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Louise de Marillac

All material appearing on this page is based on a text written by Betty Ann McNeil, DC

Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), wife, mother, widow, and grandmother, and leader in charity, overcame the social stigma of her birth out-of-wedlock in seventeenth-century France to became a cofounder of the Daughters of Charity (1633), an active Lady of Charity, and the patron of Christian Social Workers (1960).

As a married woman, Louise visited sick persons who were poor within her parish bringing them broths and remedies, changing their bed linen, counseling them, and burying them after their death. As a wife and mother, Louise continued ministering to the least of her sisters and brothers by bringing them food, sweets, preserves, and biscuits, and by brushing their hair, bathing their wounds, and preparing them for burial after death. As a widow, Louise was active with the Ladies of Charity by serving patients who were poor at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Paris, and training volunteers to do home nursing as she supervised the Confraternities of Charity, which included social ministry outreach projects initiated by Vincent de Paul. As a grandmother, Louise was conscious of teaching the lessons of charity to her little namesake, Renée-Louise.

As a leader in charity, Louise became a pioneer social worker in nursing and social services for abandoned babies, orphans, prisoners, persons living in poverty whom society disregarded because of age, frailty, mental condition, or other disabilities. Louise de Marillac was especially concerned about caring for abandoned infants, providing for orphans, and educating young girls, especially in those in the countryside.

Overcoming social barriers through a life marked by the cross from birth, Louise changed history when her work of charity and justice among the poor led her to recognize God’s presence in their midst. “How true it is that souls who seek God will find Him everywhere but especially in persons who are poor.”

The life and ministries of Louise de Marillac brought new life and hope to others. Her mission of serving God by serving the neighbor in need was rooted in respect for life and the human dignity of each person. “We owe respect and honor to everyone: the poor because they are the members of Jesus Christ and our masters, the rich, so that they will provide us with the means to do good for the poor.”

Elizabeth Bayley Seton

Elizabeth Bayley Seton (1774-1821), wife, mother, widow, and leader in charity, overcame the social stigma of her conversion to Roman Catholicism in nineteenth-century America to became a cofounder of the Society to Aid Poor Widows With Young Children (1797) in New York City and the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s (1809) at Emmitsburg, Maryland.

As a married woman, Elizabeth visited sick persons who were poor within her parish bringing them food and clothing, providing emergency assistance, and counseling them. As a wife and mother, Elizabeth continued ministering to the least of her sisters and brothers who were dying and assisting them in their journey into eternity. As a widow, Elizabeth collaborated with the Sulpicians in Maryland to establish the American Sisters of Charity and its various social ministry outreach projects rooted in the tradition of Vincent de Paul.

As a leader in charity, Elizabeth became a pioneer educator and social minister for poor families, orphans, widows, and persons living in poverty whom society disregarded, sending Sisters to Philadelphia (1814) and New York City (1817) to do the same.

Elizabeth Bayley Seton was especially concerned about providing for orphans, and educating young girls, especially those living in poverty. Overcoming religious barriers through a life often marked by the cross, Elizabeth changed history when her work of education and charity among the poor enabled her to recognize the Spirit of God in their midst. Her advice: “Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can disturb.”

Catherine Harkins

Catherine O’Regan Harkins-Drake (1834-1911), wife, mother, widow, and grandmother, who became a leader in charity, overcame the social stigma against women in nineteenth-century America to became the first American Lady of Charity. Born in the Cove of Cork, Ireland, exactly two hundred years after the founding of the Ladies of Charity in Paris and one hundred years before the canonization of Louise de Marillac, she became the founding president of the Ladies of Charity in Saint Louis, Missouri (1857). Educated at Saint Ann’s School, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, by the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg sometime between 1836 an 1844, she imbibed the spark of Vincentian charity from Mother Seton’s spiritual daughters.

Married twice, Catherine visited the homes of poor persons who were sick, and often hungry, bringing them food and remedies, providing support and compassion to them, whether as Mrs. Hugh Harkins (1853) or later as Mrs. Elmer Drake (1884).

