A Different Type of French Revolution: The Founding of the Daughters of Charity

Thursday, November 29, 2012

On this day, three hundred and seventy nine years ago, in Paris, France, a few young women started a revolution. It wasn't a revolution with guns or even with non-violent protests. In fact, these women, young peasants who could barely read or write, didn't understand the immensity of their quiet action of moving in with Mademoiselle LeGras (also known as Louise de Marillac) and forming a new religious community called The Daughters of Charity under the direction of a priest who was slowly becoming famous all over France, Monsieur Vincent de Paul.

But their simple action on this day and afterwards changed Church history forever.

These women were former servants who fell in love with the work of serving the poor and now were dedicating themselves to that mission, yet in a way that would have seemed nearly impossible before. They were now to be religious, to be Sisters. But unlike other religious communities, there was to be no separation based on the background of their family, no such thing as "choir sisters" and "lay sisters" to differentiate between Sisters from poor or rich families. And also unlike other religious communities, they were there not just to pray but for an apostolic purpose - to serve Christ in the poor.

The first "habit" of the
Daughters of Charity
These first Sisters probably didn't know anything about canon law at the time, but Monsieur Vincent de Paul did. He knew that, under canon law, all Sisters were to be cloistered and there were no "if's or but's" about it. He had seen religious communities that tried to bend the rules either crumble or forced into the cloister, even the religious community of his friend Francis de Sales (the Visitation Sisters). But he was determined that his Sisters would survive. So, being the clever man that he was, he took the loopholes to his advantage. Instead of taking perpetual vows, his Sisters would take annual vows. Instead of calling their house a "convent", they would simply call it a "house". Instead of calling it "novitiate", they called it "Seminary". And instead of wearing a religious habit, his Sisters would simply wear the typical clothes of French peasants. He summed it up when he wrote the Daughters were to have "as a convent, the houses of the sick; as a cell, a rented room; as a chapel, the parish church; as a cloister, the streets of the city and the halls of the hospitals; as enclosure, obedience; as grating, the fear of God; and as a veil, holy modesty."

Maybe these first Sisters didn't exactly know how much of an experiment their new community, called the Daughters of Charity, was. But the "experiment" worked. There was no category in canon law for such a community - and, although the Vatican approved their Constitutions soon after their foundation, there wouldn't be a term for their type of community until hundreds of years later when the Vatican came up with the term "Society of Apostolic Life". 

Simply by becoming Daughters of Charity and paving the way for others, these women changed what religious life would become in the Church. After the foundation of the Daughters of Charity, priests and bishops started founding new religious communities, also under an apostolic purpose. Eventually, canon law changed, allowing but not requiring the cloister for Sisters anymore.

Some claim that it was St Vincent's ingenuity that allowed this to happen. While that is true, that ingenuity would have been useless if it weren't for a few peasant girls who decided to leave everything they knew to serve Christ in the poor.

They had no idea that millions of Daughters of Charity would follow after them (some now numbered among the saints and martyrs), no idea that one day their community would be serving the poor all over the world in almost 100 countries. and no idea that they would change the face of religious life in the Catholic Church.

They just knew they loved Christ and loved the poor and that was enough. That was enough to start their own kind of French revolution.

The Bashful Poor: A Guest Post by Sr Mary Jo Stein

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

(As Thanksgiving approaches tomorrow and we feast with family and friends, it is important to remember those who are poor. How do they feel receiving turkey dinners from food pantries, homeless shelters, etc?
Here is a guest post by Sister Mary Jo Stein, a Daughter of Charity and nurse at a health clinic in Washington DC, about that very subject. She celebrated her 25th year as a Daughter of Charity this past year.)

Sometimes when I walk through the neighborhood to and from the health center where I serve, I imagine myself in Sister Rosalie Rendu’s time and place, as if I were one of the Sisters who served with her in her health center. I think about all the poor people we are privileged to serve here in Washington DC. I come and go in and out of their world, but always remain in my world of privilege, security, education, etc. My coworkers who grew up in this or similar neighborhoods say that those of us who come to serve here but who aren’t part of “the hood” are protected by those who live here. They won’t let anything happen to us because we provide them a safe place to receive health care. So, even in that case, I remain safer and more protected from their harsh reality.

A couple of weeks ago. I think that maybe I caught a glimpse of what it might be like (a very qualified maybe and might) to be on the fringes. I went to the bike shop to see about buying bike lights to continue my urban bike commute safely now that Daylight Saving Time is over for a while.

