Medici. The couple had a son and Louise devoted most of her time to her maternal duties.

One day while she was praying, Louise had a vision of herself serving the poor and living as a religious in a community. She recorded this experience on parchment and carried it on her person as a reminder that despite her difficulties, God was in control of her life. In that vision, a priest appeared to her, whom she later identified as Vincent de Paul, her future spiritual confidante and co-founder of  the Daughters of Charity.

In 1619 she met St. Francis de Sales, who was then in Paris, and Mgr. Le Campus, Bishop of Belley, became her spiritual adviser. Troubled by the thought that she had rejected a call to the religious life, she vowed in 1623 not to remarry should her husband die before her.

As a young matron, Louise had traveled and socialized among both the royalty and aristocracy of France, but she was equally comfortable with the poor, despite their desperate situations. She held a leadership role in the Ladies of Charity, an organization of rich women dedicated to assisting the poor.

Her husband died on December 21, 1625, after a long illness. In 1629, Vincent de Paul, who in 1625 had established the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians), invited Louise to assist him with the Confraternities of Charity in the parishes of France. These tasks were therapeutic for Louise and were influential in preparing her for her future work. She conducted site visits to assure the quality of the service being offered, reviewed financial accounts for stewardship reports, and encouraged the workers and volunteers to see Christ in those whom they served.

On November 29, 1633 Louise began to train young women to address the needs of the poor and to gain support from their life together. From this humble beginning, the community of Daughters of Charity emerged. Louise provided leadership and expert management to the evolving network of services she and Vincent inspired.

Louise, who died on March 15, 1660 just a few months before Vincent de Paul, was proclaimed a Saint of the Church in 1934. In 1960 Pope John XXIII proclaimed her the Patroness of all Social Workers. As a wife, mother, teacher, nurse, social worker and religious foundress, she stands as a model to all women. She lives today in the 25,000 Daughters of Charity serving throughout the world, as well as in their many lay collaborators.

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