As a wife and mother of at least three children, Catherine ministered to families victimized by bankruptcy because of banking failures and depressed prices for crops, bringing them spiritual and material assistance. Twice widowed, Catherine worked with the Daughters of Charity in ministering to neglected children in Saint Louis, especially at the House of the Guardian Angels. As a grandmother and great-grandmother, Catherine inspired her eighteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren with zeal in serving the neighbor.

Catherine collaborated with Vincentian priests and Daughters of Charity in establishing the Ladies of Charity in the United States and became the founding president. She launched its early social ministry outreach projects in collaboration with the Vincentian Family.

As a widow who became a leader in charity, Catherine had a keen interest in the education of young children and social supports for orphans, the elderly and needy families living at the brink of poverty, especially the most vulnerable like widows with young children. Catherine was especially concerned about educational opportunities for orphans and neglected youngsters, and involved herself in promoting healthy child development for underprivileged children living in the city.

Overcoming social barriers through a life often marked by uprooting and relocation, Catherine made history when she shared a recurring dream with Rev. Urban Gagnepain, C.M. In this dream, Catherine vividly experienced Vincent de Paul inviting her to join him in helping the poor. From this inspiration, her work of charity among poor people began, enabling her to fan the flame of charity among other charity workers, attracting new members to for the mission. Following Father Gagnepain’s advice to gather some associates for a society for the service of the poor, twelve women gave birth to the new association on 8 December 1857. In addition to caring for the poor in their homes, the Ladies assisted the Daughters of Charity in two institutions located within the parish. Before long, other units of Ladies of Charity were formed at New Orleans and throughout the United States.

Concern for Children

Religious formation played a significant role in the life of Louise, Elizabeth, and Catherine as wives, mothers, widows, and foundresses who had an extraordinary sensitivity for persons in need, especially children. Their concern led them to commit themselves to schooling for needy children especially young girls for whom there were few educational opportunities.

In fact, the very first woman to offer her services to Vincent de Paul for his charities was Marguerite Naseau, a self-taught shepherdess who went about the countryside teaching little girls to read and write. Marguerite taught herself the alphabet . . . words . . . sentences . . . paragraphs. Once she learned to read, then taught others, becoming the first school mistress in the Vincentian Family.

Moved by a powerful inspiration from heaven, she had the thought of instructing children, bought an alphabet, but not able to go to school for instruction, she would go to ask the pastor or the assistant to tell her what the first four letters of the alphabet were. Another time she would ask what the next four were, and so on for the rest. Later, while minding her cows, she would study her lesson. If anyone passed by who seemed to know how to read, she would ask him, ‘Sir, how does one pronounce that word?’

Others followed Marguerite’s example in offering themselves for service to the sick poor. These were the women whom Louise de Marillac formed to assist the Ladies of Charity in their service of poor persons. The hallmark of their mission was cordiality, compassion, respect, and devotion, which marked their service. They not only sought and served their sick and poor neighbors, but actively identified and responded to their unmet needs, especially in the area of child development.

Child Development

Concerns about healthy child development for socially responsible adulthood led Louise, Elizabeth, and Catherine to respond to the unmet needs of children in their day by promoting early childhood education, especially for poor young girls. When Elizabeth and her Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s at Emmitsburg, adopted their constitution, they agreed that the community would be the same as that of the Sisters [sic, Daughters] of Charity [of Saint Vincent de Paul] of France with this difference: that the education, which the Sisters of Charity were there bound to give only to poor children, will be extended here to all female children in whatever station of life they may be, for which the Sisters will receive a sufficient compensation, out of which they will endeavor to save as much as they can to educate gratis poor orphan children.

