More than 300 years ago a widow, Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), moved to Paris, taking a house near the church where a priest named Vincent de Paul operated an ambitious mission to the poor, the desperate and the abandoned. From their meeting emerged a remarkable partnership: Father Vincent, always over-extended, never had time to oversee the charitable organizations he established; Louise, a woman with great love for God and great management skills, was eager to do good. What she lacked, however, was focus. That was about to change.
Over the years, in various parishes throughout France, Father Vincent had gathered together women who had both time and money to spare and instructed them to see to the needs of the poorest in their parishes. It was an inspired idea, but in many cases once Father Vincent moved on, the Ladies of Charity, as they called themselves, lost their initial fervor. Some stopped tending to the needy entirely. Others, finding such work distasteful and unworthy of their rank in society, sent their maids to serve the poor. Louise de Marillac became the corrective for that problem. Her first assignment with Father Vincent was to make a tour of all parishes that had a Ladies of Charity organization and revitalize them. Her tour convinced Louise of two things — the Ladies were willing to give money; but, they recoiled from the hands-on work of nursing the sick, feeding the hungry and tending abandoned or orphaned children. The organization needed hardy young women from the working class who were accustomed to long days of toil. What Louise proposed to Father Vincent was the establishment of a new order of nuns, the Daughters of Charity, who would work in the streets, the hovels of the poor, the hospitals and anywhere else they were needed.
It makes perfect sense to us, but in the 17th century the overwhelming majority of Catholic clergy and laity believed a nun's place was in her convent. The sisters might run a boarding school for girls, or do a little nursing, but their primary responsibility was a cloistered life of intense prayer. To get around this objection, Louise and the young women who joined her did not call themselves a religious order, or even a religious community; they were just good Christians who volunteered to do whatever charitable work was necessary.
Devout young women from the country flocked to the new "volunteer organization," and soon Louise and her sisters were staffing orphanages, shelters for the mentally ill, homes of the elderly, hostels for the homeless, soup kitchens, free schools for poor children, a ministry to convicts, even battlefield hospitals during wartime.
The Daughters of Charity was the first Catholic religious organization to tend the poor and needy at every stage of life, from cradle to grave. In 1646, impressed by the holiness of the lives of the Daughters of Charity and inspired by the great good they did in the world, the archbishop of Paris gave his approval to their community. It was the first step that would lead to the sisters being recognized as a legitimate religious order within the church.
In recognition of her achievements, in 1960 Blessed Pope John XXIII named St. Louise de Marillac the patron saint of social workers. Her feast day is today, March 15.