March 15 is the feast day of a woman I’d never heard of until I researched the saints for this week of Lent. She founded the Sisters of Charity, which grew out of her work with St. Vincent de Paul.
What appeals to me about Louise’s story is that her life had so many things “wrong” with it. First of all, she never knew her mother. Louise was born in between her father’s two marriages, and this assumed illegitimacy prevented positive ties with her father’s family. He did claim Louise and provide for her, but she was essentially motherless. Her father died when Louise was fifteen. She wanted to become a nun but was kept from this due to poor health.
Her father’s family arranged a marriage for her, and the marriage “brought Louise some years of relative stability and happiness.”* However, her only child, a son, “was ungainly, slow-witted, and unstable,” and her husband lost his job, then most of their assets. He became terminally ill, and Louise nursed him four or five years until his death. Understandably, Louise became depressed for a period of several years.
Only after all of these trials did Louise enter, gradually, what would become a vocation. Although she had asked to help with the work of St. Vincent de Paul, who was her spiritual advisor at the time, he didn’t give an answer for a couple of years. On her own, Louise made a vow to remain a widow until death, so that she could serve God. She also took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and lived very much as a nun even though she had not been received into an order.
Eventually she worked with the Ladies of Charity organizations de Paul had organized in various parishes. The Ladies were laywomen who helped carry out charitable works. From there, Louise’s ministry found its wings:
“From 1634 until her death in 1660 she studied and supervised every new venture: the opening or taking over of existing hospitals in Paris and in the provinces, orphanages and the rescue of abandoned babies, free schools, refuges for the insane, homes for the old, hostels for vagrants and beggars, soup kitchens, the care of soldiers on the battlefield, criminals condemned to the galleys. Her mastery of detail, good judgment, and discernment were qualities exercised not in isolation but in close collaboration with Vincent and the Ladies of Charity.”
During the years so many women experience as being their prime—childhood and teens, marriage and motherhood—Louise knew mainly struggle and alienation. It was in her later years that her gifts came into full bloom and her soul found its true energy. Her story can encourage any of us whose life scripts have not gone the way we had hoped or the way others expected.
Louise died at age 68, March 15, 1660. Pope Pius XI canonized her in March of 1934, and in 1960 she was declared the patroness of Christian social workers.
*All quotes are taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints.