As the love child of a French aristocrat and his girlfriend, it seems St. Louise de Marillac's failure to blend into mainstream Catholic culture started from her conception.
From there, each time Louise's life veered toward any kind of social normalcy, something would happen to block her, once again, from the comfort of fitting in. Perhaps Louise's parents would have married to provide more social stability for their unexpected daughter, but her mom died shortly after childbirth. And though Louise's father financed her education up until his own premature death, neither he nor his family ever recognized Louise as a legitimate child or legal heir.
Unlike the focused life trajectories of her successful Catholic peers, Louise was all over the place. Her stepmom kicked her out at age four so she could begin a new family without her. Louise's prestigious Catholic boarding school expelled her at age twelve when her dad died unexpectedly and his new wife stopped paying the tuition. Louise's childhood culminated as an orphan in a workhouse, doing chores in exchange for room and board.
In the 1600s, it must have seemed like she was on the loser track for women. Louise felt called to a religious vocation and longed to join the Capuchins, a local cloistered order. But the convent rejected her, likely because Louise's wealthy but estranged family refused to pay the dowry for her admittance. (At that time, religious vocations required dowries for admittance and were, therefore, limited primarily to women from noble or wealthy families.)
In many ways — an unstable home life, failure to complete a Catholic education, absence of extended family support, roadblocks and confusion in her vocation — Louise's early life lacked the basic hallmarks commonly ascribed to Catholic success. Yet, if she had achieved the comfortable status quo that kept evading her, Louise never could have accomplished the new, necessary, holy work ahead of her.
Louise's early life lacked the basic hallmarks commonly ascribed to Catholic success.
Instead of religious life, Louise's extended family arranged for her to marry the secretary to Queen Marie de Medici, a marriage that, by design, provided direct access to the French monarchy for Louise's political uncles. Despite being used, at least to some degree, as a political tool, Louise was fond of her husband. Their high-profile Catholic marriage soon produced a baby boy and the potential for a happy, stable life for Louise.
Unfortunately, Louise's husband fell ill while their son was young, so for most of their marriage, Louise cared for her husband, questioning if she had missed her true vocation to religious life. One Pentecost Sunday, she experienced a profound consolation: The Lord assured Louise that despite all the difficulties and confusion, she was right where she was supposed to be.
Some well-intentioned biographers splice out Louise's dysfunctional family problems, rejections and predicated social failures in an attempt to construct a sweeter, simpler saint story. But these revisions eliminate the integral details that testify to God's personal providence in Louise's life: We can trace each disappointment in her formative years to a strength in the ministry of her later years.
We can trace each disappointment in her formative years to a strength in the ministry of her later years.
When St. Louise de Marillac's legacy is viewed in tandem with her repeated disenfranchisement, her life becomes a revelation in how specifically God can use unwelcome circumstances in our lives to create a revolution of good in the world.
As Louise was recovering from the death of her husband, she met Monsieur Vincent — St. Vincent de Paul — who was struggling to teach society ladies how to serve the poor with dignity. Though Monsieur Vincent's volunteers had the hearts and financial means to help, they lacked tolerance for the smell, filth, and actual labor of charity work. When this holy priest discovered Louise's invaluable skill set, he gratefully invited her to join his work. Louise's unusual experience growing up among aristocracy while laboring among commoners uniquely prepared her to bridge the gap between St. Vincent de Paul's wealthy donors and the poor of their region.
Eventually, Louise opened orphanages and recruited wet nurses and foster families for abandoned newborns in France. No doubt the instability and family turmoil surrounding her own conception and birth spurred Louise's innovative care solutions for unwanted babies in France.
Louise founded a religious community that admitted many poor, common women with hearts willing to serve but no dowries. The perennial hurt caused by the Capuchins' early rejection of Louise proved formative in her new approach to women's religious vocations.
Louise established a new standard of dignified care for those who were sick and poor, and she attained a reputation for quality medical training in her religious community. Though caring for her chronically-ill husband may have seemed a long, tedious, thankless season and lost decade of her life, it instilled in Louise the qualities needed to reform French health care.
In 1960, despite Louise's unconventional Catholic life — or more accurately, as a direct result of Louise's unconventional Catholic life — Louise de Marillac was declared the patron saint of social workers for her transformative approach to serving those who are poor, sick, and disenfranchised.
Perhaps, like St. Louise de Marillac, the places in our lives where we most feel like failures will be the tools that God uses to accomplish prolific good in the world. In this, may we be blessed with discernment, grace, and courage to entrust to the Lord the unconventional circumstances of our lives.
May we be blessed with discernment, grace, and courage to entrust to the Lord the unconventional circumstances of our lives.