Louise as Educator. Louise de Marillac, who was first educated in the classics at the Dominican Royal Monastery of Saint Louis at Poissy (1592-1604), set the tone for future Vincentian women like Elizabeth and Catherine. Louise later received practical domestic training in a boarding house where she learned many of the skills so necessary for quality service of the poor. Louise strongly advocated instruction of young girls in the country. She founded programs of instruction in rural parishes, possibly as early as 1629-1630. Louise provided some training for teachers and she taught catechism herself in the villages while preparing lay catechists to do the same. In an early draft of the rule for the Daughters of Charity, she wrote: ‘They shall teach the little girls of the villages while they are there [in the parish.] They shall strive to train local girls to replace them at this task during their absence. They shall do all this for the love of God and without any remuneration.’


Collaboration among the various branches of the Vincentian Family dates to the time of the founders. For example, the Vincentian priests ministering at Richelieu requested two Daughters of Charity to teach there in 1638. Vincent was prudently attentive to preventing problems of co-education when boys and girls were taught together, and he sought Daughters of Charity to work along with other lay educators. His goal, like that of Elizabeth Bayley Seton was to help the students develop marketable skills for a productive adulthood.

Sometime ago I wrote . . . to find out if Mademoiselle Le Gras . . . could be so kind as to furnish a good schoolmistress for the girls in this locality [Nanteuil.] However, it is to be desired that she be able to teach them a trade, because unless that is the stipulation, the inhabitants of the district will be difficult about taking them away from the schoolmaster, where it costs scarcely anything and where they learn along with the boys. That is a dangerous thing as well, as you know.

Teacher Training. Louise was responsible for the professional training of the first Daughters of Charity and for their establishment of twenty schools in France (1638-1659) and one in Poland (1652). Her driving concern for early child development led her to also establish educational programs for foundlings at Bicêtre (1647) and for the orphans in Cahors (1658-59).

She drafted the Particular Rules for Schoolmistresses which became the basis for Vincentian women educators, including the American Sisters of Charity who first taught young Catherine at Saint Ann’s School, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. There the pupils learned Louise and Elizabeth’s first lesson of attentiveness to the needs of the bashful poor . . . “who through shame, dare not make known their wants.” Teaching young girls who were poor was the dream of Elizabeth Seton whose aim was to prepare her students for the world in which they were destined to live.

Louise, like Elizabeth Seton was among the first to establish a Normal School for Teacher training at the mother house and a laboratory school where the early sisters did their practice teaching. Both Louise and Elizabeth firmly believed that “In order to be able to instruct others, they must have knowledge themselves.” Louise insisted that teaching be simple, practical and doctrinal and she even composed her own catechism, one that was clear and concise.

Louise instructed the Schoolmistress in the principles of early childhood education, to fulfill her vision of healthy, holistic child development. She modeled both compassion and competence so that the children would learn lessons for life. The sisters learned how to teach the head and form the heart of their pupils. In her maternal wisdom, Louise advised that the teachers follow set routines for the children, even to the point of recommending certain times for particular activities. Louise admonished the instructors to “have the little girls recite their lessons attentively, not merely going through the motions .” Louise was practical. From her own experience she advised the teachers to take their pupils to Church for liturgical celebrations, “placing them all in front of her in order to get them used to behaving respectfully and appropriately in church.” Upon their return, Louise advised that the children be praised for good behavior or reprimanded for misconduct, emphasizing the importance of reverence in sacred places.

Educational Philosophy

For Louise, as for Elizabeth, education was relational and rooted in religious values aimed at virtuous living. From the beginning, Vincentian women have “sought to meet the spiritual as well as the temporal necessities of the poor . . .” Whether through retreats or spiritual direction, Louise and Elizabeth accompanied those they educated along their journey of faith. Keeping in touch with many through ongoing visits, notes, and correspondence. For them, relationships were an essential component of education. Their teaching was focused on the person and was based on faith in Jesus Christ, whose love impelled them in their mission. Teaching catechism was only one technique used. Others involved the use of humor and also art, especially sacred art to concretize some concepts, for example the rosary or stations of the cross. Another revealed Elizabeth’s reverence for life and creation which permeated her instructions. She used frequent metaphors and references to nature, including poetic images, allusion and fables to keep her pupils’ attention. To her Sisters, in her handwritten instructions on the presence of God, Elizabeth said: “as birds in changing their places find the air wherever they fly, and fish who live in the water are surrounded by their element wherever they swim, so wherever we go we must find God everywhere, he is more within us, than we are in ourselves.–”

