St. Louise de Marillac
Patroness of Social Workers
While technically St. Louise de Marillac is the patroness of social workers, she could just as easily be invoked by a whole host of people who feel downtrodden or cast off by society. Born in France in 1591, the illegitimate daughter of Louis de Marillac, a wealthy noble widower, she was acknowledged as his daughter but not as his heir. While he cared for her financially and provided her with an excellent education, Louise lived among the most affluent of French society. After he remarried, however, Louise was no longer allowed to remain with the family because his new wife was totally not down with that. She was sent first to live with an aunt, a Dominican nun, and later to live with a kindly spinster, to continue her education. While Louise knew her worldly needs would always be cared for, she was never given the sense of security that all children deserve.
At the age of 15 she attempted to join the Capuchins in Paris but was denied. She was devastated, but, as the father who gave her the news said, God did indeed have other plans for her. At 22 she married Antoine Le Gras, a kind and good man who seemed to be quickly climbing the ladder of success. In time, she grew to love him, and was always devoted to their son. Here, she finally had a home and a family. Still, Louise was not content. She felt called, even as a wife and mother, to become a nun and to serve the poor in a more committed way. Praying over it, Louise finally got it: wife first, THEN nun (read: stop thinking about leaving your hubby and kid and get back to work). Three years later, Antoine died, and that is when Louise really started her life’s work.
She met and became great friends with St. Vincent de Paul, or Monsieur Vincent as Louise called him. He served as her spiritual director until she died. Vincent brought Louise balance, he taught her to temper her fervor with patience and to work hard but not wear oneself out. Remember, that “great race” we’re all running is a marathon, not a sprint. Under his direction, Louise went from living a life as a nun, working our of her own home, following her own “Rule of Life in the World, to being an actual nun with fellow sisters.
The Sisters or Daughters (as Vincent preferred) of Charity filled the need in 17th century France to have some kind of organized care for the poor and the sick. You see, while the Ladies of Charity who worked with Vincent had plenty of money to throw at the problem, and honestly did mean well, they weren’t quite suited to the actual care of the destitute. Louise, who had been raised in the country and had lived among both the elite and the servants, was more comfortable. She found her helpers in the form of hearty young women from the countryside who, like her, felt called to God’s service. Louise saw though, that while they certainly weren’t lacking in love and a desire to help, they needed spiritual formation and a sense of community, just as she had so desired. She had them move into her home and all of them began following a new rule, the rule developed by Louise and Vincent, which is still the rule of the Daughters of Charity follow to this day. Louise taught them to, “Love the poor and honor them as you would honor Christ Himself.” In following these words, the Daughters spread across France founding not only hospitals, but orphanages, and institutions to care for the elderly, the mentally ill, those injured on the battlefield, and those imprisoned.
Throughout her lifetime, the Daughters of Charity spread across France, founding more than 40 houses. They were known for their integration of medical and spiritual care in hospitals and also for their care of all those society had no place for. Louise herself died at the age of 68, just six months before Vincent. During those years she was just about everything a woman can be: a daughter, a mother, a nun, a social worker, a teacher, a foundress. With her varied life, all women can look to her for inspiration and guidance in their own lives, confidant that St. Louise de Marillac will know their needs and will intercede for them, because she was one of them.