White Wings and Barricades

Thursday, May 26, 2011

During one of the many crazy uprisings in France, a group of rebels was chasing a government military officer. The officer ran into a house of the Daughters of Charity and then into their courtyard, where he stood feeling trapped. The crowd caught up to him, rushed into the house, and pointed their guns, aimed and ready to kill. A Sister named Rosalie Rendu ran in front of the man and blocked their shot. "NO, WE DON'T KILL PEOPLE HERE!" The crowd agreed - "oh yeah, you're right, Sister, this isn't a good place - let's lead him into the street!" Then, all the Sisters joined Rosalie, now completely blocking the man from the crowd. "NO!" Sister Rosalie cried and then fell to her knees "Please, I have given 50 years of my life for you. For all that I have done, give me this man's life!" The crowd put down their guns and left. Amazed, the officer then asked "Who are you?!" She responded "Nobody...just a Daughter of Charity".

There are many saints that were Daughters of Charity - St. Louise de Marillac, St Catherine Laboure, Bl. Rosalie Rendu, Bl. Giuseppina Nicoli, Bl. Marta Anna Wiecka, Bl. Marguerite Ruatan, Bl. Lindalva Justo de Oliverira - and there are more that are on the way. And of course, you have to throw St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the mix too, because her original congregation, the Sisters of Charity of St Joseph, merged with the Daughters of Charity soon after her death.

I have to admit I have a list of favorites (is that wrong?) among that list, but my absolute fav is Blessed Rosalie Rendu. Which is strange because I hadn't even heard her name until last October.

Rosalie Rendu grew up during the French Revolution. It admittedly didn't affect her hometown as much as, let's say, Paris or the big cities, but as anti-clericalism spread through the country, her family started hiding priests and bishops. Rosalie even made her First Communion in the basement by candlelight by one of the "servants" in the house. Eventually, things calmed down and Rosalie ended up discovering the Daughters of Charity when she started volunteering at their hospital. She joined during a time of unrest within the Daughters themselves - they had just formed again after so many had to return home during the Revolution and there was disagreement over the governance. (These issues within the Daughters eventually figured themselves out.) As a Daughter, she was sent to the Mouffetard District of Paris...and she would stay there for the rest of her life.

Rosalie started her life as a Daughter of Charity by teaching in the free school and visiting the sick poor. Soon enough, when she was not so much older than myself, she became Superior of the local community. During her lifetime, she would end up founding a free clinic, a pharmacy, a school, an orphanage, a youth club and a home for the elderly. She grew famous not only among the poor, but also among the rich. But life wasn't so easy.

Cholera epidemics kept popping up in her district, time after time again. Rosalie not only visited the sick, but was one of the ones (along with her Sisters) picking up the dead bodies on the streets when no one else would. And then there were the uprisings. Barricades were set up all throughout her district, creating battle lines within the city. But Rosalie didn't care. She needed to serve the wounded so, risking her life, she crossed the barricades as bullets flew around her, to serve the wounded on the other side. These heroics led to the name of one of the first books about her, "White Wings and Barricades", referring to the "white wings" of the cornette.

I admittedly don't like this picture
of her. "But that's what she looked
like!" Sr Denise told me.
But I don't think it captures her
courage and joy!
She's not even smiling!
While her actions are certainly to be admired, one of my favorite things about Rosalie are the stories about her. She was absolutely audacious. Apparently, there were times that even she was shocked by her own audacity, even in the midst of complete danger.

Here's one gem - one day, the prefect of police came to Rosalie to warn her that the police would be arresting her for harboring those accused of participating in the revolt (and she was indeed doing this). He had to fight his way through the crowd, in line waiting to see her, to reach Rosalie. When he finally reached her, she didn't recognize him and said "I'm sorry, Monsieur, but you're going to have wait, just like everybody else" And the perfect did. When it was his turn, he said "Madame, I have orders to arrest you. I have come to ask you personally how you dare to place yourself in a position of revolt against the law." Rosalie responded "Monsieur, I am a Daughter of Charity. I do not have a flag. I go to the aid of the unfortunate wherever I encounter them. I try to do good for them without judging them. I promise you, if you ever need help, I'll do the same for you", essentially confessing to the crime. She was never arrested, however. Another gem, of course, is the story I told you in the first paragraph.

Perhaps I feel such a deep connection with Rosalie because of the unrest in France, which I can relate with my time in Bolivia. Granted, Bolivia is nothing compared to the unrest during Rosalie's time, but I have had my share of fears and times of necessary courage and/or "what the heck is going on?!". I remember watching as a journalist and a cameraman collapsed on live TV because tear gas was thrown on them, watching in shock as the news reported that a bomb had exploded outside the archbishop of Santa Cruz's house in April 2009, listening to the Sisters as they told me of times they were sprayed with tear gas as children for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, biting my lip when the embassy requested all Americans leave Bolivia (I didn't) and as they evacuated non-essential personnel from the embassy due to unrest in La Paz in September 2008. The unrest didn't reach our little town, yet there were times we couldn't go to the city, either because barricades were set up blocking the city, strikes of drivers or protests that could climax into who-knows-what. Bolivia was absolutely nothing compared to Rosalie's France, yet I feel a deeper connection to her history because of my experience there.

Perhaps God's will won't lead me into a country so full of unrest like Rosalie's France, but I do hope and pray that one day I may have her utmost bravery in dedication to serve the poor, wherever or however that may be.

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