Life of Saint Vincent de Paul: Chapter 6: The Grey Sisters

[Saint Vincent de Paul]
Although many of the great ladies of Paris had enrolled themselves among the Ladies of Charity and were ready to help Vincent to the utmost of their ability, much of the work to be done in that great town was hardly within their scope. The care of the sick in the hospitals alone demanded ceaseless labor and an amount of time which few wives and mothers could give. There was a gap which needed filling, as Vincent could not but see, and he took immediate steps to fill it.

The instrument he required lay close to his hand in the person of Louise le Gras, a widow lady who had devoted her life to the service of the poor. She had gathered in her house a few young working women from the country to help her in her labors; these were the people needed to step in where the Ladies of Charity fell short. A larger house was taken on the outskirts of Paris; good country girls who were ready to give their services without payment were encouraged to devote themselves to the work, and Louise le Gras, with all the enthusiasm of her unselfish nature, set to work to train the little company to efficiency.

Of one thing this holy woman was absolutely convinced – unless the motive with which the work was undertaken was supernatural, neither perseverance nor success could be expected. “It is of little use for us to run about the streets with bowls of soup,” she would say, “if we do not make the love of God the object of our effort. If we let go of the thought that the poor are His members, our love for them will soon grow cold.” To pray, to labor and to obey was to be the whole duty of the members of the little sisterhood. The strength of their influence was to be the fact that it was Christ to whom they ministered in the person of His poor.

To many of these girls, rough and ignorant as they were for the most part, life in a great town was full of dangers. Such work as theirs could only be adequately done by women whose lives were consecrated to God, who were prepared to spend themselves without stint or measure in His service. “If you aspire to perfection, you must learn to die to self” was the teaching of their foundress.

Louise le Gras was a soul of prayer, and she knew that more was needed than fervent philanthropy and a heart full of pity to give the Sisters courage for the lives they had undertaken to lead. Uncloistered nuns were at that time a thing unheard of, and in the first days of the little company the Sisters were often greeted with insults when they appeared in the streets. In Vincent’s own words, they were “a community who had no monastery but the houses of the sick, no cells but a lodging of the poorest room, no cloisters but the streets, no grille but the fear of God, and no veil but their own modesty.”

Their life was hard. They rose at four, their food was of the plainest description, they spent their days in an unhealthy atmosphere and were habitually overworked. The life of a true Sister of Charity needed to be rooted and nourished in the love of God, and no one realized it more completely than Vincent himself. In his weekly conferences, when they met together at Saint Lazare, he would set before them the ideals of their vocation, bidding them above all things to be humble and simple.

“You see, my sisters,” he would say to them, “you are only rough country girls, brought up like myself to keep the flocks.” He understood their temptations and knew their weaknesses, but the standard was never to be lowered.

“The Daughters of Charity must go wherever they are needed,” he said, “but this obligation exposes them to many temptations, and therefore they have special need of strictness.” They were never to pay a visit unless it was part of their work; they were never to receive one; they were not to stand talking in the street unless it was absolutely necessary; they were never to go out without leave.

“What?” Vincent makes them say in one of his conferences, “do you ask me to be my own enemy, to be forever denying myself, to do everything I have no wish to do, to destroy self altogether?”

“Yes, my sisters,” he answers; “and unless you do so, you will be slipping back in the way of righteousness.” Their lives were of necessity full of temptations, and only in this spirit could they resist them.

Life in the streets of a great city was full of interest to these country girls, and it required a superhuman self-control to go about with downcast eyes, noticing nothing. At the weekly conference one of the Sisters acknowledged that if she passed a troop of mountebanks or a peepshow, the desire to look was so strong upon her that she could only resist it by pressing her crucifix to her heart and repeating, “O Jesus, Thou art worth it all.”

One day Vincent appeared among them in great joy. He had just met a gentleman in the street, who had said to him, “Monsieur, today I saw two of your daughters carrying food to the sick, and so great was the modesty of one of them that she never even raised her eyes.”

It was many years before he would allow the Sisters, however great their desire, to bind themselves by vows to the service of Christ in His poor. When at last the permission was given, the formula of the vows, which were taken for one year only, ran thus:

“I the undersigned, in the Presence of God, renew the promises of my Baptism, and make the vow of poverty, of chastity, and of obedience to the Venerable Superior General of the Priests of the Mission in the Company of the Sisters of Charity, that I may bind myself all this year to the service, bodily and spiritual, of the poor and sick our masters. And this by the aid of God, which I ask through His Son Jesus Christ Crucified, and through the prayers of the Holy Virgin.”

Although vows taken thus annually did not imply a lifelong dedication, the Sisters of Charity who returned to the world were few. Many heroic women spent their lives, unknown and unnoticed, in the daily drudgery of nursing the sick or trying to maintain order in country hospitals.

“The saintliness of a Daughter of Charity,” said Vincent, “rests on faithful adherence to the Rule; on faithful service to the nameless poor; in love and charity and pity; in faithful obedience to the doctor’s orders . . . It keeps us humble to be quite ordinary . . .”

“For the greater honor of Our Lord, their Master and Patron,” runs a certain passage in their Rule, “the Sisters of Charity shall have in everything they do a definite intention to please Him, and shall try to conform their life to His, especially in His poverty, His humility, His gentleness, His simplicity and austerity.” Therein was to lie their strength and the secret of their courage; before them stood their crucified Lord, bidding them suffer and be strong.

The “Grey Sisters,” as they were called by the poor, not only nursed in the hospitals of Paris, but went far and wide on their errands of mercy. Scarcely a day passed without an appeal. After the siege of Arras in 1656, Louise le Gras was implored to send help to those of the inhabitants who had survived the horrors of the war. Only two Sisters could be spared to meet the requirements of eight parishes; dirt, disease and famine reigned supreme; yet one of them, writing to her Superior to tell her that the other had been obliged to stop working from sheer exhaustion, says: “I have never heard a word of complaint from her lips or seen anything in her face but perfect content.”

A little later the Sisters were sent for to nurse the wounded soldiers in the hospitals of Calais. “My dear daughters,” said Vincent, as he bade them farewell, “be sure that, wherever you go, God will take care of you.”

Only four could be spared, and the soldiers were dying in scores of an infectious disease. It was at the risk of their lives that the Sisters went among them, and two out of the four caught the infection and died. When the news reached Paris, there were numbers eager to take their place, and the four who were chosen set off rejoicing.

The hospitals all over the country were in need of reform, and in Paris every new scheme for the relief of the poor called for the Sisters’ assistance. In the hospital at Marseilles they were tending the convicts; when the home for the aged poor was instituted, it was under their government; the Foundling Hospital was in their hands. Wherever there was need for zeal and self-denial, there these devoted women were to be found, ready to lay down their lives in the service of their neighbor. They had renounced what pleasures the world might hold for them for a life of toil and discomfort; their sacrifice was hidden; they lived and died unnoticed.

“We have no knowledge of our way except that we follow Jesus,” writes the Mother and Foundress of the company, “always working and always suffering. He could never have led us unless His own resolve had taken Him as far as death on the Cross.”

In 1641 the Sisters of Charity had taken up a fresh work, one which lay very close to Vincent’s heart, the teaching of little children. It should be, he told them, as much a part of their vocation as the care of the poor and the sick, and they were to spare no pains to give these little creatures the solid Christian teaching which nothing can replace.

As the years went on, many ladies of noble birth enrolled themselves in the company, working side by side with their humbler sisters in the relief of every kind of misery; but daughter of peer or of peasant, the Sister of Charity was and is, before all else, the daughter of God and the servant of the poor. Louise le Gras rejoiced one day when she heard that one of the Sisters had been severely beaten by a patient and had borne it without a murmur. She, their Superior, and a woman of gentle birth, led the way in that humility which was their strength. She had been trained by Vincent de Paul and had learned from a living model.