How could a delicate infant girl born in Paris in 1591, to an unknown mother and a prominent father between two marriages, be relevant today? How could her inauspicious early life have led to ongoing waves of benevolence and social services?
Prestigious relatives relegated the young child to a Dominican convent in Poissy for education. When her father died, an uncle withdrew the preteen and sent her elsewhere to learn domestic skills until relatives could arrange a marriage with Antoine Le Gras. Given her obscure start, only a well-informed Jeopardy contestant might identify Louise de Marillac as an agent of social transformation.
When she began collaborating with Vincent de Paul and his works of charity, Louise stepped “out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.”(1) Petite, “benevolent but bold,”(2) Louise addressed social challenges astutely because she believed that “God is Charity” and, therefore, that the “practice of charity is so powerful” that helping her neighbor in need would bring her closer to God.(3) Despite the blessings of her life, Louise understood that the early sufferings she endured were her “way of the Cross” and she wished to be full of “the fire of Holy Love…[and] divine light.”(4) An illuminating spiritual experience she titled “The Light” eventually transformed Louise into a spiritual leader and advocate for social change.(5)
In overcoming adversity, frailty, and life’s inevitable hurts associated with her upbringing, Louise de Marillac became empowered: to supervise charitable outreach programs begun by Vincent de Paul; to establish and mentor Daughters of Charity for basic nursing; to develop contracts for their services with hospitals; to rescue foundlings; to initiate a foster-care system for unwanted infants; to initiate education for girls from needy families; to feed starving refugees; to care for persons with mental illness; and to network with wealthy women for financial support. This dynamism of organized charity created systems of care that improved the lives of impoverished people of all ages.
We honor Louise on her birthday, August 12, as an unlikely agent of social transformation. Her love became “our legacy”—to be compassionate in upholding the dignity of all members of DePaul’s diverse, multi-faith, and inclusive community.(6) Louise lived by the light of her faith. What must we do to reach out and accompany those struggling at the margins of society? How can their needs illuminate our hearts to respond? Like Louise, we are called to be light for others. As Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, observes, “there is always light.” May we all be “brave enough to see it,” and “brave enough to be it.”(7)
- What motivates you to step out from the shadows, aflame and unafraid?
- What does “light” mean to you? Describe your experiences of “light.”
- How are you motivated to be an agent of social transformation?
1) Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” (Viking Books: 2021), 32 pp. See also: Amanda Gorman’s Poem Stole the Show at the Inauguration
3) A.29, (ON CHARITY), Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, 710-11.
5) For more on what is known as Louise’s “lumière experience” see: Louise de Marillac’s Pentecost Experience
6) A.29, (ON CHARITY).
7) Gorman, “The Hill We Climb.”
Reflection by: Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., Vincentian Scholar in Residence, Division of Mission and Ministry