I walked in wearing my old sweats and t-shirt, not the blue and white habit I usually wear. The owner of the shop asked how he could help me and proceeded to show me his selection of rechargeable bike lights. I had checked my options on the Internet beforehand and had an idea of the price range that was within my budget. He told me all about several options, all of which were much more than I was planning to spend.

However, I had already spotted some rechargeable lights that looked what I needed at the right price. So, I reached for them and he said, “Oh, yes, those are good ones too.” After studying them, I realized I needed to bring my bike into the shop to make sure the lights would actually attach to the front and back frame of my bike.

Later, when I brought it in, the owner showed me how I could connect them to my bike. I remarked that I could detach the bike pack I had rigged up under my bike seat. Well, it wasn't so much a "bike pack" as it was "a lunch pack I have hooked to my bike with binder clips" (the Velcro on the straps wore away last year). As you can probably tell, none of my bike packs are real bike gear – they’re all improvised and rather worn, although still serviceable.

When I said I could carry my work clothes and lunchbox on my back and remove my improvised bike packs to make room for the lights for the ride home, the owner said, “We have a nice selection of bike packs you might want to check out.” I replied, knowing full well that I didn't need any new bike packs “Well, maybe I’ll put that on my Christmas list,

Perhaps he had also noticed the duct tape repairs on my old faithful bike, because as I reached into my pocket to pull out my budget money to pay for the lights and told him that I had the change in my purse,  he said, “We can forego the change and call it even.”

I immediately felt a mixture of shame and pride that he was thinking I must be poor and he was taking my last pennies. I’m a coupon clipper and love getting a good deal, but my reaction to this was that he was making a judgment of me and I didn’t want his charity. I said, “No, I have it” instead of “thanks, that’s kind of you” or “sure, I’ll take a discount”.

So how do the people I serve feel when I reach out to them? Do they feel like a charity case? Do they feel shame and pride? The owner at the bike shop meant well, I'm sure. But the shame and embarrassment I felt was very real to me, and my quick reaction to maintain my pride was just as real. This was only a few cents; what about those who need so much more, so much more often?

Saint Vincent de Paul, who helped organize the Confraternities of Charity, on which the Daughters of Charity were based and who helped write the regulations, used the expression “the bashful poor” at least 15 times in these regulations. What about the bashful poor in my life?

The Love of Jesus Sees into the Future: Mother Theresa and Me

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On a large spiral staircase made of slate, between the third and fourth floors, sits a larger-than-life painting of a nun. She stares straight ahead into the eyes of the viewer. Two school girls stand at either side of her, looking up in apparent admiration.

When I first saw this painting at the Institute of Notre Dame, I had no idea who she was. She was just a two-dimensional woman I passed on my way on my way to religion class. A meek freshman coming from public school, I had only recently met a Sister. And I certainly hadn't seen a painting of one quite so large before.

Turns out I was walking not so far from where this nun herself walked. Somewhere, underneath of the building next door, where the original school sat, was evidence of her footsteps.

Her name was Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. And those were probably some tired footsteps.

She was then in her fifties, the hair under her wimple and veil probably fading into gray. Her life journey hadn't been an easy one and perhaps her body already reflected that. During her childhood, the Napoleonic Wars had unfolded before her. Her beloved Catholicism faded away from Bavarian society - monasteries, convents and even schools (including her own) closed, property and possessions stolen from churches. She saw people formerly friends begin to hate each other. This led her, with the help of a friend priest, found the School Sisters of Notre Dame some years later. It wasn't an easy task - her friend priest died, the local people resisted her and she didn't have any money. But somehow, by the grace of God, she did it. And now she had gone along to bring the Sisters to the United States, leaving behind comfortable Germany and stepping into a new culture, a new language and a new need. After some other failed projects, the Institute of Notre Dame was founded as a boarding school for German immigrant girls.

Mother Theresa didn't stay for long, leaving for the German motherhouse soon after. It's more likely that a majority of those footsteps around the original school were her Sisters, bustling around to teach all different grades, to wake up the girls and feed them, to be there for emotional and spiritual comfort.

Although Mother Theresa physically may have left the school, her legacy never did. In those first years and years to come, American vocations from the school would pour into her new community. But then, more recently, as with most Catholic schools in the United States, the number of vocations from the school, either to the SSNDs or any other religious community, dwindled away to almost nothing. But yet, decade after decade, Mother Theresa was still there all the same, smiling over those girls who grew from timid freshmen to seniors ready to go out and change the world. She watched them come and go, and then watched as their daughters, and then granddaughters and even great granddaughters walked those same steps. I was one of them.