Both Louise and Elizabeth were well versed in Sacred Scripture which permeated their instructions and correspondence. Even then instructors were encouraged to explain it so that the information would be understood. Therefore, the sisters were advised to phrase questions in different ways so that the pupils could grasp the meaning rather than simply memorize words.” Elizabeth placed much emphasis on sacramental preparation through instructions preceding the reception of Communion, Reconciliation, and Confirmation. Preparatory retreats preceded First Communions, which were often in the Christmas season. The singing of hymns was used as a catechetical tool to assist in prayer, comfort in death, and to motivate Christian conduct. Copying inspirational passages and exchanging religious verses, prayers, holy pictures were common practices as was the keeping of a spiritual journal.

In the Vincentian tradition, more importance was placed on religious education, so that the children would learn their religion, especially the mysteries of faith, correct morality, and the difference between good and evil. This dimension of religious and moral formation in the faith received more emphasis by Louise and Elisabeth than on the children’s “progress in reading or on the memorization of a lot of facts” which they believed could lead to simply mere intellectual curiosity and vanity rather than solid learning. The pragmatic approach of Vincentian women involved in forming the next generation seeks to provide solid educational opportunities so that the children would understand clearly what has been taught and put their learning to good use.

Elizabeth as Educator. Elizabeth developed a practical application for living by gospel values for children who were habitual offenders. Those “who arrived after the beginning of the class prayer were to be punished as were those who left their seats before the dismissal bell. The latter might lose ten minutes of recreation or a ‘cent paid in the poor’s purse.’ A committee of three girls would then determine how the proceeds of the purse were to be distributed.” With this formative discipline, daily habits were improved and attention was drawn to the needs of poor persons.

Elizabeth involved her daughters in instruction at Saint Joseph’s Academy, using them as teacher aids, believing that this peer instruction was not only practical but would be mutually beneficial. The astute Mother observed that her ten year old daughter Catherine Josephine: “Rules books, sets copies, hears lessons, and conducts herself with such grace that girls twice her age show her the greatest respect. But what is truly funny is to see Bec [Rebecca, age eight], with a little class of six or eight children, holding up her finger in silence, with her pen and ink giving them good points or crosses, and keeping better order than her mother can.”

Elizabeth, like Louise believed that it was important to adapt the Gospel message to the ability, age and circumstance of her learners. Elizabeth held periodic instructions for the older girls. In one of these sessions, she told the pupils that it was not her goal to make them nuns, but rather is said to have gently explained her goal, stating: “I would wish to fit you for that world in which you are destined to live.” Elizabeth, like Louise recognized the centrality of the teacher’s role to make love visible. She knew that without that, the pupils would lose interest. She also recognized the reality of diversity among her pupils and the challenges inherent in meeting their individual needs with equanimity.

I am at peace . . . yet that quiet is in the midst of fifty children all day, except the early part of the morning and the last day of the afternoon. Order and regularity cannot be skipped over here. I am in the full exercise of that principle . . . that manner . . . of looking upon twenty people in a room with a look of affection and interest, showing an interest for all and a concern in all their concerns . . . I am as a mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions–not all equally amiable or congenial, but bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all; to give the example of cheerfulness, peace, resignation; and [to] consider individuals more as proceeding from the same origin and tending to the same end than in the different shades of merits and demerits.

Catherine as Educator. This was the legacy of pedagogical principles inherited by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s who went to Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1836 to teach at Saint Ann’s School. Toward the end of the eight years the Sisters of Charity remained there, young Catherine O’Regan enrolled as a pupil. Although not in the school long before the sisters withdrew in 1844 and her family moved to Paris, Kentucky, seeds of charity had been planted in her heart by the Vincentian women who taught her during her formative years. The adult years of Catherine testify clearly that lessons for life are best learned in early childhood.

