Louise was born near Le Meux, now in the department of Oise, in Picardy, into a wealthy French family in 1591, but all the money in the world could not stop sadness from touching her life. Her mother died when was young and her father died when she was a teenager. She was raised by her aunt, a nun, and Louise felt called to religious life. She later made application to the Capuchin nuns in Paris but was refused admission. It is not clear if her refusal was for her continual poor health or other reasons, but her spiritual director assured her that God had “other plans” for her.
Devastated by this refusal, Louise was at a loss as to her next step. When she was 22, her family convinced her that marriage was the best alternative. Her uncle arranged for her to marry Antoine Le Gras, secretary to Queen Marie. Antoine was an ambitious young man who seemed destined for great accomplishments. Louise and Antoine were wed in the fashionable Church of St. Gervaise on February 5, 1613. In October, the couple had their only child, Michel. Louise grew to love Antoine and was an attentive mother to their son. Along with being devoted to her family, Louise was also active in ministry in her parish. She had a leading role in the Ladies of Charity, an organization of wealthy women dedicated to assisting those suffering from poverty and disease.
During civil unrest, her two uncles who held high rank within the government were imprisoned. One was publicly executed, and the other died in prison. Around 1621, Antoine contracted a chronic illness and eventually became bedridden. Louise nursed and cared for him and their child. In 1623, when illness was wasting Antoine, depression was overcoming Louise. In addition, she suffered for years with internal doubt and guilt for having not pursued the religious calling she had felt as a young woman. She was fortunate to have a wise and sympathetic counsellor, Francis de Sales, then in Paris, and then his friend, the bishop of Belley.
Some time later, Louise met St. Vincent de Paul. He became her spiritual advisor. She spent the rest of her life helping him to care for the poor and others in need. He had many helpers, but he needed someone to train the volunteers and to organize their work. He later said that Louise was the answer to his prayers. Soon Vincent and Louise had begun the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Many women joined the order, and Louise was elected the Superior.
Louise found true happiness in her work. She established hospitals, schools, and orphanages all over France. At first, the Company served the needs of the sick and poor in their homes. Louise’s work with these young women developed into a system of pastoral care at the Hôtel-Dieu, the oldest and largest hospital in Paris. Their work became well-known, and the Daughters were invited to Angers to take over management of the nursing services of the hospital there. As it was the first ministry outside Paris for the fledgling community, Louise made the arduous journey there in the company of three nuns.
In working with her sisters, Louise emphasized a balanced life, as Vincent de Paul had taught her. It was the integration of contemplation and activity that made Louise’s work so successful. She wrote near the end of her life, “Certainly it is the great secret of the spiritual life to abandon to God all that we love by abandoning ourselves to all that He wills.”
Louise led the Company of Daughters until her death. Nearing her death, she wrote to her nuns: “Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of our Lord. Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, that she might be your only Mother.”
After increasingly ill health, Louise de Marillac died six months before the death of her dear friend and mentor, Vincent de Paul. She was 68. By the time Louise died in 1660, the Daughters of Charity had more than 40 houses in France. The nuns have always been held in high repute and have made foundations in all parts of the world.
Louise was canonized in 1934 and is today the patron saint of social workers. She encouraged her beloved nuns to treat the poor as if they were serving Christ himself. Like Louise, we, too, can show our love for Christ by finding practical ways to help people in need.