Students and alumnae agree that there is some sort of spirit in that school. God knows there's enough ghost stories set in the 160 year old building, but it's something deeper than that. It's a spirit of love and understanding motivated by deep faith in Jesus Christ. A spirit that I believe stems from the spirit of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. Something occurred to me in high school, something I now attribute to the spirit of the school and her - a religious awakening, a metanoia, I don't know what to call it - but one day, in junior year, the idea popped in my head "maybe I'll become a nun". The thought terrified me. But every day, walking those slate steps to and from classes, I passed a painted nun with a tender face that told me "Look, this is what your life could be..." I mostly tried to ignore it, but other times it led me to deep interior reflection.

Now, I know that Mother Theresa was there, watching over and praying for me during those discernment years in high school. In her day, she was one passionate about religious vocations, often quoting the parable about the workers in the vineyard in her letters. Although I never knew much more about her in high school than a few of her words and brief biographical facts, she taught me that, if you have a burning desire in your heart, even if it means much sacrifice, even if that means giving up marriage, being misunderstood, or traveling to a different country, you can change the world.

She essentially said this same message to her Sisters before she left for the United States, telling them "Dear Sisters, why do we submit to religious obedience and not let our own will prevail? Why do we renounce property and love of earthly goods and voluntarily live poverty? Why do we remain celibate and separated from the world? Why should we unceasingly try to sanctify ourselves? Is it not that, being free from the cares of this life, we can better meet the needs of the dear children as spiritual mothers who meet our Savior in them?" 

A few weeks ago, I returned to the Institute of Notre Dame, my old high school, and talked to juniors about immigration and also about my own calling. I had an absolutely wonderful time and it took me back to my own days in high school. I once again passed by that painting of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger and reflected on everything she meant to me. And although she may be a bit disappointed I didn't join the School Sisters of Notre Dame and went to the Daughters of Charity instead, I really don't think she minds. She told her Sisters, also before her trip to the United States, "the reign of God will be extended when many virtuous, devout, obedient, and diligent young women go forth from our schools and to their families. This is our daily prayer" And I pray that I may be one of those young women from her schools that extends the reign of God.

And just as Mother Theresa Gerhardinger has done for more than a century, from her permanent place in heaven and from the wall on the slate stairs, she continues to watch over and pray for all those girls that pass through the halls of the Institute of Notre Dame....and I like to think perhaps most especially those girls silently discerning religious life in their hearts as I was. And it is by her prayers and spirit that, 133 years after her death, she continues to change the world.

(This next Saturday, Blessed Mother Theresa Gerhardinger will celebrate 27 years of being beatified in the Catholic Church. Let us pray for her canonization!)

Vincent's Metanoia: Hope for All of Us

Friday, November 2, 2012

Let me tell you a secret. The founder of the Daughters of Charity, one of the most famous Catholic saints, St Vincent de Paul became a priest to become rich. Sure, he probably loved God and all but he really did it to be comfortable, to enjoy all the privileges that priests did, and to put an end to this working in the fields. And he did, even living in palaces and castles, becoming the personal tutor and confessor to a rich family, the de Gondi.

But somewhere along the line, something changed in Vincent. He went through a variety of experiences, even becoming a slave to pirates at one point. With each experience, Vincent grew from that ambitious yet selfish young man into someone new. Thanks to Madame de Gondi, the matriarch of the rich family he served, he began to have even more experience with the peasants - the very life he was hoping to escape when he left home to become a priest. Vincent underwent a "metanoia" that changed his life, and the world, in a way he never would have expected.

Unlike "discernment" and "transition" (two of my least favorite words), one of my favorite words in the world is "metanoia". It's a word that's barely used outside of Lent, but yet it's one that could describe our entire lives. Vincent would certainly say that it would describe his.

I don't know Greek, nor will I pretend that I do. Yet, to my understanding, or at least according to Webster's Dictionary, "metanoia" means "a transformative change of heart, especially a spiritual conversion" The word is used in different contexts - theology, rhetoric, and psychology - but they all essentially point to the same thing, "a change for the better". It's basically a conversion.

Metanoia, in the Christian context, means repentance. We realize that we have been sinful and regret our actions. We recognize that sin was driving us further away from God and we dedicate ourselves to becoming better. In fact, the use of the word "metanoia" in the New Testament, originally written in Greek, is translated into English as "repentance" (example: Matthew 4:17).

