More than 300 years ago, the daughter of a rich and connected French family became the founder of a religious order that focused on serving the poor — and still does today, all over the world. Meet St. Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity.
Louise was born on Aug. 12, 1591 in Paris into a powerful and connected family. Some accounts say that she was born out of wedlock and never knew her mother. She was, however, acknowledged by her father’s family and raised with all the benefits that come with being part of the aristocracy.
Louise was well educated, and trained in the royal monastery of Poissy near Paris, where her aunt was a Dominican nun. Her time at the monastery stirred deep spiritual feelings. She even applied to become a cloistered nun, but was refused. Her family arranged for her to marry Antoine le Gras, who was the secretary to Queen Marie de Medicis of France. Together they had a son, Michel. Louise still felt a pull to religious life during her marriage and had a vision about what her future held. She recalled:
“On the feast of Pentecost during Holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was completely freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that the time would come when I would be in the position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same…I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God; I should not doubt the rest.”
When Michel was 13 years old, Antoine died. By this point in her life, Louise had befriended Francis de Sales, who became her spiritual advisor, and Vincent de Paul, both of whom were major influences on her life. For the next several years, she and Vincent developed a spiritual connection that compelled her toward her future work with the poor. After her son was grown, Vincent asked Louise to assist him with his work in the Confraternies of Charity in France, an organization that sought social change for the plight of the poor. He steered Louise’s life toward charity work and the spiritual education of young girls. In addition to teaching, Louise also worked nursing the poor.
In 1633, she took several women under her wing to train them to serve the needy. This was the beginning of what would become the Daughters of Charity. In 1634 she took her vows as a religious, and Vincent officially declared the order founded, naming Louise as the superior.
The Daughters were a different kind of religious order; they were not cloistered, nor were they called nuns. They were the first non-cloistered order of women devoted to active charity. Even their mode of dress was different: they wore grey habits, and white cornettes, clothing more closely resembling that of the peasant women in the towns where they served.
Louise spent the next years traveling throughout France, bringing the Daughters of Charity to serve orphanages, hospitals and other institutions.
Louise died March 15, 1660, at age 68. Her body lies in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Paris, France.
Her legacy still lives on through the good works of the modern-day Daughters of Charity. More than 14,000 sisters still serve in 90 countries, addressing problems such as food, water, sanitation, shelter, health care, work with HIV/AIDS patients and migrants and refugees.
She was declared the patron saint of Social Workers by Pope John XXIII in 1960.
St. Louise de Marillac’s feast day was originally March 15, but was changed to May 9 in 2016. Read why here:
Read her biography at Franciscan Media here: https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-louise-de-marillac/
Read Louise’s writings here:
Connect with the Daughters of Charity the US: https://daughtersofcharity.org/
Trivia: The habit of the sisters on the 1960 situation comedy “The Flying Nun” was based on the habits of the Daughters of Charity. Read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flying_Nun