Patron Saint of Social Workers

Today the church remembers the yang to St. Vincent de Paul’s yin: St. Louise de Marillac, Patron Saint of Social Workers and Friend of Those With Depression.

Born in France at the tail end of the 16th Century, Louise encountered many challenges in life. She was born out of wedlock to a mother she would never know and a father who died when she was twelve. Despite the early hardships, she had received an exemplary education, and her uncle was part of the Queen’s Court, which gave her allies in high places…that is until the civil unrest of the time forced his untimely demise.

When her father died, St. Louise went to live with a kindly spinster in town her taught her herbal medicine (Louise was perpetually sick), and from a young age she felt the call to cloistered life.

Unfortunately, cloistered life did not feel the same about her. She was denied entry as a Capuchin, and had to pivot to a plan B for her life. Her family encouraged her to get married, and she stumbled upon Antoine, an ambitious young man whom she would, in time, grow to sort of love.

From their union one child was born, Michel, whom she loved dearly.

But in these days St. Louise still felt much inner turmoil. She had wanted to follow a life of devotion to God, and yet here she was with a husband and child. She felt like she had abandoned her call in life which, along with the failing health of her husband, led her into a deep depression.

Yet, like so many in life, she lived with the depression, tending her ailing husband and doting on her son. I think we would all be surprised to know the number of functioning people living with depression, doing what they must for those they love, even as their insides feel empty…

One day in prayer, St. Louise felt an overwhelming sense of calm. She realized that she must stay with her husband, though she felt a strong call to the cloister still, and should she outlive him, she would refuse to marry and then accept her vows. In this same clarity of purpose, she also said she felt a Divine assurance that a new spiritual director would enter her life.

Soon after she met St. Vincent de Paul, and that, as they say, is that.

Despite her excellent care, Antoine died in 1625. As a widow with a son and without income, she moved into a more modest home, and lobbied for St. Vincent to become her confessor. He eventually agreed, though he was already very busy giving his life away to the sick and infirm in France.

Over the next few years, under St. Vincent’s spiritual care, St. Louise came to see her life attain more balance. She joined St. Vincent in his care for the needy and sick in France, and found both joy and success in the work. At the age of forty-two she went on retreat and received a new vision for her life: she must lean into her vows and start the Daughters of Charity.

Part of the vision was a realization that social class and stigma prevented the upper class from aiding the lower class. Yeah, sure, they sent meals and provided some minor medical care, but the tension between the classes remained and made everyone hesitant to give, and to receive, care.

Plus, St. Louise realized the aristocracy didn’t like the work of caring for the needy…and they were kind of lousy at it, honestly.

So, St. Louise set up a system of care that leaned upon the aristocracy to raise funds, but left the practical hands-on work to a group of sisters who not only identified with those they were caring for, but were trusted by them, too. These women who would come to care for the sick and infirm were usually from rural areas of France, and their unique upbringing made them supremely capable of the task in a way that elite city-dwellers were not.

St. Louise organized these women into formational homes, teaching them practical care and spirituality. Being savvy with governmental regulations, St. Louise began organizing her work to have centralized places of care throughout the city where the medical and social needs of the poor could be handled. She enlisted the help of doctors, nurses, and politicians to have sites set up in hotels, hospitals, prisons, the battle field, and eventually orphanages and mental institutions.

In concert with those doctors and nurses, she created nimble teams of care-givers to provide comprehensive services to those in need.

She, in effect, created a modern-day social worker network.

At the age of 68, St. Louise breathed her last, having set up over 40 places of care throughout France.

St. Louise is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes being in touch with the difficulties in your own life make you supremely qualified to walk with others through their own difficulties. And yet, it is often those people the church…like St. Louise…rejects at first.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

3 thoughts on “Patron Saint of Social Workers

  1. Our niece is a social worker – not only in the field but managing many, many others.
    She and they are angels on earth~

    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      There are many biographies of Saint Louise out there that can give a more thorough picture than I can in my brief writing. A few that come to mind are that her father’s new wife never accepted her, that both of her uncles were held as prisoners, and that her young son was bedridden for quite a while.

      Thanks for your interest!

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