“She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:20).
As we celebrate National Women’s History Month this March, we’ll take a look back at the contributions that women made to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The theme for this year is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence.” This March we honor women who have worked to end war, violence and injustice and have promoted nonviolence to better society.
Women have always played an integral role in the charitable works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In fact one woman with a great influence on the society lived over two hundred years prior to Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s founding of the group. Louise de Marillac was born near Meux, France in 1591. After her husband of twelve years died in 1625, she became acquainted with St. Vincent de Paul, who became her spiritual adviser. From then on, Louise dedicated her life to working with him, directing his Ladies of Charity. The Ladies of Charity came together to care for the sick, poor and neglected. In 1633 Louise created a training center in her home for other women who were seeking to assist her in her service to the poor and needy. She took her holy vows in 1634 and attracted many other women seeking to do the same. Louise became Superior of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. She proceeded to travel all over France establishing her Sisters in hospitals, orphanages and other institutions. St. Louise was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934 and declared Patroness of Social Workers in 1960 by Pope John XXIII.
Another woman with a substantial influence on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was Blessed Rosalie Rendu. When he was organizing the society, Blessed Frederic Ozanam and his friends sought Blessed Rosalie’s counsel. Blessed Rosalie Rendu was born Jeanne Marie Rendu September 9, 1786 in Confort, France. The French Revolution broke out when she was just three years old. At this time, many priests had to hide out due to their unwillingness to side with the civil constitution, less they were captured or put to death. The Rendu home became a refuge for many of these priests. It also provided a religious education for Jeanne.
Following the deaths of her father and baby sister, Jeanne’s mother sent her to boarding school to get a good education. As a student, one day Jeanne visited a hospital where the Daughters of Charity cared for the ill. While spending time at the hospital, Jeanne heard her calling from God to become a Daughter of Charity.
At the age of 17, Jeanne entered the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity and took the name Rosalie. She took her vows to serve God and the poor, eventually opening a free clinic, pharmacy, school, orphanage, childcare center, a home for the elderly and a youth club for young workers.
Blessed Rosalie became known as the “good mother of all.” She helped Frederic Ozanam and his friends to find the poor and needy in the community who needed their assistance, which is how the St. Vincent de Paul Society began. Frederic and his friends, Blessed Rosalie, and other concerned citizens began meeting weekly to help respond to those in need.
In addition to helping the poor and sick in their homes and in the streets of France, Blessed Rosalie also showed great courage and leadership during the violent uprisings that occurred in France between 1830 and 1848. She would climb up on barricades, risking her life to provide aid to wounded soldiers on either side.
Blessed Rosalie always pushed herself to serve the poor and sick despite her always fragile health, but eventually succumbed due to her heavy workload and increasing age. She lost her sight during the last two years of her life, and died in 1856.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society of Philadelphia has many ways, customized to each local community for you to transform the lives of your neighbors as well as your own life. Like that of its founder, blessed Frédéric Ozanam, the vision of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul “is to embrace the world in a network of charity.”