All of that is good and true, yet I believe that metanoia doesn't always have to be a large "mea culpa" moment, in which we beat ourselves up over a sin we have committed. I think it's also the realization "there's something better out there. I can transform myself into something better than what I already am", which can come about through an experience that turns us upside down. Vincent's experiences with the peasants didn't come out of a sin he committed, but rather due to the persistence of Madame de Gondi, his employer and good friend. It's a change of mind and heart...and strangely enough and wonderfully enough, that's exactly what God wants.

Jesus tells a short parable in Matthew 21:28-32. He gives the example of two sons. The father tells the two sons to go and work in the vineyards. One says no, but then changed his mind and went. The other said he would go, but then didn't. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate to the disciples that tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God even before them. (I can only imagine how the disciples felt after that one, geez). But Jesus uses this parable to make a point - that it is because of metanoia, a deep transformative change of heart, that we more fully enter into the kingdom of God.

That may sound wonderful, but this change of heart, this conversion, isn't easy. Ask anyone who has ever converted to Catholicism or even Christianity. Now, I can't speak from experience since I was born Catholic, raised Catholic, and now on the way to becoming a Catholic Sister. But any kind of metanoia means a peeling-off of the old self. Problem is there's something familiar and comfortable, maybe even easy, about that old self. A part of us is whispering "just stay the way you are", yet another part is screaming "but now, it's impossible for me to do anything but change".

After those experiences with the peasants, Vincent was probably distraught. What to do? Life in the palace, life with the de Gondi, was comfortable - yet it was that same comfort that bothered him. He ended up leaving that family and returned to parish life. He would never be the same - and, because of that, neither would France or the rest of the world.

In my opinion, metanoia isn't a one-time deal. In Jesus' parable, the first son's decision to obey his father and work in the vineyard wasn't the only change of mind/heart he would ever have in his life. The tax collectors and prostitutes won't enter the kingdom by a simple decision to become a Christian. Throughout Vincent's life, we see him constantly changing his heart to grow into the Vincent de Paul that would die at the age of 79.

Our life is full of metanoias. We are constantly evolving or, to use a Biblical image, we are constantly being formed in the potter's hands. We are being transformed through the heart.
And if one of the greatest saints in Catholic history went from a young man joining the priesthood for all the wrong reasons to a man known all over the world for his compassion and humility, what can metanoia do for me?

Happy All Saints' Day

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Both Saint Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac died 352 years ago. St Elizabeth Ann Seton, 191 years ago. St Therese, 115 years ago.

Yet not all of them died so long ago. Saint Katharine Drexel died 57 years ago. Thomas Merton, 44 years ago. Dorothy Day, Ita Ford and Oscar Romero, 32 years ago. And even more recently, even in my own memory, Bl Mother Teresa died 15 years ago and Bl Pope John Paul II 7 years ago.

There's so many from so many different eras - some whose bones are all we have, others so long ago that their only physical legacy is their legend, and still others who we ourselves can remember dying.

Yet somehow, they're all still alive.

In my life, God has used the saints to help me feel that I'm not alone, to tug my heart in a different direction, to develop my spirituality, even to turn my world upside down. Their lives, their faithfulness, their love, and their wisdom touch me in accordance to God's purpose.

Sometimes I meet the saints in books - a dusty biography on a library shelf, a recommended spiritual one, or one that "just looked interesting". Sometimes I meet them through other people, like how I met Padre Pio though a close friend with a special devotion. Sometimes I meet them "by accident" - through things that can only be labeled as Divine Providence. I met St Elizabeth Ann Seton when I went to college in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the Sisters of Charity and later died. I met St Katharine Drexel during my prepostulancy/postulancy in Macon, Georgia, where I worked in a church and school founded by her.

The saints have become friends on the journey, a comfort during the hard times and a welcome presence during the joyful times. Outside of Catholic circles, it's commonly misunderstood our devotion to the saints. To me, they're friends. Not God, not Jesus...but rather, the saint is my imperfect friend there to teach me something (even if from their own mistakes) and there to embrace me and say "I'm praying for you". And, as trite as it might sound, there's nothing quite like someone saying a heartfelt loving prayer for you. And the saints do just that.

Each saint I've encountered, canonized or not, has taught me something. They taught me about the Good News of love, about service in the name of Jesus, about contemplation, about peace, about suffering and about resurrection. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all, or rather the summary of it all, is "keep on journeying, Amanda....there's lots to learn and lots to do but it's worth it, believe me."
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