Catherine seems to have embodied what Louise envisioned for the Ladies of Charity- “the pathway of sanctification which is perfect charity.” The seeds of Vincentian values were planted in the heart of young Catherine. They developed into virtuous living during the years of her first marriage to Captain Hugh Harkins, a steamboat owner on the Mississippi, and after his death, her second marriage to Elmer Drake of Saint Louis. Like leaven, Vincentian values guided her way of life throughout her seventy-seven years, ultimately blooming with humility, simplicity, and charity as a Lady of Charity in the service of underprivileged children and families in need. She and her early companions worked with the Daughters of Charity in Saint Vincent de Paul parish, serving orphan girls at the House of the Guardian Angels. Prophetically, might the legacy of Catherine be what Louise had envisioned when she referred to the Ladies of Charity, writing that its good “seed of the fruit which has been produced and which is produced daily not only in France but, we might say, throughout the civilized world.”

Leaven of Educational Opportunity. The intuition of Louise de Marillac to invite the first servants of the poor to live in community and be formed for the mission of service was transmitted through the inspiration of Elizabeth Bayley Seton to provide educational opportunities for poor girls and transformed through the invitation of Vincent de Paul in the recurring dream of Catherine O’Regan Harkins-Drake, inviting her to assist the poor, especially neglected children. Today, the dream continues to unfold through contemporary Ladies of Charity who seek out and serve the neglected and abandoned by society. In this age characterized by efficiency and computerization, the face of humanity, suffering and lonely, is often obliterated. Humans need someone to reach out and touch them with the compassionate care of Christian service. As we reflect on Vincentian women like Louise, Elizabeth, and Catherine, we commit ourselves anew to God’s work of healing others into wholeness through loving service.

Today Vincentian women are called more than ever to be leaven in society, like “yeast that a woman took and mixed (in) with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.” Our mission is to bring God’s love to poor children and families who long for the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. We are called to give our today for their tomorrow- to bring hope to the hopeless, compassion to the wounded, faith to the doubtful, and life skills for those lacking them. Disadvantaged children from poor families have a special claim on Vincentian attention. Struggling mothers and their children have a right to look to the Vincentian Family for not only compassion but also competence. The needs of the poor today include comprehensive quality child development programs and early childhood intervention projects.

Women in the World of Vincent de Paul


It could be said that Vincent de Paul was a man without vision until certain women entered his world of ministry! Through their influence Vincent became a man with a mission. Vincent came to realize that feeding, clothing, and caring for poor people was really serving Jesus Christ in their person. However, it took Vincent 36 years to realize this!

God worked through two women to convert Vincent into a man of mission. In the year 1617 these two lay women enabled Vincent to encounter the spiritual poverty of the rural poor at Folleville and the material poverty throughout the countryside at Châtillon-les-Dombes. Two women pointed out the distress of persons with unmet needs. Vincent responded by ministering to a dying peasant and a sick poor family. In so doing, the Spirit touched him deeply, birthing a new charism for the Church.

Saint Louise de Marillac worked with parish-based Confraternities of Charity for women, who over time became the Ladies of Charity. The Company of the Daughters of Charity had its genesis in the Confraternities of Charity and the experience of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise in forming the village girls, the first servants of the poor. Among them Marguerite Naseau is recognized as the first Daughter of Charity.

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Download pdf file “The Role of Women and the Vincentian Culturescape” by Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.

Ladies of Charity


A group of aristocratic women in Paris was organized in 1634 to provide services to poor patients at the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris. Their mission is to imitate the Divine Savior in visiting poor persons, particularly the sick poor, and in bringing them corporal and spiritual nourishment. Since Vatican II it has become known as the International Association of Charities of Saint Vincent de Paul.

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3 Comments on “Vincentian Women”

  1. I love all this Vincentian women info. Thanks. Good work!
    And I love the Quotes that were just brought to my attention by our secretary, Cathy. Great resource. (both Cathy and quotes)

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