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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad they did I was saved by God's grace and the determination of the "sisters"....New Orleans, La. 1960. St. Teresa of Avila Catholic School and Catholic Church. I would have died without their direction in my life. Always on duty in the most unusual circumstances. God Bless them always and forever. GRATEFUL!


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